Finding a Horse That Fits

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 (

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