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Beth Glosten


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Independence for Our Arms: An Excerpt from ‘The Riding Doctor’

In this excerpt from The Riding Doctor, retired medical doctor, Pilates specialist, and riding instructor Dr. Beth Glosten explains the importance of independent arms when riding.

Photo by Tim O’Neal courtesy of Horse and Rider Books.

Use of your arms for a rein aid must not disrupt your posture, alignment, and balance. This is challenging: In the saddle, your upper body can be relatively mobile, making it easy to lean in one direction or the other to counterbalance a rein aid. But leaning causes an unwanted shift in your weight—confusing your horse. Stability of position starts with balancing from the muscles of your torso. Arm suppleness, mobility, and control are then possible.

Steadiness and Stability

If you need to use more rein as a restraining aid for a strong horse, be careful that your torso position stays solidly upright on the vertical in neutral spine alignment. It is tempting to lean back, press your feet forward, and use body weight to control your horse. This works in the short term and is appropriate for a bolting horse. But to improve your horse’s balance, leaning back is the worst thing to do. Leaning back puts you behind the horse’s movement and gives the horse something to lean against.

When you lack suitable stability, a strong horse can pull you forward, putting you in a dysfunctional position—perched forward out of the saddle without a base of support—and opening the door to the horse for more evasions. If your horse gets strong, find your base of support by anchoring your pelvis to the saddle with your core muscles and anchoring your upper arms by your sides (think of those latissimus dorsi muscles). From this position your rein aids are functional and are more likely to make positive changes in your horse. I am not suggesting that you ride around and around with your horse hanging on the reins, but if you let your horse change your position, you have lost effectiveness. Work to keep a stable position when your horse pulls; meanwhile, do exercises and transitions geared toward improving your horse’s balance.

Some trainers coach riders, “Keep your hands still!” But this cue can be confusing. Your hands should move sometimes, depending upon your horse’s gait. Steady is a better word to describe hand position: You control where your hands are at all times. Think of it this way: If you had a pressure meter between the reins and your fingers, the pressure would stay quite stable. Clearly, your horse has some role in this goal! And so do you. Keeping your hands steady develops a quiet connection.

Arm position can reveal balance problems. An arm that persistently “feels” compelled to cross over your horse’s neck is likely adapting for a problem with your body’s balance and alignment. If you sit heavily to the left when tracking right, you may find the need to cross your left (outside) hand over your horse’s neck to try to control his bulging left shoulder. This arm position is not desirable. Notice what your arm is doing and check your alignment, balance, and position. If you sit heavily to the left while tracking left, you might find your left arm trying to “hold up” your horse’s left shoulder by coming up and in, crossing over your horse’s neck. Again, note this faulty arm position, and realize it reflects a balance issue. Work to sort out your balance so your arms stay in a correct position.

Your Arms Are “Alive”

Your hands and arms must not be dead weight on your horse’s mouth; rather, you must keep your arms in self-carriage, just like the rest of you. Otherwise, your horse will feel backward pressure on the reins. To keep a sense of your arms being “alive,” imagine a current running through a loop defined as follows: from the bit in your horse’s mouth, to the right rein, to your hand holding the right rein, to your right wrist, forearm, elbow, and upper arm, then across your upper back and down the left upper arm, elbow, forearm, wrist, hand, left rein, and back to the bit in your horse’s mouth. This loop of current must remain unblocked. Unnecessary tension in any part of your arm, such as from a cocked wrist, a locked elbow, or a shoulder shrug, will block current through this loop, and elasticity will be lost.

Do not equate soft and elastic contact with loose fingers on the reins. Loose fingers allow the reins to easily slip out of your hands, causing you to lose steadiness in the contact. Keep your fingers closed on the reins, making your arm “part of the bridle.” Elasticity and soft contact come from suppleness in your whole arm, not just in your fingers. Certainly your horse feels an increase in squeeze on the rein; just be sure you do not let go of the squeeze so much that you let go of the reins!

Movement in your elbow is key to maintaining a steady contact with your horse’s mouth, especially in the walk and canter, in which your horse’s neck undulates as part of the mechanic of the gaits. To keep steady contact, you must allow movement of your elbow joints, as well as your shoulders, so that your hands move with your horse’s mouth. At the trot, however, your horse’s head and neck are quite steady, while his body (and your body) moves up and down. At this gait, your elbows must allow your body to move up and down while your hands stay steady; your hands should not go up and down.

Try This

A simple example demonstrates the importance of arm-muscle suppleness in preserving elastic contact: Hold a cup of liquid in your right hand and walk around. The liquid will not slosh around much because your supple arm adapts for the movement of your walk to keep the cup level. Now tuck something under your right upper arm and walk around. You will see the liquid slosh around madly as your locked upper arm and elbow can no longer move. (I discovered this while carrying the morning paper under my arm with a cup of coffee in my hand.)

This excerpt from The Riding Doctor by Dr. Beth Glosten is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books (

Finding a Horse That Fits: An Excerpt from ‘The Riding Doctor’

In this excerpt from The Riding Doctor, Dr. Beth Glosten talks frankly about how, in order to avoid pain, injury, and lack of riding progress, the shape of the horse needs to suit the rider’s own body.

Photo by Carolynn Bunch.

Cautious is the word that best describes my approach to getting back in the saddle after my surgery for herniated discs in my low back. I waited a year after surgery to consider riding. And that year was full of conditioning and improving my body awareness. Finally, I was ready to find out if riding was an option for me.

I started putting feelers out for a potential mount to lease and slowly get back into riding. My criteria were strict: The horse must not have jarring gaits and must not be spooky. He must not be tall so I could avoid lifting and reaching while grooming and tacking up. I needed a reliable horse upon which I could explore strategies to keep my back supported and secure while in the saddle.

A friend told me about a seven-year-old Fjord pony mare, Solana, who needed some miles under saddle to augment her driving career. This sounded interesting. Perhaps this breed could be a good choice for my riding rehab needs.

I met my friend at her barn one sunny afternoon. I was encouraged at how easy it was to tack up this 14.1-hand pony. We set out on a slow trail ride, and I got a feel for how Solana moved.

After about 30 minutes, my back was getting tight. Solana’s back was relatively broad, requiring my thigh to externally rotate at the hip joint. This put my back in a bit of extension (arch), and caused strain. Solana’s short-coupled back put a lot of swing in her rib cage as she walked, causing a great deal of movement in my pelvis and hip joint. The combination of her build and her walk put my body in a less than ideal position to move with her without strain.

So, while her size and temperament were positive features for me, Solana’s body type was not.

About nine months later, after finding a more suitable mount to get me back in riding shape, I went horse shopping. Again, I was struck by how some horse shapes did not fit me well. I felt strain in my back whenever I rode a horse with a broad back that put my thighbone in too much external rotation and caused my spine to arch. A more narrow-bodied horse fit me best.

I settled on Bluette, a Danish Warmblood mare cross whose dam was a Thoroughbred. Her relatively narrow conformation fit me well. Her gaits were of good quality and reasonable for me to ride. When horse shopping again in 2009, horse size remained an important criterion. Donner Girl, a 16-hand Oldenburg mare fit the bill.

I have worked with two clients who tell a similar story of horse size challenging comfort. Both had knee surgery for entirely different reasons. But both found that riding a horse with a round barrel placed excessive and painful strain on their knee joints: They found that applying leg aids when riding a wide-bodied horse placed unhealthy torque on the knee. However, a horse with a more narrow conformation was not a problem.

If you are looking for a horse and have problems with your back, hip, or knee, don’t discredit the importance of conformation in finding the right mount. Not all horse shapes suit all riders, particularly if you have a physical limitation.

This excerpt from The Riding Doctor by Beth Glosten, MD, is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books (


Two Exercises for Core Stability Cross Country: An Excerpt from ‘The Riding Doctor’

In this excerpt from her book The Riding Doctor, rider, instructor, certified Pilates instructor, and medical doctor Beth Glosten, MD, gives us two exercises to help improve core strength, and therefore, stability in the saddle, especially when riding cross-country.

Photo by Tim O’Neal courtesy of Trafalgar Square Books.

Postural support comes from the deepest layers of abdominal and back muscles of the torso. These muscles are designed to support your upright posture throughout daily activities and to do so quite efficiently. While riding, for balance we need to access the efficient postural muscles. And it is the postural muscles that you access when guided to “Engage your core!” or “Stabilize your torso!”

In the saddle you want stability of the spine—that is, despite changes in forward or sideways energy, you want to keep your body in a balanced, upright position. Toning and learning how to use the core muscles that support your posture, torso position, arms, and legs in a coordinated fashion will help you steady your horse and collect his gallop stride in preparation for jumps. When stable and well-organized, you will help your horse develop security and confidence over fences. Integrating core exercises enhance this skill, such as the Plank on Mat: Knees and Plank on Mat: Feet.

Plank on Mat: Knees

This is a fantastic integrating exercise for core muscle function and shoulder and leg support. Plus, it does not require equipment.

1. Lie on your stomach on a mat.

2. Bend your elbows and keep them by your sides and place your forearms on the mat. Bend your knees so your lower legs are off the floor.

3. While keeping your shoulders stable, lift yourself onto your knees and forearms into a suspended plank position. Seek a long and neutral spine position and avoid pulling your shoulders up around your ears. Try to keep your pelvis level, not pushed up to the ceiling.

4. Hold this position for 30 to 60 seconds.

Plank on Mat: Feet

This is a much more challenging version of Plank on Mat: Knees.

1. Lie on your stomach on a mat.

2. Bend your elbows and keep them by your sides and place your forearms on the mat. Keep your legs straight.

3. While keeping your shoulders stable, lift yourself onto your feet and forearms into a suspended plank position. Seek a long and neutral spine position and avoid pulling your shoulders up around your ears. Try to keep your pelvis level, not pushed up toward the ceiling.

4. Hold this position for 30 to 60 seconds.

If Plank on Mat: Feet is too challenging, alternate between your feet and knees for the 30 to 60 seconds of the exercise. Gradually build up the time you can hold the position on your feet. Done correctly, either plank exercise is a good integrator of abdominal and back muscles, as well as the shoulder girdle and leg muscles. When I see a rider being pulled or tossed around by her horse, I say, “Think plank!” to encourage body stability and balance.

This excerpt from The Riding Doctor by Beth Glosten, MD, is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books (