The Rider Fitness Guide You Need to Read

Many equestrians find themselves frustrated by their health and fitness. Some horseback riders are in pain while riding, or lack the fitness necessary to reach their goals. Building this fitness isn’t just as simple as going for a run. By running, you could be building strength in the wrong muscle groups and still find yourself unable to reach your goals. Sports medicine physical therapy can help you and your horse develop correct movement patterns and build the fitness you need to succeed.

A Doctor of Physical Therapy evaluates human functional patterns of movement, identifies weak areas, and helps you become a better horseback rider. During an equine physical therapy assessment, a Doctor of Physical Therapy will evaluate your horse’s Range of Motion (ROM) to create an appropriate exercise program that helps them perform their best. 

The understanding of normal and abnormal functional movement patterns, as well as ROM, are important tools in a Doctor of Physical Therapy’s tool box to prevent injury, optimize performance, and create appropriate exercise programs. 

The Right Exercise Programs for Horse & Rider

Are there some riding positions that make you wince in pain? Do popular “exercises for horseback riding” programs fail to help you build strength and leave you in more pain than before? 

Not every exercise is right for everyone. 

Prescribed exercises help you build the strength and flexibility necessary to reach your goals. You may believe you’re dealing with muscle weakness, when you’re really struggling with muscle tightness. Exercising more without stretching won’t help you with this and will end up leading to injuries. Prescribed exercises are based on an evaluation by a skilled Doctor of Physical Therapy and help you target the right muscle groups using the appropriate methods to build fitness efficiently and safely. 

Popular “exercise for horseback riders” workouts are generic and broad. Yes, you do need some quad strength to hold a two-point, but you may actually have the quad strength you need. Really, you’re dealing with core instability. If this is the case, generic workouts won’t help you. 

The same applies to your horse. Building strength through repetition of difficult exercises, such as half passes or tempis, may not be what your horse needs. They may really need more rein backs and hill walking. A Doctor of Physical Therapy that specializes in equine physical therapy can evaluate your horse via a ROM assessment and customize an exercise program. 

Generic programs may be targeting poor movement patterns or the wrong muscle group. If practiced repetitively, this could lead to injury and incorrect motor memory. 

Functional Movement Patterns

Dr. Shields assesses functional movement patterns every time she evaluates a rider. This is used quite often in sports medicine physical therapy to better understand issues that are happening on the horse and bring to light deeper issues than just a lack of fitness. Comparing the assessment from the left to the right side of the body also clarifies any asymmetrical movement patterns the rider may be struggling with. 

The functional movement evaluation consists of seven deceivingly simple patterns of movement. They include the squat, lunge, push, pull, hinge, twist, and walk. These patterns are used by humans every single day of their life, whether or not you’re an equestrian. 

Dr. Shields can use these patterns to assess:

  1. Are you having difficulty with mobility (joints/soft tissues) or stability (poor movement patterns)?
  2. Are you experiencing true muscle weakness or muscle inhibition? Weakness in a muscle means that even with maximum effort there is not sufficient contraction within the muscle to complete the movement. Muscle inhibition is when there is muscle tightness protecting muscle, joints, tissues leading to poor muscle coordination during movement.
  3. Is this weakness caused by dysfunctional stabilizing muscles? Stabilizing muscles, your core, hold you steady so the moving body part, your legs, can move freely through the full range of motion.
  4. Is your general fitness impacting your muscular coordination and compensation?

The answers to these questions allow a Doctor of Physical Therapy to create a custom exercise program to address each issue that may come up. 

Dr. Shields’ assessment consists of three simple parts. First, does the rider demonstrate a movement pattern that produces pain while riding? Then, does the rider demonstrate a non-painful movement pattern they’ve been using to compensate for any pain? Unfortunately, these compensatory non-painful movement patterns may lead to an increased risk of injury while riding. Lastly, Dr. Shields develops an individualized exercise routine to restore appropriate pain-free movement. 

Range of Motion Assessment in Horses

The ROM assessment used in equine physical therapy is able to demonstrate similar movement limitations as Dr. Shields evaluation of functional movement patterns in humans. Horses typically don’t follow exact commands for consistently repeating a movement like in humans, so the ROM assesses eight different joint movements passively.  These joint movements include limb flexion, extension, abduction, adduction, protraction, retraction, and spinal rotation. 

A Doctor of Physical Therapy uses ROM to evaluate areas of limitations in the performance horse and to compare sides. This allows Dr. Shields to assess any asymmetries in the movement patterns which could lead to injury. 

Humans and horses share many of the same types of joint movements, with one key difference. Humans can circumduct (rotate) at the shoulder and hip, as well as at the spine. If a horse displays rotation of a leg in movement, it’s considered a weakness, lameness, or a neurologic sign.

A ROM assessment can also assist your general veterinarian when evaluating for weakness and lameness. A Range of Motion evaluation can differentiate joint and soft tissue restrictions from stabilizer weakness. This could be the difference between an acute tendon tear or the result of chronic poor movement patterns. 

Prevent Injuries

There are many different ways ROM and functional movement tests can prevent injuries in both horses and equestrians. Differentiating whether or not the patient is struggling with joints and soft tissues (mobility) or poor movement patterns (stability) can greatly impact the resulting exercise program. Repeatedly performing incorrect exercises for what you and your horse are struggling with can lead to significant injuries. 

ROM and functional movement tests help to differentiate between true muscle weakness or muscle inhibition. Weakness in a muscle means that even with maximum effort, there is not sufficient contraction within the muscle to complete the movement. Muscle inhibition, on the other hand, means muscle tightness is protecting the muscle, joints, and tissues leading to poor coordination during the movement. What you may be interpreting as weakness in you or your horse could actually be muscle inhibition. 

If you truly are struggling with muscle weakness, it could be caused by dysfunctional stabilizing muscles. Stabilizing muscles, your core, holds you steady so moving body parts, such as your legs, can flow freely throughout the entire range of motion. If your core is weak, you won’t be able to hold the majority of your body steady, leading to apparent muscle weakness in the moving part. 

Muscle fatigue and true weakness has increased metabolic demands on your body. This leads to poor form and, over time, injuries will occur if not corrected.

Creating Your Exercise Program

An exercise program based off of ROM and functional movement tests can help you target weakness to increase strength and fitness safely for both horse and rider. For example, if you’re struggling to hold a two-point, you may want to exercise your legs. However, the true weakness could actually be in your core. Working your legs won’t solve the problem and could lead to injury. But with the help of sports medicine physical therapy, prescribed exercises can help you build strength where you really need it. 

A Doctor of Physical Therapy-developed exercise program sets you and your horse up for success and helps you achieve your goals. If you’re tired of riding in pain, sign you and your horse up for a ROM and functional movement assessment today. 

Find out more here. 

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