Off Balance? Find Stability with Physical Therapy

There are times when you’re riding your horse and everything just seems to click. You and your partner are moving in perfect synchrony, dancing through a dressage test or going clear in a jump off. But there are times where nothing seems to be going right. You can’t seem to trot straight down the centerline and every rail falls over. So what’s the difference in these situations? Balance. 

Most riders underestimate the value of balance in equine performance. Your horse’s abilities are directly related to the balance of the rider. Perfect performance training for horses and riders alike involves correcting imbalances by increasing the strength and flexibility of major muscle groups. 

The Importance of Rider Balance

A balanced and stable rider is better able to follow the motion of the horse. This includes having an independent seat when sitting deep at the canter, as well as hovering in the two-point without using the horse’s mouth for support. Better balance equals a more relaxed rider; a more relaxed rider means a happier horse. 

An unbalanced rider greatly inhibits equine performance. These riders compensate for their lack of stability by gripping with their calves, thighs, or pulling on the horse’s mouth. All of these lead to poor equitation, unhappy horses, and ineffective leg aids. If the rider is clamping tightly onto the horse’s sides to compensate for a lack of abdominal strength, the horse will quickly become desensitized to the feeling and require increased pressure for leg aids.

Some common signs of an unbalanced rider include:

  • Falling behind the motion
  • Leaning too far forward
  • Leaning to one side
  • Shifting weight to the wrong seat bone

An unbalanced rider is also more prone to frequent falls. A balanced rider is less likely to be surprised by changes of direction or sudden increases and decreases in speed. Unbalanced riders cannot follow as closely and are more likely to be unseated. It’s important that your perfect performance training program includes strengthening the muscle groups that allow us to balance when riding. 

Muscle Groups for Balance

The two major muscle groups that we use to balance when riding include the abdominals and the buttocks. The muscles in these groups stabilize our core and spine, while also allowing for even rotation and shock absorption in the pelvis. The specific muscles you should focus on with your Doctor of Physical Therapy include the obliques, psoas, piriformis, gluteus maximus, and gluteus medius. When these muscles are strong, flexible, and working appropriately, balanced equine performance becomes possible. 

The obliques are the abdominal muscles along the sides of your core. They help to keep the rider’s spine evenly stacked and sitting up straight. If you have weak obliques, you’ll notice that you tend to collapse laterally to one side or the other. 

Psoas are responsible for shock absorption when riding. As the horse moves, these muscles control the flexing of the hip and spine and keep the rider sitting straight and centered. If they are not strong or flexible enough to absorb the motion of the horse, the rider will be more easily unseated. 

The piriformis helps the pelvis balance on the horse’s back. This muscle attaches from your sacrum to femur and allows for independent rotation of the hip bones. Have you noticed that you sit in the saddle unevenly or that your horse drifts in one direction? It could be due to an imbalanced piriformis. If one side is stronger than the other, you inadvertently shift your horse’s back. 

The gluteus maximus regulates our balance from front to back. If this muscle is too tight, it can actually inhibit equine performance by preventing the natural balance of the horse. On the other hand, if the gluteus maximus is too weak, the rider becomes lopsided in the saddle. 

The gluteus medius controls the movement of the hip and thigh inward and outward. It’s a crucial stabilizer that keeps the rider in the center of the saddle. Does your saddle always shift to one side? A weak gluteus medius could be to blame. 

If you want to develop a perfect performance training program, make sure you work with a Doctor of Physical Therapy to evaluate each of these muscle groups both mounted and unmounted. 

Balance & Poor Equine Performance

When you first started riding, did you notice that your horse was prone to shoot out from underneath you? This was probably because, as a new rider, you weren’t used to balancing on a horse and were inadvertently impacting equine performance. The one thing you need to remember is: an out of balance rider leads to an uncomfortable horse. The horse tries to mediate this discomfort by accommodating the rider imbalance. 

For example, if you lean too far forward or backwards, your horse could react by shooting out from underneath you or stopping altogether. If you’ve noticed poor equine performance such as: bolting, stopping, inaccurate turning, drifting, or poor reaction to leg aids, rider symmetry could be the issue. 

At worst, an unbalanced rider can frighten an inexperienced horse who needs to focus on balancing themselves and cannot compensate for the rider as well. In these situations, the horse may respond by bucking, kicking, bolting, or refusing to move. 

The Key to Perfect Performance Training

Working with an experienced Doctor of Physical Therapy helps you understand exactly where you’re imbalanced and strengthen those areas. It’s important to undergo a full rider assessment so you spend your time effectively, instead of performing general balance exercises that may not be targeting the appropriate muscle groups for you and your horse. 

A Doctor of Physical Therapy can provide you with a perfect performance training program that includes balance exercises both on and off the horse. These exercises may need to be combined with PNF stretching, which should always be done with a trained physical therapist. 

Waiting to address biomechanical imbalance can lead to severe setbacks. Continued instability leads to incorrect motor memory for both horse and rider. This can only be solved by unlearning the wrong motion and then re-learning the correct movement. Naturally, this takes longer the longer your muscles have performed a movement incorrectly. Work on your balance with a physical therapist now to solve current issues and avoid worse ones later on.

Studies have shown that working with a Doctor of Physical Therapy can improve balance and decrease falls. Dr. Shield applies those same benefits to equestrians of all ages, and their equine partners. Optimize your performance and improve your balance. Sign up for your full rider assessment today.