What to Expect During a Physical Therapy Rider Assessment

Whether you’re struggling with injury, or you’re frustrated with your performance in the arena, a physical therapy rider assessment can help. It requires careful evaluation and treatment by an educated medical professional, and your commitment to sticking to a comprehensive treatment plan. A Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) performs a mounted  and unmounted evaluation in order to assess injuries, biomechanical weakness, and areas of poor performance in both horse and rider. Then, they prepare a comprehensive plan to help you strengthen those weaknesses. Familiarizing yourself with the mounted assessment process prior to your appointment can help you get the most out of your evaluation. 

The Unmounted Assessment Process.

A few days prior to the assessment, you will receive an electronic New Client Form. It’s important to include important medical information (such as diagnostic imagery) that your Doctor of Physical Therapy can access during the appointment. This allows the physical therapist to better understand what’s going on, how to treat it, and what sort of exercise is allowed. All documentation is stored on a HIPPA compliant platform to ensure the safety of your medical information.

A day prior to the assessment, each client will be contacted via phone to ensure that they are free of COVID-19 signs and symptoms. On the day of the assessment, each client will have their temperature checked prior to starting the session and the PES COVID-19 protocols will be followed. 

First, the DPT will conduct a head to toe functional movement screen to identify biomechanical issues, muscle imbalances due to muscle over-activation or muscle inhibition, and increased muscle and joint related stress. 

For the rider, it’s important to wear well-fitted riding boots during your assessment. Not only for safety, but in order to best evaluate your biomechanics as well. A boot that is cut close to the leg reveals more details about how you’re using your calf and ankle. For this assessment, forgo the comfortable baggy sweatshirt for a more closely cut riding top. You will be given a lightweight top that has high visibility markings on it. This will allow your DPT to evaluate any asymmetries in your torso and seat. 

The Mounted Assessment Process

Your Doctor of Physical Therapy will discuss your horse’s past history, any treatments or surgeries performed by a veterinarian and injury history. Next, the DPT will do a standing inspection of the horse; this includes observation, palpation, and a range of motion assessment. Next, saddle fit is evaluated and discussed with the rider. High visibility markers will be placed on the spine of the horse and on the saddle at the middle of the cantle. This allows the physical therapist to evaluate the horse and rider connection for any muscular asymmetries, stiff joints, and range of motion issues prior to riding. 

For every mounted assessment, the horse should be ridden by its regular rider in it’s usual tack and equipment. After all, the equestrian plays a huge role in how the horse moves under the saddle. Your own biomechanical asymmetries could actually be causing lameness issues when riding. 

The mounted assessment will start with a nice slow warm up. Riding on a loose rein, the rider won’t ask the horse to do much. Instead, the focus will be on allowing the horse and rider to warm up as usual at all three gaits and perform any movements that have been problematic in riding performance. During this time, the DPT will look for abnormal  movement patterns of the horse and rider, the quality of the horse’s gaits, and any asymmetries while taking videos and photos. 

Next, your DPT will have you dismount off of your horse to perform various muscle and joint tests and manual therapy techniques on the rider. This is approximately 10-15 minutes, so having someone nearby to hold the horse is very helpful. Once treatment is finished, the rider will mount the horse. At this time, the DPT and rider will discuss what differences are felt in the saddle. Next, the DPT will ask the rider to perform all three gaits in each direction and any problematic movements. Video and pictures will be taken to demonstrate changes in asymmetries and abnormal movement patterns. At the end of the evaluation, these will be compared to videos and pictures taken prior to treatment. 

The rider may be asked to dismount again if abnormal movement patterns are still observed to perform more physical therapy interventions, after which they will ride again to ensure the intervention is effective. 

What Happens Next?

After the mounted assessment is complete, you and your DPT will develop a comprehensive exercise plan for you and your horse. If the purpose of the mounted assessment was to help you understand you and your horse’s body in order to succeed in the competition ring, it’s important to bring your trainer into the assessment. No matter your goal, always have a conversation with your team about the findings of the mounted assessment. Bringing everyone into the discussion helps you develop a comprehensive plan moving forward. 

Your DPT will be prescribing exercises for horse and rider both under saddle and on the ground. It’s important that you follow these exercises after the assessment! Otherwise, you won’t see much progress in your equine rehabilitation process.

If further diagnostics or a recheck is needed, your DPT will work with you to develop a plan going forward. This could include a weekly recheck with your physical therapist or a monthly check in appointment. 

As always, communication is key. Going forward from the assessment, keep the lines of communication open with your support team. Don’t be afraid to ask your physical therapist any questions you may have and update them regularly with your progress. 

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