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 (