Why you need a Doctor of Physical Therapy and Riding Instructor

Do you have to choose between a Doctor of Physical Therapy and a riding instructor? You can actually get the biggest benefit by working with both. A Doctor of Physical Therapy is there to help you learn more about you and your horse’s biomechanics, how they may be impacting your riding, and how you can strengthen weak areas to prevent injury and prolong your career. 

As a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) with decades of riding experience behind me, I take lessons. 

I’m a firm believer that every equestrian and their horse can benefit from taking riding lessons at any point in their career. Even the olympians on the United States Equestrian Team have a coach to guide them and teach them how to excel. Unfortunately, many equestrians believe that they need to choose between having a Doctor of Physical Therapy and a riding instructor. While they both will critique your position, they ultimately have different roles to play in helping you achieve your goals. 


Equestrians contact a riding instructor when they want to improve their riding. Equestrians also contact a DPT when they want to improve their riding. However, these two resources do not have the same goals. 

A DPT is there to help you learn more about you and your horse’s biomechanics, how they may be impacting your riding, and how you can strengthen weak areas to prevent injury and prolong your career. They may help you move up the levels, learn a new dressage test, jump higher, and ride softer. While a DPT looks inward to explore how your biomechanics could be holding you back, a riding instructor seeks to push you forward in your riding career. 

Riding Assessment vs. Lesson

The truth is that a mounted physical therapy assessment looks nothing like a lesson. The assessment will start with a hands-on evaluation of your functional movement on the ground looking for muscle and joint flexibility, incorrect movement patterns, or injuries that are holding your riding performance back. Next, is the assessment of the horse’s movement, including exploring conformation and previous injuries. The assessments performed won’t be with the goal of preparing for a competition or to increase skill level. Instead, the physical therapist will be looking for signs of stiffness or hyperflexibility, asymmetrical muscling, or incorrect movement patterns that may interfere with performance. 

Putting it Together and Taking it Apart

The main component of the assessment is riding. A DPT will be looking for imbalances in your own biomechanics in the saddle and how they’re impacting your equine partner. Unlike in a riding lesson, different physical therapy assessment treatment techniques may be used, mounted and unmounted, to gain a better understanding of the biomechanics of the horse and rider. For example, I use Phoenix Inertial Wearables. These sensors are taped to the riders upper and lower back. They record and track movement in 9 different dimensions, allowing me to better understand the intricacies of a rider’s biomechanics. 


There are huge benefits to both riding lessons and working with a DPT. Riding lessons are crucial to help you and your horse improve your riding and working relationship. With the help of a riding instructor, you can reach your competitive goals or learn how to better work with your horse and become a softer rider. By improving your riding skills, working with a riding instructor can keep you safe in the saddle and around your horse. 

The benefits of working with a DPT are somewhat different, but just as important. A DPT can help you learn to use your body and your horse’s body by building muscle strength and flexibility in order to get all of the benefits of working with a riding instructor. For example, maybe you and your riding instructor have been working on a half pass. It’s been months and you and your horse still can’t seem to complete the move correctly. After a riding assessment by a DPT, you realize that you haven’t been activating the correct muscles to complete the move. After working on exercises prescribed by the DPT,  you’re able to complete the half-pass correctly in your lesson. 

While the benefits of both go hand-in-hand, the DPT has a different role to play. If you’re ever having difficulty using effective aides or experience pain while recovering from an injury, a DPT can get you back in the saddle faster. If your horse is having difficulties going to one rein, picking up a canter lead, or has experienced an injury a physical therapist can actually help you identify the problem so that physical therapy solutions can be prescribed to get you back on track. 

Why You Need Both on Your Team

You can get the most out of your riding instructor and physical therapist by working with both. 

You and your horse deserve to increase your skill levels, while riding pain-free and reducing chances of injury. Working with both a DPT and a riding instructor can get you there. 

When working with both, it’s important to ensure that everyone is communicating. A Doctor of Physical Therapy can actually email your riding instructor notes and videos to ensure that your lessons aren’t increasing chances of re-injury after healing. Or to ensure that the instructor understands what you’re working on outside of the riding ring. Your DPT may even be able to meet you at the showgrounds to guide you and your horse through muscle activation exercises, before handing you over to your riding instructor for show day instruction. 

If you want to reap the benefits of working with both a riding instructor and a Doctor of Physical Therapy on your team, contact Dr. Emily Shields today.