Physical Therapy for Horseback Riders: Treat Yourself like the Athlete you Are

If you ask any equestrian about a time they were hurt horseback riding, you’ll most likely get a long list. When equestrians walk around you’ll hear cracking ankles and hips, and knees popping when they stand up. There’s a reason the classic cowboy has a bowlegged walk– horseback riding is hard on the body. Injuries are extremely common in the sport, both chronic and acute. Molding yourself to a horse requires a certain flexibility and fitness. Unfortunately, most horseback riders fail to treat themselves as the athlete they are. This leads to increased incidents of injury. 

A Doctor of Physical Therapy can create a program of physical therapy for horseback riders to help you strengthen old injuries and prevent new ones. 

Soft Tissue Injuries

Did you know that up to 70 percent of equestrians have dealt with a soft tissue injury? Sprains and ligament or tendon tears are the most common injuries in horseback riding. Soft tissue injuries can be as simple as a bad bruise or as painful as a bad sprain or torn ligament. All soft tissue injuries include muscles, tendons, or ligaments. 

One example of a soft tissue injury is a torn rotator cuff. This could occur due to a bad fall off of your horse that wrenches your shoulder. If the ligaments in your shoulder can’t handle the sudden and acute strain, they’ll tear. A torn ligament takes a while to heal and often means at least several weeks (if not months!) of no riding. 

However, soft tissue injuries don’t always occur suddenly. Chronic soft tissue injuries build up over time if equestrians don’t take care of their fitness and health through physical therapy for horseback riders. These chronic issues are the result of inadequate recovery time in between the use of a muscle. Tendonitis is a good example of a chronic soft tissue injury, although not one that is too common in the equestrian world. 

Physical therapy for horseback riders prevents both acute and chronic soft tissue injuries. A program developed for you by a Doctor of Physical Therapy increases the elasticity and strength of your tendons, muscles, and ligaments, thereby decreasing the chances of a sprain or tear. A pre- and post-ride stretching program also increases the blood flow to soft tissue, preparing your body for a workout and preventing injury as well. 


Equestrians control animals that can be well over a thousand pounds on a daily basis. Horseback riding takes a lot of strength and can be really empowering. But, unfortunately, we are not invincible. 

Concussions cause 60 percent of horseback riding related deaths. 

And yet, only 20 percent of equestrians wear helmets every time they ride. So many people greatly underestimate the importance of wearing a properly fitting helmet that was made for horseback riding. Helmets save lives! The necessity of wearing one when riding a horse cannot be overestimated. 

Most equestrians fail to take concussions seriously. Doctors have actually started referring to concussions as mild traumatic brain injuries to emphasize how serious these injuries are. In 2010, concussions and traumatic brain injuries accounted for 50,000 deaths in the United States. The top two ways equestrians get a concussion or traumatic brain injury is by falling off or getting kicked in the head while working a horse on the ground. 

While working with a  Doctor of Physical Therapy cannot stop you from getting a concussion, it can help you become a better partner for your horse and lower your risk of falls. Physical therapy for horseback riders strengthens areas of musculoskeletal weakness or imbalance. This helps you to balance better while riding and move more fluidly with your horse. Increasing strength and taking advantage of a pre- and post-ride workout activates the right muscle groups and increases elasticity in soft tissue. Combined, physical therapy for horseback riders creates a powerful tool to prevent impairment of all kinds– not just concussions and soft tissue injuries.

Physical Therapy for Horseback Riders Keeps You Safe

As equestrians, our toughness and dedication to our sport can be our downfall. Studies show that 60 percent of riders don’t seek medical attention after an injury and only 10 percent seek physiotherapy intervention. Equestrians are athletes. Think of the world’s elite athletes: if Tom Brady didn’t allow for adequate recovery time between games or appropriate warm up and cooldown strategies, his career would be greatly shortened. There’s no shame in seeking out medical attention when necessary or working with a Doctor of Physical Therapy ahead of time to prevent injury. 

Keep your riding career on track and become a better partner for your horse with a full rider assessment. With my help, as a Doctor of Physical Therapy, I can put my years of experience and medical training to work for you. Treat yourself like the athlete you are. Prevent injuries with a physical therapy program for horseback riding.

Learn More About Physical Therapy for Horseback Riders

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Off Balance? Find Stability with Physical Therapy

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

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

The Importance of Rider Balance

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

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

Some common signs of an unbalanced rider include:

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

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

Muscle Groups for Balance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Balance & Poor Equine Performance

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

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

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

The Key to Perfect Performance Training

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

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

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

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