Horse & Rider Physiotherapy
Equestrian disciplines are truly unique in the athletic world, where both horse and rider work together as a team, eloquently summarized by the author R.S. Surtees…
“There is no secret as close as that between a rider and his horse”.
So close is the relationship between horse and rider, that how the rider moves (both intentionally and unintentionally), directly affects how the horse moves, and vice versa. This can have both positive and negative consequences, with negative consequences arising when either the horse or rider have musculoskeletal impairments including injury, muscle weakness, joint restriction, poor core stability or sub-optimal balance, coordination or proprioception. Such musculoskeletal impairments lead to dysfunction and ultimately a breakdown in communication between horse and rider.
Given that rider position and posture play a vital role in performance, regardless of discipline, it is important that both horse and rider are assessed both individually, in addition to being assessed as a team. When our horse is not performing to its potential and our riding isn’t going to plan, we often assume that the problem lies with our horse. All too often the horse is assessed by the veterinarian, dentist, farrier, saddler and physiotherapist before a rider assessment is considered. Sadly, many horses are simply written off as having behavioural issues, being lazy or just plain difficult when no physical reason for sub-optimal performance is identified.
Given that the rider comprises 50% of the equestrian unit, it is of paramount importance that the rider is also fully assessed by the physiotherapist, so that any impairments can be addressed.
Rider interaction with the horse
How the rider interacts with the saddle and horse is complex. Ideally the rider sits upon the horse with their body aligned with the horse’s body. The rider’s weight should be evenly distributed between each buttock and lower limb, allowing the rider to move harmoniously and in synchronicity with the horse’s own body motion.
Crookedness can be defined as asymmetry in the rider’s shoulder and/or hip level, when viewed from behind. If one shoulder and/or hip is lower than the other side, the lower side of the body is effectively shortened, creating a curvature in the spine and in turn affecting weight distribution in the saddle. These forces are then transmitted in turn to the horse’s back.
Asymmetrical rider position causes the following biomechanical chain of events. Asymmetrical forces are transmitted via the saddle to the horses back, leading to increased side to side motion of the saddle. These forces create asymmetrical muscle tension in the horse’s spine and in the long term, can lead to muscle wasting, back pain and lameness in the horse.
Learn more here about rider posture.
A crooked rider creates an asymmetrical torque (a force causing rotation) on the horse’s spine. A rider with increased weight on one side, or who slides to one side of the saddle will also cause the saddle to move to the same side, creating greater loads on one side of the horse’s back.
An unbalanced rider will result in a horse whose back movements are compromised. Some horses compensate by adjusting (often shortening) stride length or by changing their performance – these changes may go unnoticed in the trail horse but will have serious consequences at higher competition levels.
The saddle serves as the interface between horse and rider, and needs to accommodate both the riders shape as well as the horse’s shape. A saddle which is too wide creates pressure points in front of the saddle, near the withers. A saddle which is too long creates greater pressure at the rear of the saddle, especially during lateral and circle work. Both situations are compounded by an unbalanced rider.
What action can we take to facilitate the horse and rider team?
- The rider should sit straight and be in harmony with the horse’s movement. This can be achieved by working with your physiotherapist and your riding coach.
- A horse needs to be free of pain and discomfort to perform optimally. It is worth noting that a crooked rider can induce pain and potentially lameness in the horse. In contrast, hind limb pain and lameness can alter movement of the thoracolumbar spine and induce saddle slip, creating a crooked rider. Consult your veterinarian and physiotherapist for further advice.
- Saddle fit should be professionally assessed to ensure it accommodates both horse and rider. And remember, that the saddle fit should be reassessed regularly, as the horses back shape will change with condition (diet), injury (muscle atrophy) and fitness (increase in muscle bulk). Consult your physiotherapist and saddler for further advice.
Horse & Rider Assessment
The horse and rider physiotherapy assessment is a multi-step process, involving the following steps:
- Assessment of the horse as an individual
- Assessment of the rider as an individual (unridden)
- Assessment of the horse and rider as a team (ridden assessment)
- Treatment of both horse, rider and the horse and rider team
- Goal setting
- Re-assessment of the horse and rider team
By prioritizing and optimizing our own health, fitness, strength, flexibility, coordination, balance and proprioception, we strive to be the best partner that our horse deserves.
“If your horse says “no”, you either asked the wrong question, or asked the question wrong”
~ Pat Parelli