Helping Hands

In the May and June issues, Julia Gregson took a fresh look at the Alexander Technique, showing how two riders found it beneficial. This month, Sally A. Tottle, Alexander teacher and author, examines how increased awareness and knowledge can assist riders in finding that often elusive good contact with their hands.

THE OLD ADAGE 'Good hands are born, not made', is very disillusioning for the average rider - and in Sally's opinion, incorrect. Admittedly, talented riders are endowed with a coordination and conformation which makes it easier for them to have 'good hands'. They might show good co-ordination from hand to back and vice versa, or a length in the upper and lower arm which lends itself to holding the reins easily. Other less endowed riders can improve their contact by taking Alexander lessons and learning how to use their bodies naturally, rather than fixing or forcing the hands into a contorted position.

In the previous articles, Sally helped Amanda Brewer improve her evenness in the rein contact. Instead of working directly with Amanda's hands and arms, Sally could feel that the problem was really coming from a slight unevenness in Amanda's back muscles. When asked to raise both arms in front of her, the problem revealed itself (see photo 1).

Photo 1: Here you can see how the slight uneveness in Amanda's back muscles is affecting the way she holds her arms.

Sally then worked on Amanda's neck, shoulders and back to bring about the improvements shown in photos 2, 3 and 4.

Photo 2: Working on the connection between Amanda's arms and encouraging an 'opening through the back'.

Photo 3: Freedom in the neck is important as it affects the shoulders and arms.

Photo 4: When Amanda was asked to raise her arms again, she found this effortless. Her arms were parallel of their own accord!

"Had I addressed the problem directly with the hand and arm, Amanda would probably have developed a habit of raising her right shoulder, which would have created further difficulties in the long run!" Sally explained.

"From a young age, children learn to use the thumb and forefinger for carrying out tasks such as holding cutlery, cups, pens, and so on. The connection between the thumb and forefinger becomes used excessively, and the muscles surrounding the front and inside of the shoulders (biceps and triceps), and the pectoral muscles, can become over-contracted. Thus tension is created through the whole arm to the hand.

"Research by Sydney University Medical Department has revealed that the primary hand co-ordination to develop in the foetus is the connection from the little finger side of the hand into the back. Interestingly, this side of the hand is used in Karate to combat attack.

"This is the same co-ordination which riders need to develop to allow the hand to be supported by the back muscles, yet remain able to respond sensitively to the different nuances which may be required while riding.

"Increased awareness of the joints and muscles involved in rein contact can help riders develop a different communication with their horses. Your horse will thank you for it, too!"

In this excerpt from her book BodySense, Sally explains how to achieve the awareness to develop that communication.

Joints involved in taking rein contact

Sitting on a chair, extend your arms in front of you as if you are taking up the reins, with a 90° angle at the elbow. Notice if the weight has changed on your seat bones, or if there is movement in any part of the body. For example, does your upper body sway back or do your shoulders rise? Now take your hands down and think of your fingertips leading the movement before repeating the procedure. Notice how the elbow creates the bend and less effort is needed throughout the body. Many riders unconsciously contract their arms as they take up the reins, causing other areas, such as the neck and shoulders, to become unnecessarily tight, which interferes with a consistent contact.

The upper arm and shoulder

Now, with the arms hanging straight down to the fingertips, swing your arm back and forth like a pendulum. Which joint is being used now? Your shoulder is the only joint involved. Do you imagine the joint to be on the point of the shoulder or by the shoulder blades? (see fig. 1).

Fig 1: The Bones

To find your shoulder joint, use a mirror and place your right hand underneath your left armpit with the left hand resting by your side. Without lifting the right shoulder or collapsing your side, let the weight drop down the arm to the fingertips, then move the arm slowly backward and forward.

Can you feel what happens to the joint underneath the armpit? This ball and socket joint has plenty of potential for movement in all directions, but it is often blocked by tension as riders aren't really conscious of the actual location of the shoulder joint.

Now put your arms by your sides, circle both shoulders clockwise, then counter- clockwise. Now find your clavicle joint (located in the centre between your collar bones).

Place your finger on this joint and repeat circling each shoulder. Do you notice the range of motion? Now stop circling, but raise one hand above your head and notice that there is movement in the clavicle. Although not classed as a 'proper joint', if the clavicle were fixed the amount of freedom in the shoulders would be restricted.

How many joints are involved in holding the reins? Most riders will answer three: the wrist, elbow and shoulder. It is important to recognise that the clavicle brings the total to four. Taking account of this will affect the way you use your arms and therefore your rein contact.

Lower arm awareness

Allowing your arms to hang by your side, turn your palms to face forward (little finger on the inside). Take the lower arm up so that it forms a right angle at the elbow. Make sure that the elbow is not clamped to your side, but is hanging loosely. Do this several times. Are you aware of holding your breath and involving the shoulder joint, or can the lower arm bend solely from the elbow joint?

Elbow joints are important because they affect the quality of the rein contact. If the muscles connected around the elbow are tight, they will block the free-flow of energy, created by the horse's hindquarters, that needs to travel through the horse's body and to the rider's hands from the bit (see fig. 2).

Fig 2

Wrist joint awareness.

Supple wrist joints are also crucial for an elastic rein contact. If the wrist joint is stiff, it will break the flow of communication to the horse's mouth. The hand will then become fixed and heavy. Locate the position of your radius and ulna (fig 3). Massage the wrist joint. Trace the finger joints from the wrist, and look for any tension in the fingers (fig. 4).

Fig 3

Fig 4

Now sit down, and support the lower arm from the elbow to the fingers on a table, with the hand on its side, thumb uppermost. Make sure the line from the elbow to the fingertips is straight (fig 5).

Fig 5: Position of Reference

Open and close the hand without lifting it off the table. Does the movement come from your wrist or the joints in your hand? Take care not to disturb the line to the elbow. Place the thumb from your right hand into the middle of your left palm and find the joints toward the centre of your hand.

Now move your fingers. The joint at the base of the fingers is already more toward the palm than you might think. Fingers are not only jointed from the knuckles. The tendency to tighten the wrist increases if you think of the fingers bending on the outside of the hand. Thinking of bending the fingers on the inside will increase elasticity in rein contact. The palm of the hand needs to be supple, otherwise the hand will be bent awkwardly and the wrist will be stiff.

BodySense - the Alexander Technique and Riding, (Sally A. Tottie) is published by Kenilworth Press (£17.95).

Sally has a website at