Does your squat measure up?

Squats are an essential exercise for any equestrian who wants to perform their best, as well as to reduce the risk of injury. A squat is a simple functional movement that can indicate biomechanical issues that will have an effect on rider position. A squat will tell you if your hamstrings, glutes, core, and/or spinal muscles are weak which will cause you to fall forward in the saddle. However, most of us do not know the correct position to complete the most basic squat. Poor alignment and posture when performing a squat can cause injuries if not corrected, especially when doing weighted or plyometric squats.  

As a Doctor of Physical Therapy, I use squats to identify biomechanical issues, such as weak gluteal muscles,  that may inhibit normal movement patterns throughout the body, like difficulty with the rising trot.  Once muscle imbalances and areas of limited mobility are identified, I can prescribe specific exercises to strengthen these deficits. 

Why Squats?

Since squats target strength and flexibility, they are important to riders for several reasons. The first being, it improves core and leg strength which helps the rider stabilize between their hips for better balance in the saddle. They also improve strength of the lower spine and hip muscles that control forward and backward motion so we can better absorb the motion of the horse. Lastly, squats are good for the tight rider to improve flexibility so that they do not inhibit the horse’s movement at the wrong time.

How to Assess a Squat

Most of us know that the downward motion is achieved by dropping the hips to or just below your knee joint. Then the upward motion is achieved by extending hips, knees, and ankles until you are standing again. However, there is much more to the squat than just your hips, knees, and ankles. So what can a squat tell you about your body’s neuromuscular strength, stability, and mobility? 

When I’m assessing a basic squat, I’m looking at your movement from your head to your feet. Each segment of your body is telling me what your specific limitations are that can lead to poor performance or injury. 

Think about the squat being assessed from three different aspects. The upper body movement which consists of your head, neck, and torso. The lower body which assesses movement of the hips, knees, tibias (lower leg), and feet. Then finally, the quality of the entire movement from the downward motion, depth of the squat, then how you return to the standing position. 

Factors of a Correct Squat 

A squat is best assessed when the individual holds onto a dowel that rests on their shoulders to keep their forearms parallel to the torso. This position helps facilitate back extensors, shoulder reactors, and latissimus for correct torso mechanics during the squat. 

It’s important to assess the stance as part of the squatting exercise. A correct stance allows you to avoid injury and learn the proper motor control necessary to perform the exercise. If the stance is too wide, the compression forces behind the patella and/or between the lower leg and upper leg may increase. Likewise, too narrow of a stance may lead to forward compression of the upper leg on the lower leg. Either of these scenarios done repeatedly over time can lead to knee pain and injury.  

Foot position plays a key role in knee function when squatting in regards to how your patella tracks throughout the movement. A common recommendation for foot position is slightly turned in or partially turned out. Extremes in ankle rotation cause stress on the structures of the knee and should be avoided in all types of squats.

Ideally,  the core muscles on the front and back of the torso contract to stabilize the trunk and hips in order to counterbalance unwanted movement and to regulate the lower body’s movement throughout the squat. The pelvis should remain in neutral pelvic tilt with square and stable hips with minimal side to side movement while performing the downward motion. There should be unrestricted movement of the knees to pass over toes during the downward motion until the desired position of the hips at or slightly below the knee joint is achieved. Keeping your knees back behind your toes will lead you to lean forward, which causes greater compression at the lower spine and hips– putting these joints at higher risk for injury.  At the lowest part of the squat, the trunk and lower leg should appear to be parallel to one another. The foot placement should be shoulder width apart with the entire foot on the ground through the entire squat. Bodyweight should be emphasized through the heel and outer part of the foot during the downward and upward movement of the squat. 

Reap the Benefits of Squats

Squats are a powerful exercise that when done correctly will strengthen trunk, core and lower leg muscles, as well as improve flexibility and balance at your hips and knees to be ready for the rigorous demands of riding. The squat can be an excellent tool to evaluate biomechanical issues, such as muscle and joint asymmetries on and off the horse. Once these weaknesses are identified, corrective exercises can be prescribed to improve posture, balance, and the effectiveness of leg aides.

Working with a Doctor of Physical Therapy decreases your risk of injury while squatting and ensures that you will maintain the correct depth and posture to get the most out of your squats.  Dr. Shields can help you translate the strength you build while squatting to your equitation and success in the saddle. 

Click here to sign up for your full rider assessment. 

5 Ways Proper Breathing Techniques Will Transform Your Ride

Are you breathing with your diaphragm or your intercostal muscles? Do you suffer from chest pain or back aches? You may not be breathing properly. Find out just how that will impact your riding career in this blog by a Doctor of Physical Therapy. 


Has your trainer ever had you sing the ABC’s when you were nervous? Singing impacts your breathing rate, often slowing it down and encouraging you to take deeper breaths. The quality of your breath can have a huge impact on your riding performance. Ask any physical therapy professional– the muscles that you use to breathe need to be taken care of just as you would any other part of your body. 

What is Proper Breathing?

While you’re lying or sitting down, place one hand on your rib cage and one on your abdomen. Take a deep breath in and slowly let it out. Did both of your hands rise and fall? Did one rise more than the other? Did your shoulders lift up when you inhaled?

As you inhale, your diaphragm tightens, allowing your lungs to expand. The intercostal muscles pull your rib cage up and outward. Just like any other muscle, the muscles that you use to breathe can develop asymmetrically or become weak with improper use. Poor breathing techniques can lead to chest and back pain. Taking the time to practice breathing properly can transform your riding performance. 

To breathe properly, you should be taking a nice full deep breath where both your abdomen and rib cage expand and contract. Shoulders may lift slightly, but not in a large capacity. Before inhaling, the previous breath should be expelled in its entirety. 

How Proper Breathing Transforms Your Riding Performance

Smoothe your Transitions

Your horse can feel you breathe even through the layers of saddle pads, and the leather and wood that make up your saddle. For some horses, the speed of your breathing directly correlates to their rhythm and pace. If you haven’t tried it before, next time you ask your horse for a downward transition, breathe out as you sit deep in the saddle. A purposeful exhale encourages your horse to relax into the transition. This is because your muscles soften when you exhale, releasing tension and “melting” into the saddle. 

Improve Your Stamina

When you’re stressed, your breathing speeds up and becomes less efficient. Not only does this disturb the horse, but it also prevents oxygen and nutrients from getting to your muscles efficiently, greatly reducing your stamina. Maintaining control of your breathing even in the face of a tough dressage judge or high-speed stadium round increases your energy-level and strength. 

A few deep breaths can hit the reset button when you feel your breathing speeding up. Afterwards, your body will start replenishing oxygen-starved muscles. Any lingering shakiness will recede and your confidence will increase as your brain will also receive a better flow of nutrients. 

Deepen Your Stretch

Yogis are excellent breathers. In even the most intense moves, they focus on maintaining an energizing and relaxing flow of oxygen moving through their body.  If you’ve ever taken a yoga class, you may have heard the phrase “breathe into the pose.” This encourages you to take a deeper breath and relax muscles which may be straining with effort.  The result: a deeper stretch that doesn’t feel half so hard. 

The same technique can apply to your pre-riding stretching routine. You do have a warm-up routine before you get on your horse, right? When a stretch becomes difficult, humans have a tendency to hold their breath. This tenses your muscles, particularly in your diaphragm, and makes the exercise even harder. It’s better to exhale during exertion, or breathe out when you’re working the hardest. 

For example, if you’re trying to touch your toes, exhale as you fold at the hips and stretch towards the floor. Inhale, on the way back up. You might be surprised at how much closer you get to your toes when you breathe properly. 

Communicate Clearly with Your Horse

When you become anxious, your breathing speeds up. For some equestrians, this change can be almost imperceptible, while other riders experience it as hyperventilation. Either way, as breathing efficiency decreases so does the flow of oxygen to the brain. As your anxiety increases, you focus more on perceived threats around you at the expense of crucial tasks. 

For example, if you’re faced with a large cross country jump for the first time, you could become so wrapped up with the possibility of a rotational fall, that you forget to sit up and release over the fence, or create a high quality canter. As your anxiety and breathing increases, you become more frenzied.  Your horse, being a prey animal, feels your worry over the perceived threat of a rotational fall and becomes frantic themselves. After all, they don’t understand that you’re scared of a possibility. To them, there must be a real, live mountain lion hiding in that fence for you to react in such a way. 

Deep breathing in stressful situations lowers your heart rate, increases oxygen flow to your brain, and helps you focus on what’s important. As you recenter yourself, you’re better able to communicate with your horse now that he can feel beyond your anxiety and fear. 

Reduce Muscle Tension

Wherever you are right now, try taking a series of short shallow breaths. What do you notice happening in your body? You might feel light-headed (stop immediately if you do!), but you’ll also notice areas of tension throughout your body, particularly in your core and shoulders. The longer you continue hyperventilating, the worse the tension becomes and the more it spreads. 

Now, try the opposite. Take long deep breaths that come from your diaphragm. You should see your belly move up and down, not just your rib cage. What do you notice now? You should feel a sense of relaxation spread through your core, your shoulders may drop down, and tension will drain out of your neck. With proper breathing techniques, you can reduce the impact of clenched muscles on your riding performance. Suppleness is, after all, one of the founding pillars of the dressage pyramid. 

However you approach proper breathing, it’s important to have the guidance of a qualified physical therapy professional. A Doctor of Physical Therapy can help you discover if you’re struggling with a weak diaphragm or tight intercostal muscle and prescribe exercises to resolve the issue. 

If you want to learn more about how you breathe is impacting your riding performance, contact Dr. Shields today. 

Reduce Your Chances of Equestrian Injuries


Horseback riding is a dangerous sport. Equine care in general is dangerous. It’s easy to throw out your back when picking up hay bales or emptying water buckets. A rearing horse can clock you in the head during turnout or drag you across the dirt in their haste to head to the paddock. Working with a Maryland physical therapy clinic is one of the best ways to reduce chances of injury during any equestrian activity. 

Stretching

Stretching on a regular basis helps you develop more elasticity and flexibility in your musculoskeletal system. Over time, stretching creates appropriate posture, making you less likely to throw out your back when hauling around that hay bale. Stretching makes any movement easier and more fluid, lowering your chances of injury during exercise. This is particularly true if you stretch before and after riding. 

Have you ever pulled a muscle getting on and off your horse? Stretching can help with that by increasing your flexibility. Regular stretching increases the blood and nutrient supply to your muscles. Increased blood flow and nutrients allows your musculoskeletal system to work more efficiently and better support your body. 

Strength Building

Building strength via resistance training can greatly decrease your risk of injury.  Also known as strength training or weight lifting, adding resistance training into your regular workout routine allows you to benefit from increased strength in your bones and soft tissue and higher bone mineral content. Resistance training doesn’t just add muscular bulk to your body, but actually helps you grow stronger bones and ligaments that are less prone to tearing or breaking.

A strong body is also less prone to overuse injuries than someone who doesn’t strength train. As an equestrian, we need our bodies to be able to take a hit and keep going. It’s guaranteed that we’ll fall off our horse at some point. Strength training ensures that you’ll be able to get back on and keep riding. 

If you’d like to add weight lifting into your daily routine, check out a local Maryland physical therapy clinic. They can guide you on how much weight to start with and proper techniques. Even working on building strength just once a week can help you become a more resilient equestrian. 

Taking Time to Warm Up and Cool Down

A good trainer will have drilled this into your head. “Every ride should start and end with work on a loose rein.” But in all my years at barns in Maryland, I have rarely seen equestrians warm up or cool down their own bodies. 

Warming up with stretching and some light exercise increases blood flow to your muscles and raises your heart rate and temperature prior to riding. This helps to reduce injury by slowly ramping up the exercise intensity.  Otherwise, you’re asking stiff and cool muscles to expand and contract rapidly– a recipe for disaster. A good warm up allows you a small portion of time to strengthen any biomechanical weaknesses prior to riding. For example, if your hips are an issue in the saddle, your warm up can include prescribed exercises from a Maryland physical therapist that will increase their flexibility prior to riding. 

Cardio Fitness

Fatigued muscles are prone to injury. The more tired you become, the faster you lose proper form and posture. This doesn’t just prevent you from communicating well with your equine partner, but also leads to a higher risk of injury due to poor equitation and lack of ability to stay on. Cardio fitness helps to increase your muscle endurance and efficiency. 

Having good cardio fitness allows your body to efficiently oxygenate your muscles via increased blood flow. Efficient blood flow also provides your muscles, tendons, and ligaments with the nutrients necessary for optimum performance during a workout. When you add cardio fitness into your workout routine, you can expect your muscles to provide you with the support you need to maintain balance, resilience, and a successful partnership with your horse. 

Adequate Flexibility

Flexibility can be tricky. If your body is hyperflexible you could find yourself with increased incidents of joint dislocation and a lack of balance. On the other hand, if you struggle with inflexibility, you’ll notice your muscles tire more easily, you’re more prone to overuse injuries, and increased wear and tear on your joints. Maintaining optimum flexibility is best done with the help of Maryland physical therapy clinic, where you can learn new ways to stretch for your particular issue. As an equestrian, it’s important to understand which side of the spectrum you fall on so you can work with a Doctor of Physical Therapy to maintain the right level of flexibility for your biomechanics. 

Working with a DPT

A Doctor of Physical Therapy evaluates your body for inherent weaknesses and prescribes several different treatment strategies to get you back on track. Proactively evaluating and working to solve weaknesses in  your musculoskeletal system is the best way to prevent injuries for equestrians. 

Many horseback riders struggle with several different “conformational” issues at the same time. You may be hyper flexible in your ankles, but nonmobile in your hips. You can’t assume that one exercise or a generic online equestrian exercise program will be right for your specific situation. 

If you’d like to increase your performance and prevent future injuries, get in touch with Dr. Shields today. 

The Impact of a Desk Job on Equestrian Biomechanics


The strengths and weaknesses of human biomechanics are directly related to the lifestyle we lead. A healthy lifestyle leads to a strong and functional body, and vice versa. Unfortunately, the average lifestyle of an American adult is less than healthy. While this isn’t good news for anyone, it’s particularly bad news for equestrians who rely on a healthy body to enjoy their time with their horse. 

Let’s look at the facts. The average American adult spends 6.5 hours a day sitting. Two of those six hours are spent in front of the television. Another half of all American adults spend at least another hour on a computer outside of their working day. Of those who use computers, one out of four will use them for at least three hours in their personal time. Research group Zenith summed up the situation, “By 2021 we expect the average consumer to spend 495 minutes a day consuming media.” 

That’s almost 35 percent of our daily lives spent staring at screens. The facts show the unhealthy impact of this sedentary lifestyle, as the CDC states that Forty percent of adults over the age of 20 are considered obese.

Equestrians rely on their health and fitness to enjoy their hobby and compete successfully in the show ring. Unfortunately, it’s often necessary to work in an office setting in order to afford to own and compete a horse. So, how can you continue to make progress in your riding career while struggling with the unhealthy consequences of an American lifestyle? First, it’s important to understand exactly how a sedentary lifestyle impacts your health and fitness. 

Long-Term Physical Issues

As American adults sit for longer periods of time, bones and muscles become weaker and metabolism slows to a crawl. As a result, working at a desk job is often a strong contributing factor to obesity. Not to mention, the high likelihood of sugary snacks in the break room. 

According to the Sleep Foundation, another impact of a sedentary lifestyle is poor quality sleep. Thirty-five percent of Americans report less than satisfactory sleep. Sixty-seven percent of those who reported poor sleep quality also stated they had less than average health, as well as high stress, and low life satisfaction.

The longer you stay seated at a desk, the more you increase your risk of arthritis, neck strain, and chronic back pain. These physical issues are long term problems that cannot be fixed with a few hours of exercise. Instead, these require intensive physical therapy to reach the point where your human biomechanics are once again functional. Unfortunately, based on the severity of arthritis or chronic back pain, you may never return to full health. 

Chronic Poor Posture

Sitting all day also negatively impacts your posture in the saddle. Human biomechanics are not designed for immobility. When working from a desk, there’s only so many positions available to you. Often, you’ll find yourself sitting in one spot for hours. 

This position is dependent upon your environment. Most offices are set up with a laptop and keyboard at stomach height. This is too high for healthy wrist and elbow function, but also too low for your neck. Working at the wrong height for your wrists and neck leads to neck strain and carpal tunnel. Staring down at your computer leaves your neck at an angle for an extended period of time, straining the ligaments and soft tissue responsible for holding your head up. 

Carpal tunnel is another health issue related to the office environment. Repetitive hand motions such as typing and using a computer mouse compress your median nerve over time, causing weakness, tingling, and even numbness in your hands. 

Poor Mental Health

A stressful office environment and lack of exercise leads to poor mental health. High stress can be related to tight deadlines, tough bosses and issues with your coworkers. Lack of sleep can exacerbate these issues, leading to poor motivation and depression. 

Exercise has been shown to have a positive impact on ADHD, depression, and a variety of other mental health issues. It can even help you sleep better, relieve stress, and improve your mood. Unfortunately, when working in an office environment, you can’t reap the benefits of regular exercise. 

Your Horse Needs You at Your Best

Poor health and fitness makes you a poor partner for your best friend. A body that’s used to the sedentary office lifestyle will fail you in the saddle, unless you take steps to counter those consequences. For example, good equitation takes strength to maintain, but unfortunately equestrians can’t rely on riding alone to maintain their fitness. While horseback riding requires strength, it doesn’t truly build strength in the same way as, for example, weight lifting. Combining horseback riding with a fitness plan is a great way to reach the physical health required to be a good partner to your horse. However, keep in mind that not all generic online exercise programs work for all equestrians. It’s better to work with a Doctor of Physical Therapy to develop an exercise program tailored to your specific human biomechanics. 

Riding doesn’t just require physical strength– but mental strength as well. A horse with a rider who is depressed, stressed, or anxious, is likely to be spooky, reactive, and uncooperative. The combination can lead to two partners feeding off of each other’s negative energy into a downward spiral. There’s an excellent way to fix this: more time at the barn. For equestrians, time spent at the barn is a refuge from the stresses of working at the office. Horseback riding gets your body moving, which is not only essential for functional human biomechanics, but is also good for the brain. A study by the British Horse Society concluded that horseback riding reduced chances of depression and even dementia by 30 percent. In order to get the most (both physically and mentally) out of your time at the barn, it’s important to work with a Doctor of Physical Therapy. 

A Doctor of Physical Therapy Can Help

Working with a DPT can help you combat the consequences of an office lifestyle and assist with creating a more ergonomic office space that fits your personal needs. A physical therapist can build a fitness plan tailored to your body, that takes into account any prior injuries or inherent biomechanical weaknesses. This exercise program strengthens weak areas of your musculoskeletal system, helping you overcome the impacts of a sedentary lifestyle. 

A Doctor of Physical Therapy can also evaluate your posture and help you work towards perfect equitation. With the right prescribed exercises, you can say goodbye to neck pain and drooping shoulders. Instead, you’ll find yourself with the strength and flexibility to be the best partner you can be for your horse. 

Contact Dr. Shields today to schedule your consultation.

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. 

COVID-19 Precautions at the PES Clinic


The Physio Equine Solutions’ Clinic opened on August 1st, 2020 and has been a great addition to my practice. Now I can support equestrians who don’t have a horse or who would like an unmounted assessment in a traditional physical therapy clinic environment. The clinic is located at Shields’ Fields Farm in Woodbine, Maryland, just up the driveway from the barn. It features a massage table and a wide variety of physical therapy equipment and diagnostic tools, such as exercise balls, scales, exercise bands, and more. While I am still available for off-site mounted and unmounted evaluations, the clinic allows me to house all of the tools that I will need in one accessible site. 

Launching a new clinic in the midst of a pandemic has had some drawbacks. According to the CDC, the coronavirus spreads from people who are in close contact with one another, meaning less than 6 feet apart. Respiratory droplets that are produced when someone is talking, breathing heavily, sneezing, and coughing can carry the virus to much further distances

Unfortunately, physical therapy does require close contact. Regardless, we are continuing to provide services to equestrians of all experience levels at the PES Clinic. Our goal is to keep everyone safe and healthy, while still helping equestrians improve their health and fitness. In order to keep everyone safe, we are following the latest guidelines from the Center of Disease Control. 

Masks are Required

Physical Therapy requires close contact and a hands-on evaluation. In order to prevent the spread of COVID-19 while still allowing my clients to get the most out of their physical therapy session, I require masks to be worn at all times while indoors. You are welcome to have your own mask as long as it is no less than three ply. If you do not have a three ply mask, not to worry, I will provide one for you. Since we are going to be in close proximity during the session, for both of our protection the use of surgical masks or a mask with a filter is recommended. If you are unable to wear a mask due to medical reasons, there is the possibility of conducting the session outside, weather permitting. Or, another option is to explore telemedicine sessions.

You won’t be alone in wearing a mask! Throughout the session, I will also be wearing a mask at all times. Masks are the best line of defense against COVID19. High-quality masks have been shown to block nearly all droplets between the size of 20 and 500 microns. These droplets spread the coronavirus when they are breathed in or come in contact with another human being. 

Keep in mind that masks protect others more than they protect the wearer. As such, they are most effective when everyone wears a functional mask, not ones with valved openings or ones that are held away from the face. Masks must be worn appropriately– covering both the mouth and nose of the wearer. 

COVID Screening

Prior to your appointment, I will go through a list of questions regarding your health status and recent travels. These will only take a moment and are crucial in ensuring that everyone stays healthy and safe while at the PES clinic. Questions may include where you’ve traveled to recently, whether you’ve been feeling ill with fever or chills, cough or shortness of breath, or fatigue. 

Feel free to ask your own questions regarding my health if you feel the need. I’m more than happy to discuss my own health status with clients who are interested in coming to the clinic. Please note that I will reschedule your appointment if I am feeling any symptoms related to COVID-19. Unless, of course, my fatigue is related to taking care of 10 horses!

When you enter the clinic, I will use a contactless thermometer to take your temperature prior to the session. Likewise, I will be taking my temperature prior to your arrival, so as to ensure we are both fever free.

Hand Washing and Sanitizing

In between clients, the PES Clinic will be thoroughly sanitized with strong disinfectants. All equipment used in the previous appointment will be wiped down with CDC recommended cleaners. Appointments will be spaced at least 30 minutes apart to allow for disinfecting to take place. 

Not just the equipment will be thoroughly cleaned. Handwashing with an antibacterial soap will take place prior to each appointment. Feel free to ask me to use non-latex gloves during our session. Hand sanitizer for client use is also located outside the entrance to the clinic. Before our session starts, you will be asked to wash your hands with antibacterial soap. Everyone entering and exiting the clinic is encouraged to use the hand sanitizer before and after their appointment. 

Contact Tracing

If either myself, my husband, or one of my clients becomes ill with COVID19 and has recently been into the clinic, I have a set of precautions in place to ensure that anyone with a possibility of infection is notified immediately. 

If a person tests positive for COVID and has been in the clinic in the past two weeks, all appointments will be cancelled until I obtain a negative COVID test for myself and the clinic is appropriately disinfected. The client with an appointment directly following the infected person will be notified as well and encouraged to follow all CDC guidelines. 

Since masks will have been worn by all parties, hands washed, and the clinic disinfected between appointments, risk of transmission will be low. 

Stay Safe and Healthy

It is my goal to continue helping equestrians ride pain-free while also keeping everyone safe and healthy. I firmly believe that by following CDC guidelines, we can continue to safely provide physical therapy services to my clients who need them even during the pandemic. 

If you have any questions regarding COVID19 and the Physio Equine Solutions Clinic, please reach out to me. 

Click here to get in touch with me via my contact page. 

Treatment Strategies for Equestrian Physical Therapy

Physical therapy is an interesting medical specialty in that a lot of things claim to be “physical therapy” but unfortunately are more pseudo-scientific than true evidence-based treatment strategies. When it comes to equestrian physical therapy, it’s important to understand what types of strategies you can expect to see as part of your comprehensive treatment plan.

Prescribed Exercise

At-home exercises are the meat and potatoes of a good treatment plan. These exercises require commitment from the patient, but they can restore full health to an injured equestrian and strengthen weak areas of the musculoskeletal system. 

A Doctor of Physical Therapy will prescribe at-home exercises after performing a comprehensive evaluation and discovering the source of asymmetrical muscling, pain, or other biomechanical imbalances. Generic online equestrian exercise programs are not the same as a prescribed exercise program. With generic programs, you can actually create injuries if you’re performing the movements incorrectly or increasing the difficulty too fast. 

Prescribed exercises can include stretching, foam rolling, and workouts with a focus on form. When performing the movements it’s important to remember that prescribed exercise is not the at-home version of CrossFit. The focus should always be on form and function, not on hammering out reps or burning calories. 

Manual Therapy

A Doctor of Physical Therapy will use manual therapy or hand movements coupled with passive movements of joints and soft tissue to improve tissue extensibility, increase range of motion, increase mobility of  joint, treat pain, and reduce soft tissue swelling. Unlike a massage therapist, a physical therapist will select, prescribe, and implement manual therapy techniques based on your individual exam findings that are specific to your injury.

When a Doctor of Physical Therapy uses manual therapy as a technique, it’s important to remember we’re not discussing your average “spa-style” massage. In equestrian physical therapy, manual therapy is used to increase blood flow, increase joint mobility, and decrease tension in problem areas of the musculo-skeletal system. If your physical therapist does use massage style techniques, don’t expect a hot towel and Enya-music-infused experience. Massage performed by a DPT is done for a purpose and can be painful when working in a particularly tight or stressed area of the body.  

MyoFascial Release

Specific physical therapy techniques include myofascial release. Myofascial release focuses on using gentle pressure to encourage the fascia surrounding a rider’s muscles to elongate. This can be done in either hands-on therapy from the physical therapist or the equestrian can even perform some of their own myofascial release at home with a little help from a foam roller. 

Scientific studies have found myofascial release to be an evidence-based treatment strategy that provides real relief to patients. Another systematic review of peer-reviewed scientific studies on myofascial release therapy found positive results when used for orthopedic conditions in adult patients. 

Joint Mobilization

Joint mobilization is used in equestrian physical therapy to increase the range of motion in a joint and decrease pain. It’s a very useful evaluation tool and allows your physical therapist to discover possible asymmetrical range of motion in joints.

In order to mobilize the joint, the doctor will apply manual force to the joint. These forces should be applied slowly and smoothly in order to avoid injuring the joint further. The doctor will test out the flexion, extension, rotation, and any other dimensions of movement within the joint as applicable. 

This is not a therapy that should be performed by your average layperson. Joint mobilization techniques should always be performed by a knowledgeable and experienced Doctor of Physical Therapy.

Strain-Counterstrain Technique 

Activation of the correct muscle at the right time is crucial for horseback riders. Strain-Counterstrain is a hands on treatment strategy that can be performed with help from a licensed physical therapist. This neuro-muscular system technique is used to alleviate muscle, joint, and soft tissue tightness in order to prevent injuries. 

Stretching

Flexibility training has big benefits as a treatment strategy. After surgery or injury, muscles that have become inactive during recovery can contract, losing their muscle tone and ability to elongate. Stretching can increase blood flow to unused muscles and prevent further or future injury. 

It’s important to stretch with guidance from a Doctor of Physical Therapy. Some forms of stretching, such as PNF stretching, can do more harm than good when performed with an unknowledgeable partner. 

Stretching is a treatment strategy that can be performed at home as part of a prescribed exercise program or as a hands-on technique with help from a licensed physical therapist. Often, it is used before working out as a way to warm up and after exercise to cool down in order to prevent injuries. 

Use of Class IV Laser

A Class IV Laser has huge benefits for both horses and humans alike. In fact, it’s even commonly used on small animals like dogs and cats. When it comes to equestrian physical therapy, a Class IV laser is instrumental in increasing blood flow, reducing pain, and enhancing cell regeneration. It’s prescribed by a Doctor of Physical Therapy in cases where pain, stiffness, or injury has occurred. Unlike ultrasound therapy, the risk of burning or other injury is extremely low. Often it’s called a “cold laser” because of the low grade non-thermal therapy that is significantly less likely to burn the skin. 

Class IV lasers provide deeper infrared energy to more targeted areas in order to provide more efficient treatment. While some people consider laser therapy to be controversial, there is good scientific evidence behind it. One scientific study even found it to be effective pain relief after major artery bypass surgery. 

Alternative “Treatment Strategies”

Just like any other medical professional, it’s important to work with a doctor of physical therapy that you trust. When choosing which doctor to work with, evaluate what treatment strategies they offer. 

Ask yourself the following three questions:

  1. Are the treatments offered backed by scientific evidence?
  2. Is the physical therapist a Doctor of Physical Therapy?
  3. Is your physical therapist being paid by the manufacturer in order to offer the treatment?

If you’re happy with the answer to each question, then it’s probably a viable treatment option to look into. However, when it comes to your health it always pays to do your research before choosing who to work with and what treatments to pursue. 

Equine Physical Therapy Treatment Strategies: Myth vs Fact

How do you know what to believe when it comes to equine physical therapy treatment? Do magnets really work? Click here to separate myth from fact. 

There are lots of myths out there about physical therapy services for the equine. As a horse owner, how can you separate myth from fact?

Layman service providers that provide pseudo-scientific treatment strategies given under the guise of “physical therapy” harm both horses and owners, as well as take credibility from highly-educated Doctors of Physical Therapy. Owners can spend hundreds, if not thousands of dollars on a treatment that may be doing little to benefit their horse. This is in stark contrast to  the scientifically-backed equine physical therapy treatment strategies used by Certified Equine Rehabilitation Practitioners.

Scientifically-Based Treatment Methods

A Physical Therapist is a doctorate-level medical professional with the skills and education to diagnose, treat, and coordinate client care. Some of these doctors who have a speciality certification in equine rehabilitation, use their skills and education to help your horse move correctly in order to decrease injury risk and improve performance.These treatment programs may include manual therapy, physical modalities, and exercises, all coordinated with your DVM. Three different types of prescribed exercises include aerobic, resistance (strength training), flexibility, and balance. Each exercise is completed for a specific duration and frequency, that slowly builds over time. Exercises prescribed by an equine physical therapist can help a horse heal from injury and prevent injury from happening in the first place. 

If you’ve used carrot stretches in the past, then you’re familiar with the miracles created by these simple exercises. Carrot stretches are done by using a carrot (or similar finger-safe treat) to guide your horse through several stretches. These include encouraging the horse to stretch through their rib cage and bend their neck to the side and touch their nose to their chest. Carrot stretches help to increase strength and flexibility based on frequency and duration. 

Visual marker systems are used in equine physical therapy to help your physical therapist assess compensatory movement in your horse’s gaits, saddle slippage, and rider balance. Markers are attached to your horse’s croup, hips, center of cantel, and on the rider. Any asymmetries in movement are then captured on video. 

While a Doctor of Physical Therapy does apply their education to the equine, some key treatments differ. For example, a Certified Equine Rehabilitation Practitioner can take advantage of a horse’s twitch reflex to create a sternal lift and pelvic tilt. All the medical professional has to do is run a finger down the horse’s ventral line or on either side of the tail. 

How to Spot a Fake “Treatment”

Unfortunately, 2020 has been the year of fake news and the physical therapy industry is no different. This year has seen articles by non-scientific publications touting magnets and ceramics as physical therapy. Because of this, it can be hard to pick out what will help your horse and what will harm them. 

When choosing a potential physical therapy treatment for your horse, it’s important to keep in mind the source. Evaluate where you heard about it. Was it in a scientific journal? Or a local gossip rag? You can’t always trust the lady who owns the horse in the stall next to you. It’s important to research treatment strategies in a trusted scientific journal, such as the NIH, before searching for a provider. 

Once you find a provider, evaluate them closely. Do they have a degree in higher education? Is this their main source of income? Are they being paid by a larger company to provide the service, such as the manufacturer? Before you let someone do medical procedures on your horse, ensure that they have a medical background and you have consulted your DVM. 

Controversial Treatment Strategies

One of the more recent “treatment strategies” that has come to light in the physical therapy industry is using magnets to heal wounds and treat lameness. A Horse Sport article claimed that magnets rebalance the cells at the molecular level to realign the body via electrical stimulation. This is emphatically false. There is insufficient evidence that magnets have any impact on health. 

Some providers claim that there is a link between using magnets in medical devices, such as an MRI machine, and the health benefits of magnets. This is like claiming that because an A/C unit cools down your house, it must be a good way to draw out heat in a swollen leg. 

Another controversial treatment that has lately gathered speed is ultrasound therapy. This technique has been around since the 1950s. While the FDA has approved ultrasound therapy for several different uses, including cancer therapy, it’s still one to think about carefully before taking the leap. Ultrasound therapy is a high-risk treatment, with the possibility of burns and mechanical hemorrhages if used improperly. 

Class 4 laser therapy, like the type we offer at Physio Equine Solutions, is quite different from ultrasound therapy. Both treatments reduce pain and inflammation, increase cell regeneration, and stimulate muscle contraction. However, each strategy goes about it in a different way. 

Ultrasound is a form of heat therapy. The device head must be kept moving to avoid burning the tissue below. A class 4 laser is less invasive and much safer. It uses a non-thermal infrared light to block pain and stimulate healing. 

It pays to do your research in regards to the wide variety of treatment strategies out there. A Doctor of Physical Therapy who is a Certified Equine Rehabilitation Practitioner is the best place to start for your equine partner. As a trusted medical professional they can steer you in the right direction by building a comprehensive treatment plan packed with science-backed strategies, all in conjunction with your veterinarian.

Looking for a treatment plan for you and your horse? Contact Dr. Shields today. 

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. 

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. 

Benefits

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. 

Rider Anatomy Lessons: Muscle Form and Function


Riding is a full body workout. Whatever discipline you compete in, the muscles required to ride and ride well are largely the same. When a trainer tells you to use your seat bone, lengthen your leg, or sit up straight, do you understand how your body responds? What muscles you’re using and how that impacts your riding? A licensed physical therapist can teach you more about your individual biomechanics and how they’re impacting your riding performance. 

Create Core Stability: Abdominal Muscles

How many times has your trainer told you to “engage your core?” The abdominals are crucial for excellent equitation in the saddle. Strong abdominals create a straight back, balanced seat, and better control in the saddle. 

Weak core muscles create several problems when riding. A floppy posture due to weak abdominals interferes with the communication between you and your horse. Poor abdominal strength can also lead to an unbalanced rider. In turn, creating a sliding saddle, asymmetrical muscling in your horse, and poor competitive performance. A licensed hysical therapist can help you strengthen this large muscle group. 

The abdominals include the rectus abdominis, obliques, and transversus abdominis. The rectus abdominis creates the “six pack” that many fitness buffs strive for. These muscles make up two different groups split down the middle by a line of connective tissue, known as the linea alba. When riding, the parallel muscles are responsible for flexing the lumbar spine, as one might do to cue your horse to back up. They also help to regulate your breathing– a truly crucial element of controlling your horse’s rhythm. 

The obliques run up and down the sides of your core. These muscles extend from the ribs down to the pelvis and run on either side of your body. Any injury or strain to these muscles can create a ripple effect, to the point where even walking becomes difficult. In the saddle, the obliques are used to rotate the trunk and activate during lateral movements in particular. Each oblique allows you to bend your core from side to side in order to create the motion for your horse to follow. 

The transverse abdominis wraps around your entire abdomen, like a corset or brace. As the deepest layer of abdominal muscle, they play an important role in protecting your internal organs and lumbar spine. This muscle helps you remain upright and prevents slouching in the saddle. If weak, you’ll notice that your spine has an increased curve and your pelvis will start to tilt forward. This incorrect posture can be seen in the jumping position of newer riders who appear “duck-like” over fences. 

Find Balance: Hip and Gluteal Muscles

A soft and independent seat is essential for equestrians who want to have a competitive career in the show ring. The hip adductors and abductors are just two of the muscles that surround the hip joint and can hinder or help to create an independent seat. Most equestrians have extremely developed hip adductors, but weak abductors. 

Adductors are found in the inner thigh and help to hold you to the saddle, allowing you to absorb the concussion from your horse’s movements and stay with the motion of the gait. Abductors position your leg properly in any discipline. It’s important to work on strengthening your abductors. An imbalance between these two muscle groups can greatly impact your ability to drape your leg over your horse’s side. 

The gluteal maximus and gluteal medius control the rotation of your hips from front to back and in and out. Without strong gluteal muscles, equestrians would struggle to balance in the saddle. 

Perfect Your Posture: Psoas, Quadratus Lumborum, and Erector Spinae

The Erector Spinae group of muscles surround your spine and provide support and stability to your spinal column. This muscle group extends all the way from the base of your skull to the pelvis. Strengthening these muscles can prevent back pain and injury. The Erector Spinae allows for extension of the spine, as well as lateral flexion with unilateral contraction. It’s important to have spinal support while riding in order to maintain an erect posture and strong core. 

The Quadratus Lumborum connects the lower rib, spinal vertebrae, and top of the pelvis. Working with the Gluteal Medius and the Tensor fascia lata, the Quadratus Lumborum provides stability to the frontal plane of the pelvis. When riding, equestrians rely on this muscle to control their lumbar posture. A tight and overly active Quadratus Lumborum can lead to lower back pain and stiffness. A licensed physical therapist can help you discern if Quadratus Lumborum tightness is causing your lower back pain in the saddle. It’s important to stretch your lower back often in order to maintain flexibility in the muscle. 

Last but not least, the Psoas connect the spinal vertebrae and the lesser pelvis. These crucial muscles activate anytime coordination between the lumbar spine and lower limbs is needed. So, anytime you perform activities like walking, dancing, running, etc. When riding, the Psoas help to absorb shock by allowing the spine and hips to flex. The shock absorption and flexibility of the Psoas allows you to sink deep into the saddle and move with your horse, instead of bouncing around on top.  

Discover the Truth About Your Biomechanics

It’s important for all equestrians to understand how our individual anatomy can impact our riding performance. For example, if you’ve been struggling with the leg yield, it may be an issue with asymmetry in your obliques, causing you to rotate the trunk instead of using your seat bones. 

A licensed physical therapist can help you learn more about how your body is impacting your riding career. Exercises prescribed by a licensed physical therapist or Doctor of Physical Therapy strengthens anatomical weaknesses and prevents injuries before they occur. 

Schedule your consultation with Physio Equine Solutions today to learn more about the muscles you use while riding and how they could be impacting your performance.

5 Signs Your Horse Needs a Physical Therapist


It’s easy for us to know when we need to see a physical therapist. Most equestrians come to me when they’re in pain while riding or struggling with a specific issue. Unfortunately, horses can’t use their words to tell us exactly when they feel pain or are having difficulty. But, as always, horses find a way to tell us what they need– we just have to listen. 

The list of signs that your horse needs a physical therapist is extensive and not by any means exhaustive. It’s a good idea to work with a Doctor of Physical Therapy on a regular basis in order to prevent injury and maintain your equine partner’s health. But if you’re not sure if you need to bring your horse to a physical therapy clinic or not, watch for these five signs to know for sure. 

Behavioral Changes

Has your previously beginner safe mount gone from pony-party friendly to fire-breathing dragon? Behavioral changes in your equine partner can be caused by a wide variety of things. Poor saddle fit, improper handling or riding, injury, and routine changes could all cause a wild swing in the behavior of your horse. If nothing has changed recently, it’s a good idea to call a Doctor of Physical Therapy to evaluate your horse. 

A physical therapist can look at your equine and evaluate any areas that are particularly tight or painful and prescribe exercises to alleviate your horse’s discomfort, and get them back on track to beginner-safe. For evaluations like these, your physical therapist will likely ask to work with a veterinarian in order to accurately diagnose if there is an injury, or if your horse just needs a different exercise routine. 

For example, asymmetrical tightness through your horse’s back can make previously easy movements quite difficult. Bucking, rearing, bolting, and freezing are all examples of behavior that could be your horse’s way of telling they’re having trouble completing an exercise. Taking your horse to a physical therapy clinic for a thorough evaluation sets them up for future success by finding the cause of dangerous behavior. 

Unexplained Lameness

Are you struggling with an unexplained lameness in your horse? Wouldn’t life be so much easier if your horse could just tell you where it hurts? Is your veterinarian unable to find a cause of the lameness?  Does your horse have a lameness that seems to rotate location from day to day, but you’ve been able to rule out Lyme Disease? Are you dealing with a lameness that only occurs when you ride, but not out in the pasture? A Doctor of Physical Therapy can evaluate how your biomechanics are impacting your horse and whether you could actually be the cause of your horse’s soreness. 

Improper movement patterns could also be unevenly wearing down your horse’s joints, leading to stiffness and, before too long, chronic lameness as well. An evaluation at a physical therapy clinic can help you prevent injuries before they occur by supporting your horse with healthy movement. 

Asymmetrical Posture/Carriage

When you look at your horse’s conformation, what do you see? Does he have an “upside down” topline with the muscles underneath his neck bulging, but little to no muscle up top? Does he have a thickly muscled shoulder but a small trailing hind end? Is his left shoulder more heavily muscled than his right?

Your horse’s conformation can tell you a lot about their physical fitness and health. If you start to notice asymmetrical muscling, then you know it’s time to call a Doctor of Physical Therapy. Asymmetrical muscling is a sure sign that either you are working to one direction too often, or that your horse is not moving in a healthy way. A physical therapist can show you how to stretch, massage, and perform the right exercises to rebalance your horse before an injury occurs. 

Asymmetrical Movement

Just like humans, many horses are right- or left-handed. While this is not a large issue in and of itself, it can become an issue if it starts to impact your riding performance. For example, if your horse can perform a haunches in quite easily to the right, but not to the left, then you’re struggling with stiffness throughout the right side of the body. 

Poor quality of movement to one direction versus the other can easily set back your riding career and prevent you from reaching your goals. A physical therapist can work with both you and your horse to regain equal function in both directions. If you wait too long before evening out your horse’s movement patterns, the tissues and ligaments that are compensating for the asymmetrical movement will start to show signs of strain and damage. This is because your horse is using inappropriate muscles to compensate for areas of weakness instead of using the appropriate biomechanics to complete a movement successfully. 

Change in Workload

When you move up in your riding career, how do you know your horse can handle the additional strain? Too often, most equestrians don’t know that their partner is struggling until an injury occurs. Trailering your horse to a physical therapy clinic after increasing your workload is an excellent way to get a deeper understanding of how your horse is handling the added expectations. 

A Doctor of Physical Therapy will be able to evaluate your horse for signs of strain. This can include asymmetrical muscling, poor gait quality, stiffness, and even hyperflexibility. In order to get the most out of an evaluation like this, it’s important to have a pre-existing relationship with your physical therapist so they understand what your horse was normally like prior to increasing the workload. 

At the end of the day, you don’t need a reason to visit a physical therapy clinic. Even if you feel that you and your horse are doing great, you can still get a lot out of a physical therapy evaluation. A Doctor of Physical Therapy can help you understand you and your horse’s biomechanics on a deeper level, as well as teach you new ways to build your horse’s health and fitness. 

Interested in visiting my physical therapy clinic at Shields’ Fields? Contact me for an appointment today. 

5 Signs You Need a Physical Therapist

When was the last time you had a massage, or saw your primary care doctor for a wellness exam? Now, when was the last time you saw a physical therapist? As equestrians, we take excellent care of our horses. Why don’t we do the same for ourselves? 

If one of these five signs sounds like you, it’s time to see a physical therapist. 


As equestrians, we have a tendency to provide for our horses first and ourselves second. I know that my horse has seen a dentist for the last three years consistently. Myself? I can’t remember the last time I went. 

It’s important that we acknowledge the need to take care of ourselves, as well as our horses. If your horse has a physical therapist, chiropractor, and masseuse, why don’t you? There are several ways to determine if it’s time to see a Doctor of Physical Therapy. Do one of these five reasons below apply to you?

You’re In Pain While Riding

There’s pain and then there’s pain.

To some degree, you can expect pain while you’re riding. However, this pain should be related to muscular exertion, not injury. To the unlucky equestrians who have experienced both types of pain, there is a clear difference. If you’ve been holding a two-point at the trot for longer than usual, you’ll start to “feel the burn” of lactic acid accumulation in muscles, accompanied by signs of fatigue. 

If you’re in pain as soon as you hit the saddle, you’re working with pain related to injury or incorrect patterns of movement. This second type of pain can feel acute or like an ache, but is unrelated to muscular fatigue or the length of time you’ve been performing an exercise. 

I firmly believe that every equestrian deserves the chance to ride without pain. Pain can significantly hold you back in your career and prevent you from forming a good relationship with your horse. Going to a physical therapist’s clinic for an evaluation is the first step to pain-free riding. There, you can be evaluated for patterns of movement or biomechanical weaknesses that could lead to pain in the saddle. A common prescription from a physical therapist is exercise. These prescribed exercises can help you strengthen musculo-skeletal weaknesses out of the saddle so you deal with less pain in the saddle. 

If you’ve ever experienced pain while riding, it’s the number one clue that you need to be evaluated by a Doctor of Physical Therapy. 

You’ve Hit a Plateau

Are you frustrated by your inability to progress? It is really irritating to try your heart out, work with your horse, and still watch all of your riding companions move up to riding First Level dressage tests or bombing around Novice cross country courses without you. 

There are many reasons for a plateau. These can include lameness issues with your horse, fear-related mental blocks, or simply not enough time spent in the saddle. But if you can’t answer yes to any of these obstacles, your biomechanics could be holding you back. 

As an equestrian, the single drop of a seat bone or twitch of a fatigued hand can mean the difference between success and last place in a dressage test. It’s important that we’re able to control our bodies down to the last muscle. If your musculoskeletal system isn’t working in harmony, it will be much more difficult for you to improve your riding. 

At this point, many equestrians turn to generic online rider exercise programs to improve their fitness. Unfortunately, these generic programs don’t work for everyone. Instead, consider going to a physical therapist’s clinic to be evaluated. There, you can discover exactly what’s keeping you from moving up the levels and achieving your goals. Be sure to work with a Doctor of Physical therapy that understands the intricacies of horseback riding. 

You Can’t Perform Your Trainer’s Commands

How many times has your trainer repeated the same command, with no success? Nothing is less satisfying than spending hundreds of dollars on lessons without being able to accomplish what your trainer asks you to do. Do you know how to activate your hip flexors to achieve perfect equitation at the posting trot? Or are you compensating by overarching your back and pinching with your knees instead? While most trainers do their absolute best by their students, some equestrians are held back by their own biomechanics. 

If you can’t activate your hip flexors out of the saddle, it will only be that much harder to “turn them on” when you’re riding. A Doctor of physical therapy can help you discover how to use those minute muscles you didn’t even know you had. Understanding where your musculoskeletal system is weak can help you use your body in ways you weren’t able to  before. Tired of hearing your trainer repeat themselves for the third time? Physical therapist-prescribed exercises will help you use the correct muscles to achieve what you’ve been striving to do. 

You’re Sore for Days After Riding

It’s normal to be sore for a little bit after a particularly tough ride. In and of itself, muscle soreness can actually be a good thing. It means that the muscle fibers are repairing themselves after a taxing workout and getting even stronger. But if days go by and your soreness hasn’t improved, it could be a sign that you’re over-using specific muscles in compensation for weak areas in your biomechanics. It’s important to correct this overuse of certain muscles before it leads to injury. 

Before working out when you’re already sore, it helps to evaluate your soreness on the pain scale. If you’re at a one or two out of ten, then it’s probably okay to continue with your exercise plan. If you’re getting above three or four, or pain gets worse while exercising, stop immediately. At this point, it’s time to be evaluated at a physical therapist’s clinic. A consultation with a Doctor of Physical Therapy will help you figure out what muscle you’re overusing and why. Exercises prescribed by a physical therapist can help you correct the source of the problem. 

Your Joints Crackle and Pop

As we get older, the more noises our joints make. In my personal experience, it seems that equestrians are afflicted with this at an earlier age than most. For most riders, knuckles that pop, ankles that crack, and a neck that occasionally makes a snapping noise is nothing to worry about. But, if your joints hurt when they make these noises, that’s another story altogether. 

Painful joints can be related to weak musculature, biomechanical weakness, or worse– an injury that requires treatment. Just as we provide our horses with a little maintenance when it comes to stiff joints, it’s important we do the same for ourselves. A physical therapist can help you explore all those noises and figure out if it’s nothing to worry about, or if you need to see a specialist to treat an injury. If you’re concerned about joint injuries, it’s important to support them with good muscle development and correct movement patterns. A physical therapist can prevent joint injury by correcting biomechanical weakness before a problem arises. 

Trying to find a physical therapist clinic near you? Check out our new Physio Equine Solutions Clinic at Shields’ Fields. We are open for new clients during COVID-19 and are following all CDC guidelines to keep you (and me!) safe. 

I Don’t Give a Squat

Squats are a very popular exercise in generic online exercise programs. But how do you know if you’re doing them right? Common mistakes equestrians make when squatting can greatly increase the risks of injury, while also preventing you from getting the most out of your workout. A licensed physical therapist can help you reap all the benefits of squats and prevent you from making several common mistakes. 

Benefits of Squats

Squats are a great core and leg workout. Yes, you read that right. Core muscles are worked when squatting properly. A squat (when done well) specifically  targets your buttocks, quadriceps, hamstrings, adductor, hip flexors, and calves for your lower body. In your upper body, you may be surprised to learn that a squat also targets your rectus abdominis, obliques, transverse abdominis, and erector spinae. These abdominal muscles support your back and allow you to balance easily. 

If you’ve read some of my other blogs, these muscles may sound familiar to you. As an equestrian, we rely heavily on our hip flexors, hip extensors, and abdominals to help us sit securely in the saddle and drape our legs gracefully around our horse’s sides. Squats are one of the number one workouts to strengthen these key muscles and improve your riding performance. 

A significant injury can set your riding back months and ruin a good show season. One way to reduce injury risk is to incorporate squats into your exercise routine. Squatting strengthens connective tissue like ligaments and tendons, which will help you stay injury-free. 

A squat isn’t just an exercise. It’s also a key movement pattern that’s used in a Functional Movement Screen. Because a squat engages almost your entire body, it’s greatly impacted by anatomical differences in your biomechanics. A licensed physical therapist can see imbalances, uneven muscling, stiffness, and hyperflexibility all by watching you squat. 

Three Big Mistakes

Most people make at least one of these three big mistakes when adding squats to their workout routine. Unfortunately, these mistakes increase your risk of injury and significantly decrease the benefits you’ll get from squatting. 

Mistake #1: Watch the Knees!

A common mistake when squatting is to allow your knees to protrude past your toes. This is actually very dangerous as you can do serious damage to your knees. When your knees go past your toes (knee overhang), it places more strain on your joints and stresses your quadriceps while underworking your glutes. Tight hips can be one of the biggest reasons why your knees hang over your toes instead of your hips pushing backwards. If you have knee overhang when you squat, you may also be struggling with pushing your hips back in the air over fences. 

When squatting, a licensed physical therapist will watch to see if you rotate your knees in or out and if one does it more than the other. Knee rotation is often a sign of weak quadriceps and can lead to back injuries when combined with tight hips. To avoid knee rotation, think of your body as a stack of boxes. In each box is a main joint. You want to keep your hips stacked over your heels and knees stacked over your ankles. These angles will keep your body in alignment and avoid chances of injury. 

Mistake #2: The Right Depth for You

You might believe that the lower the squat, the better the workout. While this is partially true, everything must be done in moderation. Squatting too deeply places a lot of stress on your knee joints. Going too deep also means that your gluteal muscles can’t push as well when you stand back up, putting even more strain on your back. This can lead to knee and quad injuries, as well as back pain. 

On the other hand, too shallow of a squat reduces your workout. While shallow squats usually don’t lead to injuries, you won’t be able to build the type of strength you’re looking for. If you’re starting from a place of poor fitness, previous knee injuries, or back pain, it’s a good idea to work with a licensed physical therapist and start shallow. Squat until you feel your core engage and there’s some strain on your quadriceps and gluteal muscles. Don’t try to compete in terms of depth with others nearby. 

Mistake #3: Posture, Posture, Posture

As equestrians, we’ve all heard critiques of our posture at some point in our riding career. Chin up! Heels down! Back straight! Elbows by your side! At times, we may even feel as though we’re contorting ourselves into a pretzel. Posture matters just as much when you’re squatting as it does when you’re riding. 

If you look up and arch your back while squatting, you greatly increase stress on the disks of your spine, possibly leading to spinal injuries. However, leaning forward can be just as damaging. When you lean forward, you increase the weight and strain on your knee joints, thereby increasing the possibility of knee injury. 

The best solution to developing good posture for squats is to work with a licensed physical therapist. A licensed physical therapist can watch you squat, and help you understand where and what to bend. However, if you don’t have a physical therapist to help, try keeping your hands cupped in front of you, as though you were holding a bowl of soup. This mental imagery prevents you from leaning too far forward or arching your back. Remember, maintaining a neutral spine is the key to a correct squat. 

Reap the Benefits of Squats

Working with a Doctor of Physical Therapy decreases your risk of injury while squatting and ensures that you will maintain the correct depth and posture to get the most out of your squats.  Dr. Shields can help you translate the strength you build while squatting to your equitation and success in the saddle. Take advantage of the Physio Equine Solutions Clinic at Shields’ Fields today. 

Click here to sign up for your full rider assessment. 

How Cardio Fitness Impacts Riding

Do you have enough cardio fitness to canter through a Dressage test? Cardiovascular training can have a big impact on your riding performance. Click here to find out the ins and outs of what it is, how to build it, and how a Doctor of Physical Therapy can help. 


What is Cardiovascular Fitness?

Cardiovascular fitness refers to your body’s ability to take in and use oxygen while exercising. It’s also referred to as aerobic fitness. Typically, when working on building cardio fitness, the average human uses 70 percent of their maximum heart rate. So, if your maximum heart rate is 220 beats per minute, a cardio workout would place your heart rate at around 155 bpm. 

Cardio is intricately linked to the overall health of your body. As your cardio fitness improves, your heart becomes leaner and the muscles that help you breathe, such as the diaphragm, become stronger and more efficient. Cardio helps you go from couch potato to lean mean fighting machine. Weight lifting may help you bulk up, but it won’t reduce blood pressure, minimize stroke risk, or increase oxygen intake in the same way that cardiovascular fitness will. 

Cardio fitness is one of the pillar stones for your health and has a huge impact on your ability to be a good partner to your horse. The better your cardio fitness, the more efficiently you’re able to move oxygen to your muscles and the more stamina and finesse you’ll have in the saddle. After all, it’s difficult to remain balanced, focused, and strong when your lungs feel like a fish out of water. 

When Do We Rely on Cardio Fitness?

Different equine activities will require varying levels of cardio health, as well as general fitness. A walking trail ride on a calm horse will require minimal exertion, in regards to both your muscular and cardiovascular systems. However, a round at the Kentucky Three Day event on a fiery thoroughbred is an altogether different story. 

In the average training session for a mid-level horse and rider, a moderate degree of cardio fitness is required. A good way to think of it is in terms of speaking while breathing. When walking along on a trail ride with a group of friends, it is very easy to carry on a casual conversation with no change in your breathing. But say you pick up the trot. Now you’ve been trotting for a good 5 to 10 minutes. Is it as easy to carry on a conversation? Or do you have to take breaks to breathe? How about at the canter? Are you discussing topics as calmly?

Could you image high-level eventers casually chatting as they pelt around a 5* course? I certainly can’t. At least, not without a fair amount of gasping involved. 

A horse can feel a single fly landing on their back, well before it bites. Such a sensitive animal relies on the steady breath of their partner to help regulate speed and maintain a calm, focused disposition. Cardio fitness offers one more tool to communicate with your horse– breath. Instead of gasping in the saddle, and struggling to focus on everything else as well as breathing, cardio fitness means you can maintain steady deep breathing to help you and your partner focus. 

Building Cardio for the Equestrian

While horseback riding relies on cardio fitness, it does not help to build cardio as quickly as an activity such as running. As necessary as they are, very few people actually enjoy cardio workouts. Pounding pavement on a hot summer day isn’t my idea of fun either. Luckily, there are more ways to build cardiovascular fitness besides just running. 

Other common cardio exercises include swimming, cycling, and hiking. If none of those sound like an activity you would enjoy, think outside the box. High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) workouts can be good cardio, depending on what exercises you do in between intervals. You can also try throwing it back to gym class and spend some time on the jump rope. 

Whatever exercise you choose, be sure to start slow and always stretch before exercising. Your goal should be to maintain a higher heart rate. Roughly 70 percent of your maximum beats per minute. Different factors will impact your heart rate, including age, health, weight, medication, air temperature, and emotional state. A hot humid day will spike your heart rate much higher than on a cool winter day. As a general rule of thumb, most people aim to keep their heart rate between 100 and 160 beats per minute when doing a cardio workout. 

How a Physical Therapy Professional Can Help

Before embarking on cardio training, it’s important to be evaluated by a Doctor of Physical Therapy. A physical therapy professional can evaluate your strengths and weaknesses and advise you on the best way to build cardio fitness for your biomechanics. For example, someone with a knee that is prone to hyperextension probably shouldn’t take up running. The added concussion could blow out the joint. But swimming is just as good a way to build cardio without the added concussion on your joints. 

Outpatient physical therapy can help you train your cardiovascular fitness over time. Working with a physical therapy professional allows you to build your cardio in a safe and effective way. It’s important to have balanced fitness. The right ratio of muscle power to cardio fitness will help you and your equine partner reach your riding goals. Work with a physical therapy professional today to take your riding performance to the next level. 

Write me a note here. Let’s get started. 

Unlock the Mystery of Your Hips: How Hip Muscles Impact your Ride

Do you struggle with lateral movements on the horse? Back pain or cramping hips? Your hip muscles could be to blame. Click to find out how an equestrian sport physical therapist can help you unlock the mystery of your hips and take your riding to the next level. 


Are you struggling with back pain? Aching knees? Equitation at the posting trot? Lateral movements? Surprisingly, improperly working hip and pelvic muscles could be to blame for these issues. 

Many athletes believe that they have a back or knee problem, when really the culprit is over compensating hip flexors and deactivated hip extensors. Sports physical therapy for equestrians can help you figure out if hip muscles are inhibiting your riding performance. 

What is a Hip Flexor?

Hip flexors are made up of a group of muscles at the front of the hip and thigh. These muscles bring your trunk and lower body closer together as well as stabilize the lumbar spine, such as sitting the trot. 

What are Hip Extensors?

The hip extensors are made up of a group of muscles at the back of the hip and thigh. These muscles are used to move the body upward and forward from a position of hip flexion, such as a rising trot. 

How Equestrians Use Hip Muscles 

As equestrians, we must be able to loosely drape our legs across our horse’s sides. We rely on our hips to create a relaxed leg and fluid seat. If our hips are too tight, this becomes nearly impossible. An independent, soft, fluid seat is one of the most sought after attributes of an exceptional horseback rider. A rigid seat can create back pain in your horse, inhibit movement, and limit performance. 

Hip flexors allow the hunter/jumper equestrian to gracefully fold into the two-point over the jump and then straighten on the other side. The process of going over a jump requires the hip flexors to straighten– fold– straighten, while also engaging the core to support your horse without relying on your hands. Tight hip flexors cause problems in the air and on either side of the fence, such as leaning forward and a lack of timely movement.

No matter the discipline, the posting trot requires hip flexors to be able to rapidly expand and contract in time with the horse’s movements. An exaggerated posting trot is essentially a squat– stand– squat motion. The body relies on the hip flexors to be able to complete each of these movements easily. 

Strong and mobile hip flexors are crucial to maintain control of the horse, move with your equine partner, and have correct equitation. Athlete physical therapy can help you develop your hip flexors. 

Causes of Hip Flexor Issues

You can strain or tear a hip flexor when performing a sudden fast movement. This could be anything from kicking a soccer ball to pushing yourself too hard while doing high knees to falling off your horse. Unfortunately, hip flexors strains and tears can be quite painful and require significant rest. 

A more common issue with hip flexors is tightness. The sedentary office lifestyle that most people lead directly contributes to hip flexor tightness. According to Time Magazine, one in four American adults sits for more than 8 hours a day. During these 8 hours, your hip flexors are locked in one short position. If they go unstretched, the muscles can impact the position of the pelvis, leading to back pain and a lack of flexibility. 

Symptoms of Tight Hip Flexors

If you have tight hip flexors, you may notice significant lower back pain, particularly after sitting for some time. Tight and unhealthy hip flexors can cramp when stretched, particularly when lying down overnight, as the muscle has to extend, when it is used to being contracted. Over time, tightness in the hip flexors can become a strain or tear, leading to potentially extensive rehabilitation.

As one of the largest joints, tight and immobile hips create a chain reaction that spreads throughout our body. A wide variety of symptoms could be related to an issue in the hip joint. For example, don’t discount tight hip flexors even if you’re struggling with something like neck pain. 

How to Unlock Your Hip Flexors

Unfortunately, many trainers and coaches believe that the solution to tight hip flexors is added mobility. This is not always true. Stability exercises can reposition your pelvis and lead to almost immediate relief of symptoms of tight hip flexors. Instead of focusing on just mobility, it’s important to combine mobility with stability. 

To unlock your hip flexors, focus on stretching, while engaging the core muscles to stabilize the pelvis. Stretches may include the butterfly stretch, kneeling lunge, and variations on the squat. While you can find these stretches online, keep in mind that anything you perform without an athlete physical therapy evaluation is generic and may not address your problem. If at any point in time, you feel pain while performing a stretch not prescribed by a Doctor of Physical Therapy, stop immediately and head to your local physical therapist’s office.

How a Physical Therapist Can Help

When your hips are tight, it causes a chain reaction within the body. You may notice aching in your knees, back pain, and difficulty doing everyday motions which you once performed with ease. Head to your physical therapist’s office to find the source of your pain. 

If it is tight hip flexors, or even a hip flexor strain, Dr. Emily can provide you with prescribed exercises and a full rider assessment to get you back on your horse faster. Unlock your hips– contact Dr. Shields today. 

Equine Welfare and Heat Precautions

What can you do with your horse when it’s too hot to ride? Good news: you can still work on your physical therapy exercises! Here’s how to keep improving your performance, without raising you or your horse’s heart rate. 

There’s no shame in taking a day off. But you should be ashamed of failing to listen to your horse and overheating your partner. Here’s how to tell when it’s too hot to ride and what you can do instead. 

#equinephysicaltherapy #equestrianpt #listentoyourhorse


How Hot is Too Hot?

There are three important factors to pay attention to when deciding whether it’s too hot to ride: humidity, temperature, and where you’re located. 90 degrees in Maine is very different from 90 degrees in Maryland. 90 degrees is your average summer day in Maryland. But for Mainers, 90 degrees is very very hot. Remember, that your horse needs time to adjust to various weather conditions as well. An extremely hot day for your area is not the best time to ride, regardless of what the weather is typically like in other areas of the nation. 

Additional humidity prevents your horse from cooling down as efficiently. Sweating helps to cool the body by evaporating off the skin and taking body heat with it. Humidity slows down the evaporation process, hindering the body’s natural cooling system. 

Last but definitely not least, is the temperature. While temperature is the main factor in deciding whether or not to ride, it is compounded upon by humidity and location. For example, 85 degrees and 50 percent humidity in Maryland is an average day and not too hot to ride. 95 degrees and 50 percent humidity in Maryland is much too hot. Meanwhile in Maine, 85 degrees and 50 percent humidity is definitely getting up there and probably too hot to ride. 

A good rule of thumb is to add the temperature and humidity together. If those two numbers add up to 130 or above, be cautious and consider changing your riding routine. For example, 95 + 50 = 145, definitely too hot to ride. On the other hand, 85 degrees  +50 percent humidity is only 135.  You could still ride, but should consider riding in the early morning or evening. 

Listen to Your Horse

Whether it’s too hot to ride depends greatly on your horse. Hot-blooded horses such as Arabians or Thoroughbreds are generally much more heat-hardy than their cold-blooded cousin, the Belgian. 

Physical condition also plays a large role. An overweight or out-of-shape horse is going to have a much harder time coping in the heat than one that is in peak condition. If you head to the barn to ride but find your horse sweating in his stall, even with a fan, then it’s too hot to ride. Don’t let yourself be pressured into riding your draft cross just because Suzie Q with her highly-fit ex-racehorse has been practicing her dressage test for the last half hour. 

There’s no shame in taking a day off. But you should be ashamed of failing to listen to your horse and overheating your partner. Don’t worry– taking a day off from moderate to intense riding doesn’t mean you should turn around and go home. Keep reading to find out what you can do when it’s too hot to ride. 

Ridden Exercises

Did you think heat was going to mean you could get away without doing your physical therapy exercises? Think again! Most physical therapy exercises can be done at the halt or walk. If it’s too hot to work on your horse’s physical therapy, work on your own instead. 

If you need to work on finding balance in the saddle, try riding your horse at the walk and working on your “frog legs.” This exercise entails lifting both knees up above the saddle and relaxing them back down. Start with just one leg at a time to get used to the motion. This simple low-intensity exercise helps to center you in the saddle and rock you back on your seat bones.

Try adding a partner into your routine to see how independent your seat is. With your horse at the halt, have one person stand by the horse’s head and hold onto your reins, taking all pressure off of the horse’s mouth. Sitting in the saddle, hold your reins as you would normally and focus on sinking deep into your seat and heels. Your partner on the ground will start to pull on the reins as a horse might. See if you can keep your balance in the saddle without relying on your reins. To increase intensity, have your partner create a bit of a “rodeo,” still being careful not to disturb the horse.

Carrot Stretches

Carrot stretches are a great physical therapy exercise to increase your horse’s condition and flexibility without getting their heart rate up. All your equestrian facility needs is an open space, like an arena or stall. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, you could even do these exercises in your horse’s paddock. While you can use any treat, carrots are particularly good for this physical therapy exercise, as the additional length protects your fingers from any misguided teeth. 

Standing at your horse’s rib cage, hold the treat close to your horse’s muzzle and encourage them to stretch their neck back around to their rib cage. Make sure that their ears are mostly even, without a significant diagonal tilt. This stretch encourages them to expand the rib cage on the opposite side. Only hold this position for a few seconds before relaxing. 

You can also use this same technique to encourage your horse to stretch down to the ground. Hold the carrot between their forelegs and allow them to nibble at the end while stretching through their back and down to the ground. Next, stretch towards the sky by guiding them with the carrot up high, as though they were stretching for an apple hanging from a tree. 

Each of these exercises encourages your horse to develop strength and flexibility through their back, core, and rib cage. Let your horse enjoy some yummy treats in the shade, while you sneak some physical therapy exercises into your routine. 

Ground Work

Ground work can be difficult to complete on hot days. Evaluate what you can and can’t do on the ground based on the heat. While the horse doesn’t have to carry the extra weight of a rider, it is still not a good idea to work up their heart rate with endless laps at the canter on a hot day. Instead, focus on what you can do in the shade and at the walk and trot. 

Can you ask your horse to yield their hind end? How about the front end? Many physical therapy exercises can be completed on the ground as well. Don’t underestimate the power of teaching your horse better movement patterns from the ground. You’d be surprised at how well they translate to under saddle!

Talk to Your Physical Therapist

Many Doctors of Physical Therapy can adapt prescribed exercises to be done from the ground. If you’d like to keep working on your performance without increasing heart rate, ask your doctor to adapt the exercises given to you so you can complete them on the ground. 

A physical therapy evaluation can guide your riding routine. Talk to Dr. Shields today to find out what exercises you can work on to improve the riding performance of both you and your horse. 

Equestrians & The Mobility-Stability Continuum

Are you struggling with hypermobility or stiffness? When your joints aren’t able to support you, your performance can drop significantly and you and your horse suffer as a result. Read this blog to find out where your joints fall on the mobility-stability continuum and how a Doctor of Physical Therapy can help. 

#equestrian #physicaltherapyforequestrians #equineperformance


As equestrians, we use every muscle and joint in our body every time we ride. When your joints aren’t able to support you, your performance can drop significantly and you and your horse suffer as a result. 

Each of the joints in the human body fall somewhere along the mobility-stability continuum. This range of motion defines whether or not a particular joint is supposed to produce or resist motion. When a joint is too stable or mobile, we run the risk of injuries and poor performance. A licensed physical therapist can evaluate your biomechanics and help prevent injuries related to joint stiffness or hypermobility.

Mobility and Stability Defined

Here’s a simple way to think of mobility and stability in joints: mobile joints produce desired movements; stable joints resist undesired movements.

Stable joints are able to resist movement via a combination of joint architecture, ligaments, and the joint capsule, as well as active modes of resistance which include muscle strength and motor control. Mobile joints produce movement via joint architecture, the pull of ligaments and tendons, muscle strength, and the neural impulses that activate surrounding muscles.

Each individual joint falls somewhere on the continuum between more stable and more mobile. For example, hips are extremely mobile joints, despite their capacity as a weight-bearing structure. These joints move on three planes: sagittal, coronal and transverse planes (forward/backward, up/down, rotational). The hip joint involves the femur and the pelvis. The round ball-like head of the femur sits in a socket in the pelvis. This “ball-and-socket” structure allows for mobility, while still providing a stable weight-bearing structure. 

Moving outward from the hips, the joints of the human body alternate between mobile and stable joints, creating the mobility-stability continuum

A Joint-by-Joint Approach

Doctors of Physical Therapy use the mobility-stability continuum to evaluate the human body in a joint-by-joint approach. Each joint has a goal: to produce a specific movement. This can be done by either resisting forces (stability) or producing forces (mobility). Both mobile and stable joints work together to create harmonious movement.

Every mobile joint is surrounded by stable joints and vice versa, in an alternating pattern. For example, the foot needs stability, while the ankle needs mobility, the knee needs stability, and the hip requires mobility. But don’t be fooled by this oversimplification: each joint falls somewhere on a range of motion. Not all joints that require mobility need the same range of motion. The shoulders are more mobile than the hips, while the knee is much more stable than the hips. 

This alternating pattern can become unbalanced when a joint is injured or compromised and the body must compensate, by forcing a stable joint to become more mobile and vice versa. 

Compensation & Mobility vs Stability

When a joint is compromised in some way, the body must compensate in order to continue functioning. If this compensation goes on for too long, the body’s muscle memory learns an incorrect movement pattern that will lead to further injury, pain, and poor performance. A licensed physical therapist can help you figure out where you’re compensating and re-teach your body correct movement patterns.

The mobility-stability continuum becomes extremely out of balance when the body overcompensates. What can happen is that joints that were supposed to provide stability start to become more mobile and vice versa. 

So if you injure your foot (a stable joint), your ankle may compensate by increasing in stability and bracing. Unfortunately, your ankle joint is closer to the mobility side of the continuum and is not very good at stabilizing. Overtime, you become prone to injury in the compensating joint and develop pain. 

How a DPT Evaluates Mobility & Stability

A Doctor of Physical Therapy can evaluate where your joints fall on the continuum in several different ways. One of these includes a hands-on passive evaluation of each joint. In this case, the patient would lie relaxed and allow a licensed physical therapist to mobilize the joint in question.

Another way to evaluate joint stability vs mobility includes looking at the patient’s functional movements and assessing whether or not they are moving correctly. Incorrect movement patterns are a clue as to compensatory joint patterns.

Once evaluation is complete, a Doctor of Physical Therapy can prescribe exercises and stretches to increase stability or mobility in a joint and correct poor movement patterns. 

How the Continuum Impacts Equestrians

Equestrians must have complete control over the stability and mobility of their joints in the saddle. In the space of just a few seconds, we must be capable of increasing our stability or soften with more mobility in the joints, particularly the hips.

For example, in order to guide a dressage horse into a leg yield, we must rely on a stable knee to support the calf and allow the mobile ankle to push the horse onto the diagonal. On the other hand, the highly sought after independent seat is created through optimal mobility of the hips, and allows us to move fluidly with the horse’s motion. 

If you’re having performance issues with your horse, it could be due to compensatory movement patterns related to the mobility-stability continuum. Contact Dr. Shields’ today to find out how a licensed physical therapist can help you take your performance to the next level. 

Announcing the Physio Equine Solutions Physical Therapy Clinic

Announcing the Physio Equine Solutions Physical Therapy Clinic! Now, Dr. Shields can have physical therapy sessions with either (or both!) horse and rider at Shields’ Fields Farm in Woodbine, MD. Click to read more about all of the benefits. 


After a long spring of COVID craziness, I’m so excited to announce that the Physio Equine Solutions physical therapy clinic will be opening this August! Previously, PES at Shields’ Fields Farm was only able to offer in-patient physical therapy services for horses. Now, horses and their riders can come to PES at Shields’ Fields Farm to get the treatment they need. Riders can come into my new clinic for manual therapy, strength and flexibility training,  as well as one on one Rider Assessments with your horse. This new center of physical therapy will significantly add to what I can offer my clients. 

At the clinic, you can expect my undivided attention and a relaxed, low-key environment. Shields’ Fields Farm is not a high-traffic lesson and boarding barn, but instead is a rehabilitation barn for in-patient physical therapy cases. There are no lessons going on or boarders asking for attention. You can expect to have the riding ring to yourself during your session. The PES clinic for equestrians is located just up the hill from the barn. As a completely separate room, you’ll have complete privacy during your session. 

What Are The Benefits?

Since I started Physio Equine Solutions, I have prided myself on my ability to meet you and your horse where you are. I’ve been privileged enough to have traveled across Maryland helping horses and their riders reach their performance goals. Unfortunately, that has also meant that all of my physical therapy equipment has had to be mobile. Now, with a permanent clinic, I’m able to offer easy access to all physical therapy equipment and laser therapy services to both horse and rider. 

 When traveling to various other barns, I’ve been able to conduct physical therapy sessions in tack rooms, barn aisles, and in riding arenas. While this does work well, some riders may prefer added privacy. As a separate area located away from the barn, the PES clinic offers the privacy that you need for your physical therapy session.

One of the biggest benefits of the PES clinic is its ability to provide a focused and uninterrupted amount of time just for you and your goals. No longer will we have to pause in reviewing your horse due to lessons going on in your barn arena. At the PES clinic, you and your horse will have the undivided attention, privacy, and focus that you deserve and often need to get to the bottom of your performance issues. 

What Does This Mean For Current Clients?

For my current clients who may not have a means of trailering their horse to the physical therapy center, I’m still more than happy to meet you at the show grounds or at your barn. I will still offer physical therapy services wherever you need them. But, the PES clinic at Shields’ Fields Farm is an additional service available for clients who may desire a more focused environment. Current clients now have the option to come to me, or I can come to you. 

I am also able to customize offerings. For example, a client without a trailer may prefer to have their horse evaluated at their barn, but would like to come to the PES clinic for their own physical therapy session. No matter what you prefer, the PES clinic at Shields’ Fields Farm allows me to offer it to you. 

What About COVID?

The novel coronavirus has greatly changed the way medical offices operate and the PES clinic will be no different. These changes are not going away any time soon, at the very least not until a vaccine is available to the broad population. At the PES clinic, we will be following all CDC guidelines on how to stop the spread of the virus. 

We ask that any parents, guardians, or traveling companions wait outside the clinic during the session. Masks will be worn during each session by all parties. While I will do my best to maintain a 6 foot distance, this is not always feasible due to particular stretching techniques, and the need for hands-on evaluation in some circumstances. 

For my clients who may be immunocompromised or feel uncomfortable, I can also offer physical therapy via telemedicine. A telemedicine session requires a good internet connection and a laptop or desktop with a camera and microphone. I’ve had great success using these methods to help those who may be uncomfortable with in-person sessions. 

I do ask that any client who has been to a high-risk area or who has been in contact with someone with a fever, cough, or any illness refrain from visiting the clinic for two weeks afterwards. 

How Do I Schedule an Appointment?

There are several different ways to schedule an appointment. You can reach me by phone at 443-883-0724 or, if you prefer, you can email me at emily.c.shieldspt@gmail.com.  You can also contact me via my website by clicking “Let’s Talk.” You can even schedule an appointment or consultation directly on my calendar via the contact us page or at: https://physioequine.kartra.com/calendar/freeconsult/pD4p

Space is limited, so reach out as soon as possible to get your physical therapy session scheduled at Shields’ Fields. 

How Muscle Activation Impacts Your Riding

Riding uses minute muscle movements that require exact timing and skill. Learning how to activate the muscles and anatomy slings that make up your musculoskeletal system is crucial to succeeding in the show ring. Click to find out the whole truth about muscle activation. 

#physicaltherapy #equestrian #equine 


Have you ever heard the phrase “turn on” a muscle? Or has your trainer had in-depth conversations with you regarding turning on a muscle you’ve never heard of or even felt? There’s a reason why after some riding lessons you’re sore in muscles you didn’t even know existed! Activating the correct muscles, no matter how small, can be difficult and greatly transform your riding performance. 

Exceptional equestrians use minute muscle movements that require exact timing and skill. But no muscle ever acts on its own. Synchrony and the timing of your muscles working as groups significantly impacts your ability to develop an independent seat and move with your horse. In order to achieve the next level of performance, it’s important you understand how muscle activation works.

What is Muscle Activation?

At the most basic, muscle activation is the process of contracting or shortening a specific muscle, before relaxing it again. Muscles activate according to the timing and strength of neural impulses firing from your brain. However, in the human (and equine!) body, nothing ever acts in isolation. 

When a muscle activates, it creates force and movement in muscles far away from the active muscle. Like a set of dominos, contracting one muscle impacts every muscle around it in a chain reaction. For example, a simple everyday motion such as walking involves every muscle from your glutes down to your tibialis posterior, located in the arch of your foot.

With every stride you take, muscles throughout your body contract and relax in a complex symphony of movement that takes the average person an entire year of life to learn. 

Neural Impulses and Muscle Activation

The generally accepted dichotomy of turning a muscle “on” or “off” is misleading. Instead of a simple light switch, your body operates more similarly to a dimmer switch. Neural impulses can activate muscles and muscle groups throughout your body at differing strengths. The weakest neural impulse causes a muscle to barely twitch, while a strong impulse activates a muscle at full strength. If muscles were only able to be “turned on” at full strength, we’d move in jerky harsh patterns, like a marionette– not very good for a professional equestrian riding a sensitive animal like the horse.

Neurons can be incited to fire and activate various muscles by mild electric pulses, as well as by the human will (to put it somewhat dramatically). When riding, these neural impulses are responsible for activating both the large muscle groups, such as the pelvic sling in the two-point, as well as the minute muscles needed to half-halt or tilt a seat bone.  

Anatomy Slings

Here’s where things get complicated. Anatomy slings are groups made of muscle, fascia, and ligaments all working together to stabilize and move the body. The force of a muscle contraction is distributed throughout the sling, in what is called “force vectors.” If balanced, these vectors align the bones and joints through dynamic movement.

Let’s look at anatomy slings from a different perspective. Imagine you are playing tug of war. The flag is perfectly in the center with a partner who is equally matched in power/strength as you. When you start pulling, the two of you pull at the exact time with the same power so the flag stays in the middle. But, if the two of you are out of sync, meaning that someone pulls first or if your partner overpowers you, they can easily take the advantage to pull the flag to their side.

In this simple visualisation, the rope is an anatomy sling (muscle, fascia, and ligaments) with the timing and power of the pull as the neural impulse. You and your partner are the anatomical structures moving away from each other and causing the force vectors. 

Let’s put that in equestrian terms of inside leg and outside rein. The posterior oblique (PO) sling is what keeps your sacroiliac joint and lumbar spine stabilized. The PO sling is made up of the diagonal latissimus dorsi, gluteus maximus, and the thoracolumbar fascia connecting them. In this tug of war match you are the inside leg and your partner is the outside rein. You and your partner have to act with equal power to maintain balance in the saddle. Meaning, if the inside leg muscles are “turned on” more than the muscles that support the outside rein, the rider’s trunk may curve to the outside of the circle to overcome the power of the leg. The opposite may occur too, when the outside trunk and arm muscles are “turned on” more than the inside leg causing the rider’s trunk to curve to the inside of the circle.

An easy way to help train the PO sling is by using an exercise band. You will stand with one end of the band under one leg and the other end in the opposite hand. Now simultaneously pick up the foot without the band and raise the hand holding the band up out to a 45 degree angle. The foot stabilizing the band on the ground should be pushing with the same power down and to a 45 degree angle as the arm. The goal is to activate the diagonal arm and leg muscles in a slow, coordinated pattern with equal power. This can be a strengthening exercise, however in this case it is working on conscious neural patterning to be more body aware. This helps with your riding synchrony and obtaining the inside leg outside rein connection with your horse. 

When riding, exceptional equestrians rely on these anatomical slings to allow you to move in perfect harmony with your horse. If the force vectors become out of balance, they can pull your musculoskeletal structure out of alignment and cause you to move in contradiction to your horse’s movement.

How Physical Therapy Helps

A weakness in any of your body’s anatomy slings creates poor performance, a lack of strength, and can even lead to pain or injury. Physical therapy can help you learn how to activate these muscle groups appropriately and in balance. Keep in mind that the longer you wait to start treatment, the more your muscles will have learned to repeat unbalanced movement patterns.

Physical therapy retrains your muscles to fire appropriately. Prescribed exercises create balance in anatomy slings and various muscle groups to allow for increased performance.

Timing is Everything

Our sport is based on appearing as though we “do nothing.” Hence the common complaint that equestrians “just sit there.” This is anything but true. The reality is that activating the right muscles at the right time with the right level of strength is everything in the saddle.

It takes a huge amount of strength, control, and harmony in order to move so smoothly with our equine partners that we appear to do nothing. Appropriate muscle activation is key to succeeding as a professional equestrian. If you feel as though you can’t figure out which muscle to activate or as though you’re stuck in a performance rut, start your physical therapy journey. Reach your goals. 

Contact Dr. Shields today.

Do You Need to See a Chiropractor or a Physical Therapist?


One day you’re riding along when you start to feel pain in your ankles. It grows worse over every following ride, until eventually you’re in serious pain when you ride. How do you fix the problem? Where do you start?

Most equestrians typically get two different pieces of advice– see a physical therapist, or see a chiropractor. Each profession has its benefits and its drawbacks. Keep reading to find out which one is right for you. 

Training for Physical Therapists vs. Chiropractors

The training for physical therapists is quite different from that for chiropractors. Physical therapists require a doctorate degree now, although previously only a master’s degree was required. Because of this (relatively) recent change, take their degree and years of experience into account before working with a physical therapist. 

Chiropractors also need a Doctor of Chiropractic degree, which takes four years to complete. Unfortunately, some of these D.C. programs don’t even require a bachelor’s degree in order to enter, just 90 hours of coursework in a sciences or anatomy-related program. 

Doctor’s of Physical Therapy must have a bachelor’s degree in order to enter a Doctorate program. Plus, after graduating from the Doctor of Physical Therapy program, the best physical therapists participate in a residency. All physical therapists must take the National Physical Therapy Examination, or similar state-level exam in order to obtain their license. Additionally, there are specialized certification programs available as well. 

Philosophy for Treatment

If physical therapy is a marathon, chiropractic work is a sprint. You may feel pain relief sooner with a chiropractor, but with physical therapy once you’ve completed your marathon you’re done and able to enjoy long-term results. With chiropractic work, you must continue going to the chiropractor indefinitely in order to maintain a pain-free riding career. 

Chiropractors realign the musculoskeletal system, but as long as you keep repeating incorrect movement patterns you’ll keep pushing your alignment out of whack. If you choose to work with a chiropractor, you can expect to require treatment between once a week to once a month indefinitely. 

Physical therapists teach you how to change your movement patterns to maintain alignment so you eventually won’t need to attend sessions anymore. With chiropractors, you may feel relief in the first few days. Physical therapy is a longer, slower process but once complete lasts as long as you use appropriate movement patterns.

Problems Treated

Chiropractors focus on issues relating to the spine and nervous system. They commonly treat back and neck pain, and focus on manipulating various muscles in order to allow for appropriate blood flow and alignment.

Physical therapists work on a larger scale and treat more areas of the body. A Doctor of physical therapy will treat limb issues, as well as spinal pain, and focus on preventing issues as well. Working with a physical therapist will set you up for healthy movement for life, as they catch red flags before they start causing problems. 

The best physical therapists can do post-surgical rehabilitation as well, which is not commonly seen in chiropractors. After a surgery, restoring movement to the injured area is crucial. A physical therapist can help you get there faster. 

All in all, physical therapists take a big picture comprehensive view of the body, versus the more narrow perspective of chiropractors. 

Techniques Used

A Doctor of Physical Therapy combines massage, manual therapy utilizing spinal and limb mobilizations, laser therapy, and prescribed exercise to retrain your muscle memory to move appropriately and correct itself over time. Chiropractors use mainly physical manipulation of the body and often don’t expand to differing techniques or at-home exercises. 

During treatment, you can expect your physical therapist to evaluate you and your horse’s movement during activity, whereas most chiropractors will evaluate you at rest. With a physical therapist, you can expect some homework in the form of at-home exercises, self mobilizations, along with ice and heat therapy if needed . This is part of the big picture view the best physical therapists take and helps with the goal of long-term sustainable recovery. 

Risks of Seeing a DPT and a Chiropractor

As with all medical treatments, there are some inherent risks to seeing a chiropractor or Doctor of Physical Therapy. Unfortunately, more risk is attached to chiropractic work than physical therapy. A chiropractor can be useful in physically realigning the body to make movement easier, however if you are looking to find the root cause of the malalignment the physical therapist is the way to go.

Physical therapists are movement experts who follow the “slow and steady” philosophy. They allow the body to adjust to new movement patterns and get stronger over time, versus creating immediate changes in the musculoskeletal system. A physical therapist may not be as effective at short term relief, but you can start to see and feel results in mere weeks.

When Should You See a Doctor of Physical Therapy 

If you are in pain, in the state of Maryland, you do not require a physician prescription to take advantage of physical therapy.  

If your horse is in pain, you should always start with a visit to a veterinarian to ensure it’s safe to pursue alternative therapies. 

Start your physical therapy journey today, for you and your horse. Dr. Shields has the experience you and your horse need in order to perform your best and ride pain-free. 

Contact Physio Equine Solutions today.