I am a medical doctor and I ride dressage. Hence, I call myself a "riding doctor." I wear this label when I work with riders and evaluate their balance and functional challenges on horseback. I do not diagnose medical disorders, but I use my background in medicine, movement and riding to identify postural and muscle imbalances that can preclude effective riding and cause or contribute to injury.
This article is adapted from "The Riding Doctor" by Beth Glosten, MD and available at HorseandRiderBooks.com.
Riding in balance with a correct position creates the wonderful picture of horse and rider moving as one. I strongly believe that this position is not a gift conferred to just a few. You, too, can learn to ride this way. The journey starts by understanding a bit about how your body is put together and how to access the tools within yourself to support balance and suppleness. Not only will you improve your riding skills, but you will also be doing yourself a favor.
The tools for graceful riding are the same ones we all need to ride in a healthy way: Correct posture and spine alignment creates not only a beautiful position on horseback but also the healthiest position for your body—one that promotes balance and efficient use of your many joints, minimizing unnecessary wear and tear.
My goal with this book is to empower you to understand your body and use it as effectively as possible while riding (or doing any other activity) so you are able to continue for years. But with the challenges of equestrian sport comes the requirement that you take care of yourself. Pay attention to your body. Use it mindfully, efficiently, and effectively. Ride in balance and ride in good health.
While fitness is necessary, good riding goes beyond how much weight you can lift or how many sit-ups you can do. Good riding comes from fitness combined with body awareness, respect, and control.
I've worked with hundreds of riders in dressage and other riding disciplines, from rank beginners to experienced trainers. In both the studio and in riding lessons, I focus on posture and spine alignment, and independent and balanced function of the shoulder girdle, and the muscles of the hip joint and leg. I assess muscle imbalances and alignment issues that add up to dysfunctional balance strategies and inefficiency in the saddle, some of which cause pain. My goal is for you to organize your ride mostly from the center of your body (core), with the rein and leg aids added in. I believe the horse can "hear" the intent of your center—more forward, less forward, for example. Riding from your core improves the clarity of your aids.
I've found notable postural issues in over 90 percent of the riders I've worked with. Some issues may be subtle: For example, a small change in the balance of the pelvis in an experienced rider improves freedom and expression in a canter pirouette. Other postural issues contribute to harmful and painful misalignments of the spine and threaten your balance; insecure balance causes compensatory tension and dysfunction in the muscles of the shoulder girdle and hip joint, risking joint irritation and pain and poor balance also increases the risk of a fall. Finally, inefficient balance and poor posture can disrupt the horse to such an extent that his gaits become irregular.
Beautiful riding is not magic. The skills for balanced riding can be learned and harmful movement and riding habits replaced with those that are more productive, not only in terms of training your horse, but also in taking care of yourself. Develop these tools off the horse to spare your horse from enduring your struggles with imperfect symmetry and coordination. Riding is a very busy environment; by improving balance and posture off the horse and focusing just on yourself, you can return to the saddle with a more organized body.
The body awareness and skills taught in the off-horse exercises will equip you with the needed tools to improve your riding. By helping you understand how your body interfaces with your horse, I hope to help you meet your riding goals and, at the same time, ride in good health and prevent injury.
My approach is based on anatomy and how the human body works. I present the skills you need to ride well and offer specific exercises to teach these skills.
Before you start a different exercise program, check with your health care provider. I have done my best to provide a written description of the exercises to make them clear—and safe. However, without feedback from a trained instructor, it can be challenging to do them correctly. So, if any exercise causes you pain, stop; that shouldn't happen. Skip that one, and seek feedback from a qualified instructor before trying it again. My mantra for exercise is, "Mindful, careful, patient, progressive," not "No pain, no gain!"
Body Control: Legs
Effective riding requires control of your legs—and arms (chapter 4). This control is possible only when you are focused on your position (chapter 1) and also when the center of your body, or torso, is stable and balanced in the saddle from correct posture, and postural support from your core muscles (chapter 2). Without focus and balance from your center, your body seeks balance from your arms and/or legs, creating unwanted tension in the muscles of the hip joint, leg, and shoulder girdle. This precludes having controlled, independent, efficient and effective leg and rein aids.
Without awareness and control, your legs fall into the role of "muscle men," causing you to use force to get what you want. Instead, you need to feel as if your legs are part of your horse's body. Your legs must move with your horse's swinging barrel or rib cage, and give appropriately timed aids to ask for more activity, engagement, or a lateral step. You must have suitable control so you can use your right leg, left leg, or both for an aid. More advanced control allows you to use different parts of your leg for different purposes. Giving leg aids must not disrupt your balance or impair your horse's movement. A leg that is gripping to keep you from falling off cannot move with, or aid, your horse effectively. But you can only release a gripping leg when you do not need it for security—that is, when your balance is centered in your torso and supported with your engaged core muscles.
Anatomy of Legs
The leg connects to the pelvis at the hip joint and is held in place with multiple strong ligaments. The hip joint is a "ball and socket" joint, which makes possible a great range and variety of motion at the joint. The thighbone (femur) can move forward in flexion, a bit back in extension (the hip joint does not have a big range of motion in extension), out to the side in abduction, toward the center of the body in adduction, or inward (internal) or outward (external) rotation. It is a joint that is meant to move.
The knee joint is essentially a hinge joint and moves primarily in two dimensions: flexion (bending the knee), and extension (straightening the knee). This joint is not able to allow rotation or abduction/adduction (outward/inward motion) of the lower leg to any significant degree. This will become important when I talk about how to apply leg aids.
The ankle joint is a complex joint that allows movement of the foot upward in flexion or downward in extension (or pointing the toe, also called dorsiflexion); the foot can also rotate inward (inversion or rolling onto the baby toe) and outward (eversion or rolling onto the great toe). Keeping the muscles of this joint supple and not locked allows the ankle to absorb movement.
In the saddle, the leg hangs from the hip joint in slight external rotation. This leg position accommodates the horse's barrel. The degree of external rotation will depend upon the rider's anatomy (a narrow pelvis leads to more external rotation than a wide pelvis), the shape of the twist of the saddle, and the horse's shape (a horse with a broad back requires the rider's leg to externally rotate more than a horse that is slab-sided). This external rotation at the hip joint places the rider’s knee gently against the saddle flap supported by the knee roll and places the lower leg against the horse’s rib cage. It is appropriate for the rider's toe to point outward slightly, as opposed to facing straight ahead. (Because of the knee joint anatomy, pointing the toe straight ahead places rotational strain across the knee joint, causes the foot to invert at the ankle, or forces too much internal rotation at the hip joint, thus pulling the rider's knee too tightly against the saddle.)
This balanced leg position should allow the ball of the foot to rest on the stirrup iron with a sense that just the weight of the leg sits on the stirrup, as if it is on a shelf. That is, you are neither pulling your foot off the stirrup, nor pushing weight onto the stirrup. The weight of your leg will allow your heel to rest below the level of the front of your foot, without force.
You can now add the "heel" part of the shoulder-hip (pelvis)-heel alignment of good rider position. The leg rests under your body, hanging from the balanced torso. The ideal leg position would allow you to end up standing upright on the arena surface in balance if the horse were taken out from under you.
Hip Joint Muscles
A complex array of muscles connects the leg to the pelvis at the hip joint and operates the knee and ankle joints. Important hip joint muscles are shown below. Since your legs carry and propel you through the day, your leg muscles are relatively big and strong. Almost as if they have a mind of their own, your legs can demonstrate their excessive strength while you're riding—to the detriment of suppleness and efficiency. Awareness and control of these muscles is vital to allow your legs to move with your horse and give aids of appropriate pressure and timing.
The largest muscle of the body, the gluteus maximus, is one of three muscles that form the gluteal muscles (or "glutes") and the contour of the buttocks. It is a strong muscle, and in conjunction with deeper muscles in the hip, extends and externally rotates the thighbone. When the thighbones are held stable, the gluteus maximus will move the pelvis in a posterior pelvic tilt (pelvic tuck).
Beneath the glutes is a collection of smaller muscles that rotate the thighbone outward. I refer to these as the deep hip rotators. These muscles help stabilize the rider's leg position in the saddle, working to balance inward rotation and potential gripping from the adductor muscles. Many riders benefit from stretching these deep rotators to facilitate freedom in the hip joint.
The hamstring group of muscles forms the substance of the back of the thigh. This group of three muscles attaches to the seat bone and to the top of the lower leg just below the knee. This muscle group extends the hip joint (it therefore assists the gluteal muscles), and flexes (bends) the knee.
The hamstrings are a powerful muscle group to access while riding, as they are the muscles that pull your lower leg against your horse's side, as well as pull your entire leg back in the saddle. This provides an efficient and specific tool for your leg aids. The degree to which your lower leg needs to move back to give the leg aid depends a bit upon your horse’s sensitivity to the leg aid (which can be trained), the shape of your horse’s rib cage, and the length of your leg. A sensitive horse will perceive the upper calf against his barrel, requiring little or no lower leg movement when you apply the aid. Others may require a bit more leg contact.
I believe it is better to have a brief period when your lower leg is drawn slightly back to give a leg aid than to try and keep your leg in the same position and pull your calf directly inward against your horse's side. This motion of your lower leg risks strain across your knee and sacroiliac joints. Your knee is a hinge joint, and does not easily allow this inward movement of your lower leg. As a result, you are forced to rotate your whole leg outward to accomplish this inward movement of the lower leg. This disrupts the position of both your leg and your pelvis. It is preferable to draw your lower leg back a bit, using the efficient hamstring muscle for a leg aid. Think of directing your heel toward your horse's fetlock of the opposite hind leg. This gives a line of action that activates the hamstrings and prevents your heel from coming up too much. Your leg must return to its proper position, however, after each aid.
Exercises for Gluteal and Hamstring Muscles
You will gain awareness of and strengthen both the gluteal and hamstring muscles in the following Pelvic Bridge exercises. Be sure you feel your glutes and hamstrings engage.
Pelvic Bridge: Simple
All of the Pelvic Bridge exercises strengthen your hamstrings and gluteal muscles, and activate the stabilizing muscles of your trunk.
I have described doing this exercise in neutral spine, which makes it feel a bit like the motion of posting the trot. Be sure that the power for this exercise comes from your gluteal and hamstring muscles of the back of your leg. These muscles—not the muscles of your back or arms—lift your body off the floor.
Check that you push off from both feet equally; one leg should not do more work than the other. Keep spine alignment stable and don't let your back arch at the top of the movement; keep your trunk muscles engaged. Don't let your knees fall apart: keep your knees aligned over your feet (placing a small ball or towel between the knees helps).
Pelvic Bridge: Single Leg
This version of Pelvic Bridge challenges leg strength and the ability of your torso muscles to keep your pelvis level.
Try to keep the front of your pelvis level as you lift with just one leg; avoid letting one side dip down. Keep the range of motion small at first. If this exercise causes a hamstring cramp, briefly stretch your leg, and try again, focusing on balance, organization, and smooth movement. Also be sure to recruit your gluteal muscles to help with the lift. For a more challenging exercise, start with your feet seat-bone width apart, rather than close to together.
Pelvic Bridge with Ball
This version of Pelvic Bridge adds a balance challenge.
You will quickly notice the added balance challenge of doing this exercise with your legs on a ball. Use your core muscles for balance. Remember, the ball will roll in the direction of more pressure, indicating you are pressing more onto one leg. Try to keep the ball still by equally lifting off both legs. The exercise is easier if the ball is close to your body (thighs or knees on the ball), and more difficult when the ball is farther away from your body (calves or ankles on the ball).
This article was adapted from "The Riding Doctor" by Beth Glosten, MD and available at HorseandRiderBooks.com.
Beth Glosten, MD, earned her medical degree from the University of Washington and practiced as an academic anesthesiologist, specializing in obstetric anesthesia. While she no longer practices medicine, this background laid a foundation for her analytical approach to rider-position issues.
Dr. Glosten received her Pilates training through the PhysicalMind Institute and is certified through the Pilates Method Alliance. She operates her RiderPilates program in Redmond, Washington, where she teaches private and small-group, off-horse, exercise and movement classes. She also gives lessons and offers RiderPilates clinics that focus on rider position and function to improve balance and health.
Dr. Glosten owns two horses: the 2004 mare Donner Girl (“DG”) and the 1992 semiretired Grand Prix mare Bluette. She has successfully competed in dressage from Training Level through Grand Prix, and has earned her USDF bronze, silver, and gold medals. She is a graduate of the USDF “L” judge training program, with distinction.
Find out more about Dr. Glosten and her RiderPilates program at www.RiderPilates.com.