Help Your Horse Find Balance

There are lots of reasons for our horses to be asymmetrical. Asymmetries can be related to conformation, movement patterns, and even poor quality riding. Over time, these imbalances can lead to injuries, stiffness, poor performance, and even an early retirement. If not addressed, asymmetries can significantly hold you back from your riding goals. A Doctor of Physical Therapy can help you and your horse find the balance you need to move forward in your competition career and to live a long, successful, pain-free life. 

How to Recognize an Imbalanced Equine Partner

Asymmetries in our horses are not always obvious. They can be insidious and sneak up on us if we’re not paying attention. This can be a big problem. If imbalances go on for too long, you could find yourself with an injured horse. Because of this, it’s important to evaluate our equine partners regularly.

Before getting on, take the time to groom your horse thoroughly as you would any other day. However, be sure to pay attention closely to their musculature and development. Does one side feel tighter and less flexible than the other? If you look closely at your horse’s back, is one side more developed than the other? Take a step back and stand perpendicular to your horse’s girth spot. Is his underside more developed than his topline? Does he have an extremely muscular hind end but a small, narrow shoulder or vice versa? Any of these signs point to an imbalance. Never underestimate the power of grooming time to allow you to notice something new about your animal.

You can also evaluate your horse under saddle as well. When riding your horse, are movements of a higher quality or easier to achieve on one side than the other? Do you feel as though you are constantly pulling your horse up off of his forehand? If you drop your reins, does he automatically choose one particular direction to follow? If any of these sound familiar to you, it’s a good idea to get your trainer’s opinion. Having a set of eyes on the ground can help you sort out what’s really going on with your horse. 

Right- or Left-Handed

Just like people, some horses are right or left-handed… or hooved. Your equine partner may be stiffer bending to one side or have a hard time picking up the correct lead in one direction. While this may not sound like a big deal, after all every human has a dominant hand, it can lead to injuries over time. 

Your horse will put more stress on one side of his body than the other and will develop compensatory movement patterns to accommodate his asymmetry. While some horses will never truly become ambidextrous, a Doctor of Physical Therapy can help you and your horse find balance in both directions.

Heavy on the Forehand

When riding in connection, the average rider should feel between ½ to 1 pound of weight in each hand. When riding on a long, loose rein, you should feel almost no weight at all in the reins. A horse that is heavy on the forehand can make you feel as though you’re supporting the entire head and neck. On average the head and neck make up 10 percent of the horse’s body weight. That could be anywhere from 90 pounds to a whopping 200 pounds! Holding up that amount of weight will take a significant toll on your strength, as well as inhibit your performance. 

On top of fatigue, you also have to consider that a horse that isn’t moving in an engaged manner in the hind end, but is instead leaning heavily forward and pulling with the front legs will develop poor muscle definition and be prone to lameness issues on the front limbs. This forehand heaviness could again be due to poor riding, conformation, and biomechanics.

Asymmetrical Limb Engagement

While many horses are asymmetrical when comparing the front end to the back end and the right to left side, other horses are imbalanced in an even more subtle way. These horses move asymmetrically within each individual limb.

For example, your horse could be pushing off from the ground with 60% power in his right hind, but only 40% power in his left hind. This unequal compensation between the legs leads to poor quality of movement, poor performance, and lameness issues in the limb that is taking on the majority of the work.

There have been some interesting studies on how to fix this issue, including one that placed a single bell boot on the “slacker” leg. However this study was inconclusive, showing just how difficult this problem can be to solve. How do you motivate just one limb to move more powerfully? 

A Doctor of Physical Therapy can offer prescribed exercises to help you and your horse even out your ride.

Developed Shoulder vs. Developed Hind End

Have you ever seen a racehorse fresh off the track? These sleek animals look like greyhounds, with the trademark tucked-up abdomen and rippling muscles. But although they’re in peak physical shape, I wouldn’t call the majority of them balanced.

Racehorses tend to have a huge shoulder and a muscular, but much smaller hind end. This is because when racing, they use their forelimbs to pull forward much more than we ask our dressage warmbloods to push from behind. While this imbalanced way of going may win some races, it does not set the animal up for long-term soundness. 

If you look at your horse and notice an overdeveloped shoulder (like a racehorse) or an overdeveloped hind end (like a quarter horse), it’s a sign that you need to get a physical therapist out to evaluate your horse and see how you can find balance again.

Equine Physio Helps You Find Balance

These are only four of the asymmetries Dr. Shields sees everyday. Many are caused by rider biomechanical issues that you may not even be aware of. The first step to solving your equine partner’s balance may be to start with your own. 

Working with a horse physical therapist can help you improve your own balance to improve your horse. Dr. Shields takes this unique approach through her Physical Therapy Horse & Rider Assessments. These allow you to grasp a better understanding of where your horse is asymmetrical, the problems it can cause, and how to fix it. 

Learn more about the Physical Therapy Rider Assessment here. 

The Art of Increasing Your Flexibility

There are two types of people: ones that feel stiff as a board and those who seem to have a second career as a contortionist. Don’t be jealous of the super flexible rider that can easily mount from the ground, they may be struggling with stability in the saddle. Likewise, the stiff rider may also be struggling with stability in the saddle but for different reasons than a flexible rider. In both scenarios, the same principle rings true: we all struggle with flexibility. Either we have too much or we have too little, and finding out where your muscles are “overactive” and where your muscles  are “underactive” is the art of increasing your flexibility.

The good news is that with some hard work and a little patience, you don’t have to deal with flexibility issues. Sports physical therapy can help you open your hip angle while strengthening your hip stability to significantly impact the amount of riding agility you have in your body over time. With the help of physical therapy for riders, you’ll learn how to become a more balanced partner in the saddle for your horse

How to Reach Your Full Range of Motion

Before we start talking about increasing flexibility, let’s make sure we are on the same page. Flexibility is not just stretching the muscle, it may also mean that you need to deactivate or turn it off the muscle to achieve optimal range of motion. Stretching an overactive muscle may cause damage and lead to injury.  

First, flexibility starts with “muscle tone” which is the resting tension of the muscle. Evaluating muscle tone looks at how easily the muscle responds to stretch or contraction without influence from outside forces. Our muscle tone can be either “overactive” or “underactive.” in both cases there is diminished muscle contraction leading to poor performance.  Believe it or not, your hips likely have both overactive and underactive muscles causing you to be less balanced in the saddle. A physical therapist is expertly trained to identify the specific muscles that need to be turned on or off to achieve optimal range of motion.  

Agility for Equestrians

We’re not gymnasts, so why do we need to be flexible? In fact, we don’t need to be more flexible, we need to be more agile. When you are agile, your muscles have the adequate muscle tone and strength to be balanced in a functional activity like riding. When your joints, muscles, and tendons have proper flexibility it increases our shock-absorbing abilities in the saddle, among many other things. For example, landing from a jump, you need to be able to sink down into your heels to absorb the impact. If you’re struggling with flexibility you can’t do that.

On a different note, dressage riders must be able to move fluidly and smoothly with their equine partner. Having your muscles activate and deactivate at the right time with the proper force helps you to move with your horse and develop a balanced seat, instead of bouncing along on top of the back.

Being an agile equestrian means that flexibility is just as important as strength. However, more and more equestrians are concerned with developing muscle rather than being able to activate the right muscles at the right time. This common misconception is a big problem. Luckily, physical therapy for riders can change that mentality one equestrian at a time. 

When to Stretch

Why is it that most equestrians faithfully stretch their horse, do their minimum ten minutes of warm-up prior to intense riding for their horse, but then just jump on and go without warming up their own body? Activating the right muscles prior to riding can increase your agility while preventing injuries. That being said, please don’t perform stretches in the barn aisle where you could be trampled. Keep your stretching to the tack room or at home instead.

Fair Warning….

Before we get started, it’s important to remember that your body is not made of isolated parts. Everything is interconnected and works together to help you move smoothly. For example, tight hamstrings may be indicative of a larger issue occurring elsewhere in the body. If you’re struggling with flexibility or pain while riding, the best course of action is to contact Dr. Shields and get a full evaluation. Don’t push yourself too hard. 

Stretch those Hamstrings

Can you touch your toes? If you groan when you hear that question, then you could be struggling with hamstring or gluteus maximus tightness. Tight hamstrings and gluteus maximus are probably why you feel like your hips don’t drape over the saddle. 

Hamstrings are responsible for bending your knee and are interconnected with gluteus maximus at the hip joint. They allow you to run and walk by extending your leg. Think about the two-point position: your knees are bent, your hips are bent, and you need to have the necessary flexibility to shock absorb in those joints in that position. Slowly increasing flexibility in your hamstrings and gluteals allows you to better absorb movement in the half-seat and sitting trot to maintain balance.

Open Those Hip Flexors

Whether you ride dressage or hunter/jumper, your hip flexors have a major impact on the quality of your ride. Opening or closing this angle can be the difference between a blue ribbon and not placing, as well as the difference between a relaxed canter or a hand gallop. Stretching your hip flexors before riding can prevent injuries and help you have a great ride.

Flexibility Can Transform Your Ride

We’ve all heard these words come out of our trainer’s mouth: “shoulders back and down,” “stop leaning to the inside,” “hands low,” “align the shoulder, hips, heel.”

But how often do you hear some variation of these sayings in your lessons? Does the correct position feel unattainable? Every competitive horseback rider seeks perfect equitation. What most riders don’t realize is that agility combined with strength is the key to perfect posture.

Increasing your flexibility can solve challenges and take your competitive riding to a whole new level. However, it does take patience and the help of a sports physical therapist. Physical therapy for riders takes a full body view to increase flexibility and maintain strength. It’s important to work on flexibility with the guidance of a Doctor of physical therapy to ensure that you don’t injure yourself and that you’re stretching the right way. 

If you’re having issues with flexibility, get started with Dr. Shields’ Full Rider Assessment. 

3 Ways Dr. Shields, PT can Collaborate with your DVM

It’s time to stop thinking of veterinarians and physical therapists as two separate entities. Instead, think of how they can work together to help you and your horse achieve your goals. Find out how they can help you in the blog below. 

Do you take a team approach to the care of your equine partner (and yourself!)? Some riders view their veterinarian as a proactive partner in reaching optimal fitness for their horse. Others only speak to the vet twice a year for spring shots and for emergency visits. If you do take a team approach to your relationship with your veterinarian, you may be reluctant to hire a Doctor of Physical Therapy. At first, they sound almost like two competing forces. But, in reality, these two essential services work together to help you and your horse achieve your equine fitness goals. Veterinarians diagnose lameness, develop a plan of care, however most of the time the owner or barn staff are left doing the daily treatments. That is where a physical therapist comes into play. Physical therapists are highly trained movement and exercise consultants. They look at potential biomechanical issues that could be causing lameness and prescribe exercises to solve the root of the problem. Both veterinarians and physical therapists can do their best work when they collaborate. 

Effective Injury Rehabilitation

A Doctor of Physical Therapy and a veterinarian can work together in situations requiring either long-term or short-term injury rehabilitation. For example, a vet may come out to the barn to stitch a laceration on  your horse’s hock. Then, they may refer you to a Doctor of Physical Therapy for bodywork, scar tissue management, and to assist with wound healing. During recovery, your physical therapist would work with you to ensure your horse does not lose any fitness during the stall rest that may be required. Throughout this time, the Doctor of Physical Therapy would send the DVM regular updates. The veterinarian would come out as needed for diagnostic checkups and to remove stitches. 

For long-term or more serious injuries, the vet would diagnose and start treatment before referring to the Doctor of Physical Therapy for continued treatment. For example, if your horse tore his suspensory tendon, the vet would perform the initial diagnosis and start treatment. Treatment could involve stem cell therapy or surgery. After the acute injury phase, it may be safe for the horse to start some light controlled activity to strengthen the tendon while healing and avoid loss of condition in the horse. At this point, the veterinarian would refer the horse to Dr. Shields. Physical therapy could take place at the horse’s barn or at Shields’ Fields. 

After Dr. Shields takes over daily care with careful prescribed exercise, stall rest, hand walking, and more, the veterinarian would come out on a weekly or monthly basis to evaluate the horse. For example, a monthly ultrasound would inform both the veterinarian and physical therapist on how the healing process is proceeding and whether treatment needs to be adjusted. Together, the DVM and DPT would work as a team to give the horse the best chance of recovery after an injury. 

Improve Equine Fitness

Are you constantly struggling with equine fitness? No matter how many trot sets you do you still don’t see any improvement. Your veterinarian can check the horse over for any medical issues that could be preventing muscle gain such as poor feed, undiagnosed ulcers, or even conditions such as PSSM

The physical therapist, on the other hand, can identify musculo-skeletal issues such as asymmetries and lack of flexibility that could be leading to incorrect movement patterns and therefore poor muscle gain. Once the veterinarian has ruled out medical or lameness issues, your Doctor of Physical therapy can help you get your horse back to fighting fit. 

Diagnose Chronic Lameness

An acute injury is one thing. But can a physical therapist and veterinarian work together on chronic issues? The answer is a resounding yes. 

For example, a horse has been struggling to pick up the canter on the right lead for the past few months. The trainer has tried everything and is beginning to suspect a medical issue. The rider wants to do right by her horse, so she calls in both her physical therapist and veterinarian. After thorough diagnostic analysis, the veterinarian cannot find a medical reason for the issue. 

Here, the physical therapist would step in and evaluate the relationship between the horse and rider. The biomechanics of equestrians has a direct impact on the movement patterns in our horses. In this example, the sub-par canter transition was directly related to a biomechanical issue in our rider. 

In this scenario, both the veterinarian and Doctor of Physical Therapy were crucial to successfully finding the root cause of the problem. The DVM ruled out any internal issues such as ulcers, kissing spine, etc. The DPT, on the other hand, was able to take a different perspective on the problem and analyze the horse and rider relationship. 

Stronger Together

The old saying “two heads are better than one” is especially true when it comes to creating a team approach to your horse’s health and equine fitness. Together your DVM and Doctor of Physical Therapy can help you get your horse into optimal shape. With the help of your team, you and your horse can recover from injuries faster and with better results, as well as overcome stubborn ongoing issues. 

It’s time to stop thinking of veterinarians and physical therapists as two separate entities. Instead, think of how they can work together to help you and your horse achieve your goals.

Add a Doctor of Physical Therapy to your team today. 

Where is Your Riding Performance Breakdown?

Is your horse too exhausted to complete a cross country course? Do you struggle to mount from the ground? Is your horse’s inability to relax throwing off your round in the hunter ring? With this summer’s show season cancelled almost entirely across the board, equestrians everywhere are turning their focus to schooling instead of competing. It’s important to use this time wisely to analyze last season’s events and see where you can improve. 

Sports physical therapy can not only help you identify the root of your problem but can also provide the solution as well. 

With this summer’s show season cancelled almost entirely across the board, equestrians everywhere find themselves frustrated. As riders turn their focus to schooling instead of competing, it’s important to use this time wisely to analyze last season’s events and see where you can improve. 

As a Doctor of Physical Therapy, I work closely with equestrians to identify where rider and equine performance commonly break down. Sports physical therapy can not only help you identify the root of your problem but can also provide the solution as well. 

Lack of Fitness

Does your horse tire out by the end of your cross country round? Do you leave the dressage ring lathered in sweat? Do you feel that your horse is “lazy” and unable to power forward from the hind end? Alternatively, are you struggling to hold a proper half point by the end of your equitation round? Do you feel that you lack the strength to truly hold that frame?

All of these issues could be due to a lack of fitness. If you’ve done any research into building equine performance strength, you’ll find that one common theme is hill work and trail riding for the horses and lots of  cardio for the humans. Unfortunately not all equestrians have access to hills and lots of room to ride. Besides, cardio and hill work may not be the right approach to build fitness in every horse or human. 

Core stability fitness is crucial to optimize strength throughout the rest of the body. For example, when holding a two-point, you noticeably feel the burn in your thighs. However, if your core is weak, you’re unable to use the muscles in your legs efficiently. The same goes for your horse. They may be unable to efficiently power forward from the hind end, but the true root of the problem is a lack of  thoracic sling strength and fitness.

A sport physical therapist can help you and your horse to build fitness with a program of prescribed exercise, even if you don’t have access to hills or acres of trails.

Tension in Horse and Rider

Nothing is worse than struggling with tension in your ride. Your free walk may feel short and choppy instead of long and fluid. The rider may not be able to easily follow the  rhythm of the horse and relaxation feels impossible to obtain.  You and your horse suffer when your hips are not flexible enough to drape over the saddle with  the relaxed feel required for shock absorption.  All of this tension can significantly impact the quality of your ride and the enjoyment of your horse. No one likes to ride around tense and anxious!

Not only is a tense ride stressful, but tension can lead to poor posture and improper movement patterns in both horse and rider. There  are several biomechanical reasons for tension. For example, it could be difficult for you and your horse to relax due to pain, a lack of flexibility, or functional imbalances. You or your horse could also be compensating for an old injury, leading to added tightness in other areas of the body. 

Physical therapy can build appropriate movement patterns and relieve injury-related pain, leading to a more relaxed horse. For example, an imbalanced rider can make the horse compensate in their movement, causing even more tension in the rider until you and your partner are stuck in a feedback loop of increasing anxiety and poor equine performance. Sports physical therapy can help you build the strength and balance to move with your horse, thereby relieving tension in your ride. 

Poor Flexibility

Does your horse struggle to bend? Are turns on the haunches or forehand tough to accomplish? Does your horse travel crookedly, even on a straight line? On the other hand, are you unable to mount from the ground? Do you have a hard time moving fluidly with your horse?

If any of these questions sound like a struggle you’re familiar with, you and your equine partner could be dealing with a lack of flexibility or balanced strength. As with all things related to a living creature, there are many causes for a lack of flexibility. Some examples include pain, poor training, improper movement patterns, or even simple genetics. 

With the help of sports physical therapy, consistency, and persistence, you and your horse can increase your flexibility over time. Guided stretching exercises completed with the help of a physical therapist develops correct muscle memory without risk of injury. 

Sports Physical Therapy
for You and Your Equine Partner

Once you pinpoint where your performance is breaking down both in and out of the show ring, you can work on isolating and solving the problem. A physical therapist is crucial throughout the process, to help you rebalance and evaluate any biomechanical issues. 

At Physio Equine Solutions, I apply extensive knowledge and experience with both equine and equestrian physical therapy to optimize your performance and help you reach your goals. If you’re ready to take your ride to the next level, contact Physio Equine Solutions today.  

3 Common Myths about Rehabilitating Equine Injuries

A horse is a strange animal. They would manage to break a leg if they were kept in a locked box with four padded walls and surrounded by bubble wrap. 

Unfortunately, equine injuries happen to the best and worst of equestrians equally. Everything could be going along great until suddenly your horse comes up lame, derailing your entire show season. Keep in mind that this scenario happens to everyone. It’s what you do after you find your horse injured that matters the most. 

They say you put ten equestrians in a room and you’ll get 11 opinions. After an injury, you’ll receive a lot of advice, both solicited and unsolicited. You’ve probably heard it all: box rest and no movement; turn them out in a big field full time, check back in a year; hand walking only; small turnout is fine; no hand walking whatsoever. 

Without guidance from an equine physio that you trust, it can be easy to become overwhelmed by all of these opinions. This makes rehabbing stressful for horse owners and horses alike. Today, I’m going to debunk some common myths that I hear when it comes to rehabbing equine injuries. 

Myth #1: Absolutely No Movement

This one is quite common. However, stall rest isn’t the answer for every injury every time. Your Doctor of Physical Therapy, with collaboration with your horse’s DVM, can tailor how much movement each horse gets based on the injury and your horse’s personality. 

With some injuries, like soft tissue tears, movement may actually help the healing process. After the first twenty days, movement helps to realign fibers and build strong tissue. Without this movement, the fibers would grow back in a weak and disorganized fashion. 

However, any movement needs to be carefully controlled. If you have a young horse who is easily excitable and rambunctious, you’ll need to be much more careful than with an older solid citizen. Hand-walking may be a good way to provide slow movement that doesn’t create a lot of concussive forces and gently strengthens soft tissue. Whereas, some acute injuries may only be able to tolerate gentle passive range of motion while the horse remains on strict stall rest. 

Myth #2: The Same Solution for Every Horse

You may run into someone at your barn who swears their method of rehabilitating a horse is the only and best way to do it. This may include turnout, lots of drugs, compression boots with ice, or various other methods. Before you drink the kool-aid of one specific rehabilitation program, make sure you look to your horse for advice. 

If 6 months to a year of stall rest is too stressful on your horse (as is true with most horses!), maybe a small turnout would be better. If you have a young horse who likes to move, light sedative drugs prescribed by the DVM may be necessary, but should be used sparingly. 

Throughout the entire rehabilitation process, keep in mind that a stressed horse in both body and mind won’t heal as well or as fast as one that is calm and happy. When horses become stressed, they’re  likely to exhibit self-destructive tendencies, such as weaving. When a horse weaves, they sway from side to side, sometimes even lifting the whole front half of the body up into the air. Naturally, this creates a lot of movement and concussive force on the legs and prevents the injury from healing. 

Myth #3: Absolutely No Hills or Pole Work

If your horse has an acute injury, then a rehabilitation program that includes hills is not going to work. But that’s not always the case with every injury. For many soft tissue injuries once cleared by DVM to return to light activity, pole work and cavellettis have the horse use their full range of motion without increasing strain on the legs. Walking the horse over different types of ground surfaces may also help to encourage increases in joint range of motion. Regimented hill work with slight incline or decline that is introduced slowly is another great way to build strength without increasing concussive impact via trotting. 

Again, it’s so important to tailor your rehabilitation program to your horse’s injury, mental state, and physical health. Always work closely with your DVM and Doctor of Physical Therapy. Ask their advice before changing any exercise-related routine, and recheck your horse’s injury often in order to ensure that it is still healing well. 

Tip #1: Take it Slow 

Let’s say you’ve chosen the strict stall rest rehabilitation program. Your horse has stayed in a ten by ten box for a month. But then Karen from two stalls down said that her horse healed beautifully when turned out full time. So, you turn your horse out onto a big field with no preparation. Off he goes, bucking, kicking, and thrilled to be able to move once again. By the end of the day, he’s dead lame. The injury has gotten worse not better. 

Scenarios like this happen all too often. It’s so important to take your time with any changes in your rehabilitation program. Changes that happen too fast and without proper guidance have an extremely high chance of re-injury. Once you have a program that works for you and your horse, stay true to your gut instinct and stick with it. If you have to make changes, do so very slowly and with guidance from your DVM and Doctor of Physical Therapy.

Tip #2: Make Your Horse’s Mental Health a Priority

Evaluate your horse’s behavior to see how he’s coping with injury-related pain, limited movement, and his new schedule. Is he weaving? Cribbing? Screaming for other horses? Too much stall rest can lead to mental health problems down the road when your horse keeps weaving or cribbing even after he’s fully rehabilitated. 

Use toys, horse-safe mirrors, and even posters of other horses to keep your horse entertained. If you use feed-based entertainment such as stall snacks, keep safety your first priority and watch for weight gain. Don’t hang hay nets too low or with holes that are too big. Avoid overfeeding and instead slow down the pace at which he can eat.

Tip #3: Choose a Great Team

Working with the right Doctor of Physical Therapy can make or break a recovery. Always check with your DPT if you have any questions or want to know if you can make changes. Your equine physio should be checking on your horse’s progress regularly, at least once a month. If they’re not, you may need a new team. 

The best certified equine rehabilitation practitioner physical therapist will keep your horse’s physical and mental health a priority to avoid bad behaviors that can slow down healing. Look for an equine physical therapy practice that will create a customized rehab program for your horse’s needs.

I offer custom rehab boarding for your horse. At Shields’ Fields, I tailor a program including daily hand-walking, stretching, and equine physical therapy. Whether you need complete stall rest or small turnout, I can accomodate your needs and work closely with your veterinarian for the best chance at a full recovery. 

Find out more about Shields’ Fields here. 

Insider’s Guide to Laser Therapy for Horses

Lasers have been used for therapeutic purposes since the 1970s. However, they’ve had a recent resurgence in popularity. Now you see them advertised for horses, dogs, cats, and humans. It seems that they’re marketed as the wonder cure! Your dad has back pain? Try laser therapy. Your horse has a suspensory tear? Try laser therapy. Your cat has breathing problems? You guessed it– laser therapy. 

But is it really a miracle cure?

First things first, there’s no such thing as a cure-all. Some people believe eating acai berries, taking CBD oil, and drinking elderberry tea will cure cancer, get rid of chronic pain, and prevent the coronavirus. Just like there are some benefits to eating and drinking these things, there are BIG benefits to laser therapy. But, it isn’t a miracle cure. 

There are two main categories of lasers. Laser surgery and laser therapy. Laser surgery uses high concentration lasers instead of scalpels. They’re becoming common use for spaying and neutering small animals, as it reduces inflammation, bleeding, and shortens recovery time. Low level laser therapy uses lasers to reduce pain and speed healing. These lasers penetrate the skin, but do not cut it. Dr. Shields offers low-level laser therapy as part of an elite sports physical therapy treatment to enhance equine performance. 

How Laser Therapy Works

Laser therapy may sound like a big production, but the actual implementation of the tool is deceptively simple. These lasers are handheld devices operated by a DVM or Doctor of Physical Therapy. They’re placed over the injured area for as little as a few minutes, depending on the size of the area and “dose” required.

The laser penetrates as deep as 2 to 3 centimeters through layers of skin to interact on a cellular level. Similar to photosynthesis in plants, as the cells absorb the light energy it actually changes cellular activity. The laser initiates a series of events called photobiomodulation that will eventually result in healing damaged or injured tissue, and reduce pain, inflammation and edema. Overall, the healing time is greatly reduced by increasing intracellular metabolism. 

What can Laser Therapy Treat?

Laser therapy can be used to treat a wide variety of acute injuries and chronic conditions. In horses, laser therapy is commonly used to accelerate the healing of many lameness disorders, including soft tissue tears or broken bones. It also helps our athletes to maintain peak equine performance within any discipline, from barrel racing to dressage. If your horse does become injured, laser therapy can be used to reduce the chances of recurrence. Or, if you believe your horse is prone to specific injuries, a Doctor of Physical Therapy can use laser therapy to reduce the chances of injury before one ever occurs. 

Laser therapy can also be combined with stem cell and PRP treatment protocols. When combined with these cutting-edge solutions, laser therapy is used as a follow up to both methods to help the treatment work most effectively. For example, if your horse had a suspensory injury that was treated with regenerative treatments, laser therapy would be an excellent follow up. In this case, the laser therapy would help the fibers realign, shorten healing time, and increase the chances of a full recovery. 

While there are a wide variety of equine performance issues laser therapy could be used to treat, it’s most commonly used for tendon and suspensory injuries, osteoarthritis, back disorders, and wound healing. 

Laser therapy should never be used on eye injuries as it can cause permanent damage to the eye. It should also never be used on cancerous or possibly cancerous cells.

Advantages of Laser Therapy

Laser therapy has a lot of benefits as compared to more traditional treatment methods. It’s non-invasive, meaning the skin is not cut open. There are no oral medications needed which means no mashing of pills, fighting with your horse with tubes of meds, or hiding drugs in an ever-changing variety of treats. When used correctly by a veterinarian or Certified Equine Rehabilitation Practitioner there are little to no side effects. It can also be used alone or in combination with other treatments, such as PRP, prescribed exercises or sports physical therapy. 

Recent studies have shown that laser therapy, photobiomodulation,  increases the release of beta endorphins, nitric oxide production,  and serotonin levels, which is directly related to pain relief, reduced inflammation, and an increase in microcirculation. 

Reach Your Riding Goals

While low level laser therapy isn’t a cure-all (nothing is!), it has a significant impact on equine performance when combined with an elite sports physical therapy program. Dr. Shields uses only high-quality LiteCure therapy lasers to offer class IV laser treatment to help you and your horse reach peak athletic performance. LiteCure lasers offer deeper penetration than other lasers on the market and are designed under stringent quality control systems. 

Dr. Shields has years of experience using laser therapy to help horses and riders who are struggling to reach their athletic goals. Contact Physio Equine Solutions today to find out how laser therapy can help you.

Call/Text 443-883-0724

*Note: Equine DVM referral and collaboration may be required.

The Rider Fitness Guide You Need to Read

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

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

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

The Right Exercise Programs for Horse & Rider

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

Not every exercise is right for everyone. 

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

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

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

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

Functional Movement Patterns

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

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

Dr. Shields can use these patterns to assess:

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

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

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

Range of Motion Assessment in Horses

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

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

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

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

Prevent Injuries

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

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

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

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

Creating Your Exercise Program

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

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

Find out more here. 

The Importance of Rider Fitness

In order to be a good partner for your equine, a certain level of fitness is required. You need to be able to maintain balance and move fluidly with your horse, whether you’re performing a dressage test, clearing a jumping round, or flying through cross country. 

Unfit riders tend to lean on the horse’s neck, grab the pommel of the saddle, or hang on the horse’s mouth. You may notice that your saddle shifts from one side to the other due to a lack of balance. You may fall back down onto your horse’s back from the two-point after a jump, slamming into the saddle. All of these actions have a negative impact on equine welfare and are signs that a rider is lacking fitness. 

Physical therapy for equestrians can help you achieve optimal performance and reach your fitness goals.

Equestrian Fit vs. General Fitness

There are many types of fitness. If you run into a muscle-bound gym rat, you may think he’s fit, but he wouldn’t be able to run four miles for time. The same goes for the hyper-flexible yogi who can contort herself into all sorts of shapes, but may not be able to bench nearly as much as the gym rat. Another example is the slightly overweight person who is surprisingly flexible and strong. Fitness comes in all shapes and sizes depending on what sport you play or the lifestyle you choose to live. 

Equestrian fit looks a little different from your average gym routine. Horseback riding uses unique muscle groups that provide riders with balance and stability more so than brute strength or hyper-flexibility. Of course, many horseback riders build significant muscle from mucking stalls and throwing hay, but the actual act of riding is more about balance and specific muscle groups. 

When riding in a two-point, you may “feel the burn” in your quad muscles, but if you’re struggling to hold the position, it could actually be because your core is weak. This is due to the relationship between stabilizer muscles and moving parts. If your core (a stabilizer muscle group) is weak, then your legs cannot support your body efficiently, leading to apparent quad weakness.  The true problem still remains in the core. 

Riding horses is not weight lifting. It’s not about just building muscle. It’s about building the appropriate muscle in the correct spots for optimal balance and performance. 

Prescribed Exercise for Fitness

If you’ve ridden horses for any length of time, you’ve seen them before: generic “Fitness for Horseback Riders” programs. These exercises don’t work for everyone. There is no one size fits all for building strength and fitness. Most of these programs focus too much on arm and length strength and ignore the core muscles. There is little to no acknowledgement or education on the importance of stabilizing muscles (your core and back). 

Every rider needs specific exercises in order to build strength in areas of biomechanical weakness. Prescribed exercises are given to you after an evaluation by a Doctor of Physical Therapy and are tailored to your goals and biomechanics. 

Optimal performance physical therapy consists of evaluations, prescribed exercises, and hands-on stretching with the help of a Doctor of a Physical Therapy. This builds fitness more efficiently than generic programs because it’s tailored to you. You won’t spend months building quad strength when in reality you needed to work on your core and back.

How to Evaluate Your Current Fitness Level

There are several simple generic fitness test that you can do easily without running to find out how fit you are and to monitor your progress. While it is not riding-specific and would not be used by a Doctor of Physical Therapy to create a prescribed exercise program, it can give you a baseline level of how fit you are. 

The step test is the simplest to do and only takes 3 minutes. All you need is a 12-inch-high step (stairs work, just don’t hold onto the railing) and a timer. Step up with your right foot and then left left so that you’re standing fully on the step, hips fully extended, and facing forward. Reverse, going down with your right foot and then left. Repeat this process at a consistent pace for three minutes. Rest in a chair for one minute. Then, take your pulse for six seconds and multiply that number by 10 to determine your heart rate for one minute. The results will vary depending on your age and gender.

For men ages 18 to 25, a 60-second pulse rate 84 or less is good to excellent, between 85 and 100 is average to above average, while 101 or higher is fair to poor. For men ages 46 to 55, a pulse rate of 93 or lower is good to excellent, while 113 or higher is fair to poor.

For women ages 18 to 25, a 60-second pulse rate of 93 or lower is good to excellent, between 94 and 110 is average to above average, while 111 or higher is fair to poor. For women ages 46 to 55, a pulse rate of 101 or less is good to excellent, while 125 or higher is fair to poor.

This will only give you some idea of your generic fitness. It is not an evaluation akin to physical therapy for equestrians and will only give you a very small idea of your current level of health. 

To discover how in shape you are for riding, ask yourself a few questions. Can you maintain a strong, balanced two-point for a stadium jumping round? How about a cross country round? How many laps can you stay balanced around the arena? How long can you post while riding? What about a seated canter? Do you lose your balance or fall off easily? Do you find yourself grabbing mane or hanging onto the horse’s mouth for support?

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, or you have been struggling to complete online “rider fitness programs” then it might be time for a Doctor of Physical Therapy Rider Assessment

Reach Your Fitness Goals with
Physical Therapy for Equestrians

A Doctor of Physical Therapy who specializes in equestrians can evaluate you and your equine partner to see how your fitness level is impacting optimal performance. After that, a DPT can prescribe a custom exercise plan and help you reach your riding goals. 

Interested? Check out Dr. Shields’ equestrian evaluation here. 

Behind the Scenes: How a Physical Therapist Can Work with Horses

This is an individualized approach to this equine’s rehabilitation. Please consult your horse’s DVM to discuss if a program like this is suitable for your horse before starting any rehabilitation program.

*Names changed to protect anonymity* 

What’s it like to Rehab a Horse:
A Physical Therapist’s Perspective

Dr. Shields has a new patient in her client rotation– an 8 year old gelding who competes as a high level Grand Prix Jumper. The horse, we’ll call him Secretariat, was referred to Dr. Shields for equine physical therapy by his usual veterinarian after incurring an injury during training. He was diagnosed with suspensory desmitis on the left front, a nightmare for his owners. 

The first sign of trouble presented as having difficulty picking up or holding the canter. He then developed lameness with lunging to the right. It’s common to have lameness only in one direction on a circle. This is due to the placement of the affected limb on the inside or outside track. For Secretariat, he was lame only when his left front was pushing his body forward from the outside of the circle. 

The initial ultrasound revealed an increase in size of the left front suspensory as compared to the same ligament on the right front. There was also some mild fiber disruption in the same area.  

Early Treatment

Secretariat came to Dr. Shields’ Farm after the injury occurred. Some early treatment had already taken place in the form of PRP injections by the referring vet, stall rest, hand walking, and laser therapy performed by Dr. Shields. At this point, it was time for added equine exercise prescription.

In cases like this one, controlled exercise can start as soon as 21 days after the injury occurs. At this point in time, the ligament is entering the remodeling and maturation phase, which continues into the first year of recovery. During this time period, the fibers that make up the ligament begin to fully develop and realign when stress is applied. If the ligament is not carefully stretched and strengthened, the fibers will remain randomly aligned and will decrease in tensile strength. 

If there is scar tissue present in the ligament, the site of the injury will be unorganized, lack mobility and extensibility, lack resistance to tensile forces, and will have abnormal proprioceptive input. In other words, it will have decreased strength, flexibility, and a noted lack of ability to provide spatial awareness input to the brain. Injuries that heal with excessive amounts of weak, unorganized scar tissue are prone to reinjury and degeneration. 

Secretariat’s PRP injections allow injured tissues to regenerate in normal non-scarred collagen fiber. The hope is that this, combined with equine physical therapy, will allow injured tissues to restore to normal structure and function with minimal scar tissue. 

The Return to Work

The riskiest part of healing any ligament injury is the slow return to work. The fibers of the suspensory ligament need to be stressed just enough to increase strength, flexibility, and promote proper alignment. However, if too much work is added too fast, you risk a prolonged healing period and the possibility of an incomplete recovery. 

One of the most important parts of bringing Secretariat back to work included a long warm up. The warm up helps to slowly increase circulation in the ligament for added strength and flexibility, while also decreasing the risk of re-injury. Also essential, was the addition of compression ice wraps applied for 20 minutes after each workout. 

Secretariat’s warm up began with 10-15 reps of PROM work of the shoulder, carpus, and fetlock to decrease pain, as well as encourage circulation and movement of fluids throughout the affected limb. PROM stands for Passive Range of Motion. These movements are completed without activation of the patient’s muscles. Instead, a Doctor of Physical Therapy will move the affected limb for the horse. 

Carrot stretches, pelvic lifts, and tummy tucks completed the warm up. Early treatment also included 20 minutes of hand walking daily, changing speed every minute. It’s crucial when rehabbing ligaments to avoid soft or slippery surfaces at all costs!

If the ligament is healing normally, noted by reduced pain and a normal healing diagnostic ultrasound by the referring DVM every 30 days, then work can be increased by 10 percent each week. This strengthens the ligament, while avoiding turning up the heat too fast and actually moving backwards in the recovery process. 

How to Measure Progress at Appropriate Intervals

Just as important as a slow return to work is the accurate measurement of healing in the left front suspensory. For Secretariat, Dr. Shields evaluated the affected limb each week to assess for pain. This assessment included evaluating behavioral changes, palpation/observation of the left front, and an assessment of the joint’s range of motion. 

On top of this evaluation, Dr. Shields performed the Equine Physical Therapy Assessment weekly to assess symmetry of the gait, fluidity of the limb, and overall coordination and balance. 

This includes:

  • Straight line walk and trot
  • Walk, trot (medium to working), canter circles both directions.
  • Difference between how the horse goes over hard and soft surfaces. Softer surfaces will demonstrate lameness.
  • Under saddle with rider at the trot, the lameness will be more visible with the rider in the air at the posting trot. 

If any lameness is detected, the patient should return to rest immediately and the referring DVM is contacted.

On top of these equine physical therapy assessments of Secretariat’s healing, Dr. Shields worked closely with his veterinarian. The DVM would perform an ultrasound every 30 days, if the lameness persisted, to assess internal healing. 

Looking to the Future

Unfortunately, Secretariat will always have a higher risk of injury in his left front suspensory ligament, even after the injury has healed. However, his future’s still bright. With appropriate care including the proper warm up, cool down, and progressive training, he should be able to return to competitive Grand Prix jumping successfully. 

Takeaways for the Everyday Rider

Secretariat’s story has a lot of good takeaways for the everyday rider. His story could have ended very differently if his owner and trainer hadn’t taken his pain symptoms seriously and acted proactively by using equine physio and adding a Doctor of Physical Therapy to their team, as well as their usual veterinarian. 

There are many things you can do everyday to evaluate your horse for possible injuries. Always examine all four legs before and after exercise for abnormalities. Watch for pain symptoms that could be misconstrued as behavior/training problems, such as a reluctance to hold or pick up the canter. If his rider and trainer had treated this as a behavioral problem, Secretariat could have had much more damage to his ligament and been unable to return to Grand Prix level jumping. 

Look out for symptoms of acute injury, such as heat, swelling, and pain on palpation. Be vigilant when it comes to symptoms of chronic injuries as well. These symptoms include persistent thickening of the ligament and intermittent or persistent lameness. 

If your horse does injure himself, remember: an active working relationship between your veterinarian and a Doctor of Physical Therapy offers you the best chance of a full recovery. 

Contact Physio Equine Solutions to discuss physical therapy solutions that are right for your horse.

Call or Text 443-883-0724

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

Learn More About the Physical Therapy Rider Assessment

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. 

How to Choose the Right Physical Therapist for You

When selecting a veterinarian for your horse, you research online, look at reviews, their experience, where they went to school and listen to what other equestrians have to say about them. But when it comes to selecting a physical therapist for you or your horse, do you know what qualifications to look for?

If done properly, physical therapy for equines and equestrians can greatly reduce chances of injury and optimize the overall performance of you and your horse. However, only using personal trainers, online platforms, or other health practitioners not trained properly may actually create injuries by pushing your tendons too far in a stretch or teaching you bad postural habits. Avoid making a bad decision– follow these tips to find the best physical therapy practice.

High-Level of Schooling

It used to be that certified physical therapists only required a Master’s degree. Now the level of schooling has increased to a postgraduate doctorate degree. In order to become a Doctor of Physical Therapy, candidates must obtain a bachelor’s degree before moving on to a CAPTE-accredited institution Doctor of Physical Therapy program. This medical professional program typically takes three years, and may be followed by a Residency or Fellowship for additional training.

Have you ever gone to a doctor specifically because they were board certified in a specialty field? On top of obtaining a doctorate, highly trained physical therapists may also become board certified in a specialization. For example, I underwent additional training and became a Physical Therapy Board Certified Cardiovascular and Pulmonary Specialist. This means I have a deep understanding of how our heart and lungs impact our overall health and fitness.

In December of 2017, I graduated from the University of Tennessee Certified Equine Rehabilitation Practitioner program, the only veterinary school of medicine accredited program currently in the United States. This program focused on many aspects of rehabilitating the musculoskeletal, integumentary, and nervous systems of the equine. The program is open to all Veterinarians, Veterinary Techs, Doctors of Physical Therapy, and Physical Therapy Assistants. In order to attend, you must have one of these degrees.

A high level of schooling, professional state licensing, and mandated yearly competency through continuing education classes ensures that your Doctor of Physical Therapy is up to date on the latest breakthroughs in the field, and has every qualification necessary to provide you with the highest level of care. As athletes, you and your horse deserve a well-educated team.

Years of Experience

As with everything, there’s a lot to be said for hands-on experience as a physical therapist. If your Doctor of Physical Therapy hasn’t spent years working with equestrian clients, they may not understand the specific needs of the rider. For example, an experienced physical therapist who works with swimmers will be well-versed in the biomechanics of normal swimming and common overuse injuries that occur with recreational and competitive swimmers. However, a physical therapist that has little to no experience with equestrian biomechanics may misunderstand the underlying cause of the pain, injury, or physical demands that recreational and competitive riders encounter.

I have over a decade of experience working as a Doctor of Physical Therapy in a trauma center. Since 2015, I have focused my clinical skill and education on normal biomechanics in equestrians. I have been riding dressage with my horse for the past 5 years. However, I spent several decades riding in the hunter ring competitively. As a young hunter/jumper rider in Virginia I had several bad accidents that resulted in a spinal fusion. This experience, while unfortunate, is what encouraged me to pursue physical therapy for equestrians and helps me to understand exactly where my clients are coming from.

What You Don’t Want

The approach that “all exercises fit all” from personal trainers can be pretty bad for your health. Inappropriate stretching techniques can cause injuries, while bad exercises can lengthen recovery time instead of shortening it. While these personal trainers are valued, you should work in tandem with a Doctor of Physical Therapy. You deserve the advantage of the doctor’s education, expertise, and experience for movement assessment and exercise prescription that is right for you. If you’ve only ever worked with a personal trainer without making any progress in your fitness, it may be time for a Physical Therapy Evaluation that focuses on your specific movement and musculoskeletal imbalances.

It’s important to avoid equine and equestrian practitioners who offer physical therapy that have not been properly trained. You and your horse deserve the best care for your fitness and health. Don’t settle for less. If you’re looking for physical therapy for equestrians, check out my full rider assessment here. If your horse needs some work, take a look at my equine physical therapy services.

Contact us today to find out more about our equestrian and equine services.
Call/Text 443-883-0724 or Email Questions

My Story

My love of horses started as a kid growing up in Virginia riding for fun and then competitively in the hunter jumper world. Injury after injury my coach got me back on the horse to continue until we got it right. How many injuries did we sustain? I lost track counting. However, as we became rising stars in the ring these injuries not only affected me but also the horse’s performance which we never seemed to recover from. Everyone blamed this inability to continue to perform in the ring on the horse and on my lack of “focus.” This discouraging judgement caused me to wonder far from my dream of riding horses.

It was my good fortune that I returned to the horse world in 2015 when my husband and I bought a horse farm. My journey of natural horsemanship began then, not really knowing what I was doing, even though I had ridden horses for 20 years! It just felt right. After six months of owning the farm, I bought MY horse and found a “free” horse, with lameness issues, as a stablemate.

I stumbled around for a while taking lessons, looking for answers, until I realized I WAS THE PROBLEM! I know this sounds crazy – but hear me out. My old injuries were causing similar issues with my new horse. My trainer could ride my mare with little issue. When I got on my horse, she struggled with tripping, shoulder falling in on the turns, and many other things I could remember having trouble with while riding my last horse.

The winter of 2016 I went off to a national physical therapy conference as a successful physical therapist. My work was at a large urban Level 1 Trauma teaching hospital where I have specialized in the cardiac and critical care population. I now showed up to this conference thinking about which sessions I might take to continue my PT education. That was until I read the first day’s line-up: “Olympic Equestrian Show Jumping: Physical Therapy Assessment, Conditioning, and Rehabilitation of Horse and Rider,” presented by Sharon Classon, PT and Mark Revenaugh, DVM.

I was hooked!

As I walked into the large lecture hall, it hit me…I was in the right place! Waiting for the lecture to start they began to project Grand Prix Show Jumping pictures while playing the instrumental version of “Eye of the Tiger.” Yep, pretty corny, but all the emotion and passion for my dream of riding horses flooded back to me, stronger than ever. As I heard the lecture, I was completely intrigued when I began to realize how it might be my own injuries effecting my horse.

It was on that day that I “broke bad”. I wondered off from my familiar friends and colleagues. That day I began my adventure of becoming a physical therapist skilled in the assessment and rehabilitation treatments of the horse, the human, and the equestrian team.

Because of my new found love, December 2017, I became a Certified Equine Rehabilitation Practitioner through the University of Tennessee. I am knowledgeable in common equine disorders and surgical procedures amenable to rehabilitation that a physical therapist can provide.

Is Your Horse Telling You “You’re Unbalanced”?

Are you struggling to bend your horse in the corners or during shoulder-in and haunches-in?  Do you find it difficult to create a balanced trot down the centerline?

After trying multiple methods and trainers are you ready to give up on your dream to advance with your horse to the next level? 

You are not alone!

The horse’s biomechanics can only accommodate for so much when the rider is struggling with their own physical alignment issues.

Too often, riders overlook their own muscle imbalances or joint limitations as reasons they could be struggling to build a strong top-line, complete a correct haunches-in, or create a balanced trot down the centerline.

Working with a Doctor of Physical Therapy is a great way to learn more about rider muscle imbalances or joint limitations that may impact the horse’s comfort and balance.

A way to see if you need physical therapy for equestrians is to look at your horse. Does your horse have difficulty picking up or holding a particular canter lead? Does your horse have difficulty with straightness? Does your horse’s shoulder fall into the circle? If the rider is struggling with movement patterns due to biomechanical limitations, it will show up in the horse’s movement patterns as well. 

The Relationship Between Horse/Human Movement Patterns 

Understanding the relationship between horse and human movement patterns can give you an inside look at how your body impacts your horse’s development. A Doctor of Physical Therapy can help you understand these movement patterns.

Horses are so greatly influenced by minute movements of their riders that they have grown to mimic the human body position. For example, when a rider leans forward, the horse falls onto their forehand and loses the power from the hind end. Physical therapy for equestrians can increase awareness of your own body and minimize negative habits like this. 

Becoming a Skilled Dance Partner 

Think of horseback riding as dancing…
Imagine being dead weight on the horse’s back which moves like a sack of potatoes. If you’re dancing with a sack of potatoes, you can carry the weight, you can mold the weight, but you’re doing all of the work so it’s much harder. 

If you’re dancing with a floppy and poorly skilled partner, the routine will appear choppy and uncoordinated. You’ll most likely spend a large part of the dance stepping on each other’s toes.

After dancing with a poor partner, you may develop bad habits. You may start shuffling your feet to avoid getting your toes stepped on or looking down and slouching to watch your partner’s movements.

Now, when you dance with a balanced coordinated partner, those bad habits will stay with you and will be hard to shake. Your motor memory learned to dance that way and now it needs to unlearn it by identifying the imbalances and practicing the skill correctly– a journey made much easier with advanced physical therapy.   

Dancing with a skilled, coordinated partner should feel effortless and light. When developing the proper way of dancing, you stand up straight, look up, and move your feet lightly. Physical therapy for equestrians can help you unlearn incorrect movement patterns due to poor postural habits, pain, joint  limitations, or muscle imbalances to become a better dance partner for your horse.

The Case of a Twisted Seat   

I had one client whose saddle slipped perpetually to the left. No matter what gait they were in, what exercise they were doing, what direction they were going, the saddle continued to slip to the left. After first looking to the horse for an answer, the rider started to question if they were the problem. The rider saw many different equine practitioners before finding me, a Doctor of Physical Therapy for equestrians, specializing in movement analysis of both horse and rider. The rider described struggling with their pelvis twisting to the right, which caused saddle slippage to the left. After assessing the rider off the horse, the problem turned out to be a hyperextended right knee causing a twist in the pelvis. 

Due to the hyperextended knee, the right hip shifted back causing the left hip to move forward. The horse could feel this subtle shift and the grounding of the right hip. Because of this, the horse was moving its rib cage and hind legs around the riders right hip bone. Over time, the horse developed a strong muscle memory of going around in this haunches-in position. 

The horse’s motor memory is a powerful tool that requires significant correcting if allowed to go on for too long. With the help of mounted video analysis, rider physical therapy assessment, prescribed exercises, and balance retraining, the rider was able to overcome the hyperextension and correct both themselves and the horse. 

The Horse Cannot Lie 

Your horse’s muscle patterns can tell you a lot about your own biomechanics. Overtime, your way of riding (which is directly impacted by your posture, joint flexibility, and muscle strength) molds your horse’s body.  When you use video motion analysis and advanced physical therapy to assess you and your horse’s biomechanics you can tell how your riding may be affecting the horse and vice versa. 

For example, my saddle gives me a clue as to how I sit unevenly. On the cantle there is a slight lowering of the left seat, encouraging my already imbalanced riding to cause my horse to lead with her right shoulder.  As a Doctor of Physical Therapy, I knew it was important to figure out how to improve my seat to help my horse use her own carriage correctly. I found a physical therapist that I traveled to New York to see. He was able to correctly identify my postural and muscle imbalances and give me exercises. This has helped me to accommodate the imbalance and minimize the impact to my horse. 

A horse with an unbalanced rider is like a dancer with an unskilled partner. They may develop bad habits such as picking up the incorrect lead or falling into a circle. If you look at your horse and notice one shoulder is much bigger than the other, a lack of top-line muscle, or tiny hindquarters compared to a massive shoulder, you know that imbalanced riding could be causing incorrect muscle development. 

One of the best ways to solve this is to assess yourself first. Take advantage of my expertise as a Doctor of Physical Therapy and a skilled equestrian. I can help you understand the hidden truths about your biomechanics and how they impact your horse. Physio Equine Solutions offers video motion analysis, physical therapy for equestrians, and treatment strategies to increase performance, optimize muscle development, and help you build a better partnership between you and your horse.

If you are ready to discover the truth about your riding biomechanics, schedule your free consultation at 443-883-0724.

Does your horse have a Doctor of Physical Therapy? Why Not?

Most equestrians that are serious about riding have a big support team. It can include a veterinarian, chiropractor, massage therapist, dentist, trainer, barn manager, and even a saddle fitter. Double that for the rider’s support team and you can easily have twenty people helping you and your horse succeed. So why do you need to add a Doctor of Physical Therapy to that already big team?

A physical therapist who has specialized training as a Certified Equine Rehabilitation Practitioner can work with equine veterinarians to develop and implement comprehensive programs to help increase overall strength and balance of the horse. As movement specialists, physical therapists add a different perspective on the biomechanics of the horse and rider interaction.

A physical therapist can be crucial in taking you and your horse to the next level. Equine physical therapy focuses on the health and fitness of both horse and rider. With the help of a Doctor of Physical Therapy, you can find yourself overcoming recurring injuries, moving up the levels, and becoming a more balanced athlete.

Equine physical therapy uses prescribed exercises, massage, and various modalities (such as laser therapy) to promote wellbeing and athletic performance.

This is quite different from a chiropractor, who focuses on bone alignment. A chiropractor may perform a hands-on evaluation, make adjustments by manipulating the skeletal system, and then move on. The horse or rider may need a few days off afterwards and the chiropractor would have to return periodically to adjust the team again. This leaves the team dependent on the success of treatment with regular appointments which may never address the true imbalance.

A physical therapist is also different from a massage therapist. While a Doctor of Physical Therapy may use massage as part of their treatment plan, they also prescribe strengthening exercises to solve the source of the problem. A massage therapist focuses on relieving muscle tension, eliminating pain and stress. This may also have to be repeated periodically in order to maintain results.

How a Physical Therapist Reduces Chance of Injury

Equine physical therapy identifies and minimizes areas of weakness. A custom treatment plan is then drawn up to strengthen those weak spots. If they were left to persist, injuries would be more likely to occur.

For example, a horse that is predisposed to lean to the left is subjecting the joints and muscles on the left side of his body to more wear and tear, leading to an early breakdown in performance. A physical therapist could help identify this and provide exercises to rebalance the horse before the breakdown occurs.

Physical Therapy Can Improve Injury Rehabilitation

Let’s be honest, equestrians and their equines are not good at sitting still. Horses like stall rest about as much as your average rider likes to be confined to the couch. When injuries do occur, it can be difficult to allow oneself to rest and heal. Having a physical therapist on your team can safely shorten recovery time for happier horses and riders.

Exercises prescribed by a Doctor of Physical Therapy allows you to strengthen the necessary muscle groups, while still allowing injuries to heal. This means you won’t be half as weak when you’re let off stall or couch rest and can get back to doing what you love sooner.

How a Physical Therapist Enhances Performance

A proactive approach to recovery can allow you to minimize permanent damage and recurrence. By completing exercises as prescribed by a physical therapist you can regain balance and lessen the load on the injured body part.

Emily received her Doctor of Physical Therapy from Old Dominion University in 2005. After graduating, she worked at MedStar Washington Hospital Center before becoming an American Board of Physical Therapy Certified Cardiovascular and Pulmonary Specialist in 2013. In 2017, Emily combined her passion for horseback riding and physical therapy by successfully completing The University of Tennessee Certified Equine Rehabilitation Practitioner program.

All of this training and experience allows Dr. Shields to enhance athletic performance, reduce pain, and prevent injuries.

If you want to reap the benefits of having a physical therapist on your equine team, get in touch today to learn more about the services we offer here.

Physio Equine Solutions is here to help!
If you have any questions, you can talk to Emily directly. We’ll find the physical therapy solution that’s right for you and your horse.
Call or Text for Free Consultation 443-883-0724
Email Questions to Emily

Interested in Hosting a Rider Physical Therapy Assessment Clinic at your farm?

Did you know rider asymmetries are common?
Even highly skilled riders have asymmetries!

A functional movement assessment of the rider on and off the horse allows for a better understanding as to rider fundamental movement limitations or commonly called “asymmetries.”

The Rider Physical Therapy Assessment offered by Physio Equine Solutions combines human and equine functional movement biomechanics with sport specific analysis of motion. This allows the physical therapist to discern the underlying cause of the asymmetry or limited functional movement. Once the big picture cause – effect relationship is identified, appropriate physical therapy interventions and exercise programs can be implemented and monitored to decrease rider pain and/or asymmetry to improve rider and horse performance.

Are you interested in hosting a clinic? Minimum of 4 riders for mounted assessment required.

Email us for clinic availability.

  • Lecture will be from 8:30a-10:30a
  • Objectives
    • What is Rider Biomechanics?
    • Rider Anatomy
    • Human Functional Movements
    • Rider Strength vs. Stability
    • Pitfalls of Rider Biomechanics
    • Unmounted Rider Warmup
  • Rider Physical Therapy Assessments -unmounted 10:30a-12:30p
  • Lunch on your own 12:30-1p
  • Rider Physical Therapy Assessments -mounted 1-5p

Clinic Levels of Participation:
1. Mounted Assessment $150 (4 maximum)
2. Unmounted Assessment $75 (3 maximum)
3. Audit $25 (as space allows)

What to Expect with an Equine Physical Therapy Assessment

  • History of Horse
  • Presenting Complaint and Nature of Injury
  • Review treatments, injections, or surgeries previously performed by DVM for presenting complaint
  • Standing Inspection of Horse (Observation, Palpation, Range of Motion)
  • Horse Gait Observation with video recording (consent required by owner of the horse) unmounted and/or mounted by usual rider over soft and hard surfaces
  • Review of available diagnostic imagery/readings of horse
  • Review of DVM diagnosis/prognosis of current injury
  • Discussion with DVM if horse is amenable to rehabilitation with physical therapist
  • Discuss owner’s expectation of rehabilitation
  • Create/Develop in collaboration with horse’s DVM Outcomes/Goals that are realistic, responsible, and timely with adjustments to rehab care plan

Please Note: A Physical Therapist will not diagnose equine problems. For a Physical Therapist to treat your horse, a DVM must evaluate and agree to work collaboratively with a properly trained physical therapist for the rehabilitation care of the horse.

Dr. Shields, Physical Therapist for the Horse and Rider

Emily Shields received her Doctor of Physical Therapy from Old Dominion University in 2005. She had been working at MedStar Washington Hospital Center, a Level 1 Trauma center, in Washington, DC since 2005 where she has gained the skills and knowledge to treat individuals with a variety of cardiovascular, pulmonary, neurologic, traumatic, and orthopedic conditions.

In May of 2013, Emily achieved the American Board of Physical Therapy Certified Cardiovascular and Pulmonary Specialist.

Since 2015, Emily has been focusing her clinical education and skill on the biomechanics of the horse and rider as well as common equine injuries.

In December of 2017, Emily successfully completed The University of Tennessee Certified Equine Rehabilitation Practitioner program. Since then, she has been working with local equine vets around Woodbine, MD treating horses with injuries amenable to physical therapy treatments.

She has attended the Animal Rehabilitation Institute’s “Functional Assessment of the Equestrian” to learn techniques to assess and treat the rider on the ground as well as mounted.

Read more about my story and how my business got started.

What is a CERP?

Certified Equine Rehabilitation Practitioner can be a veterinarian, veterinary technician, physical therapist, physical therapy assistant, or students of these professions that completed a postgraduate certificate course offered by the University of Tennessee School of Veterinary Medicine, Knoxville.

The Equine Rehabilitation Certificate Program (CERP) is a RACE approved credentialed program in equine rehabilitation which includes online courses, live labs, case studies, and a cumulative examination.

CERP Team Approach to Equine Rehabilitation:

As a CERP, we design and implement a comprehensive rehabilitation program for commonly occurring musculoskeletal, integumentary and neurologic conditions of the equine, document the rehabilitation programs using standardized forms.

As a CERP we are taught to understand the regulatory issues surrounding the practice of equine rehabilitation. We learn the different types of therapeutic modalities and mechanisms of action. We are knowledgable in the common causes and medical or surgical therapy for tendons and ligaments. We are aware of how to monitor response to injury and healing of tendons and ligaments. We are able to correlate the rehabilitation program with the physiologic processes that the patient is undergoing during its rehabilitation.

An Insider’s Guide to Equestrian Pre- and Post-Ride Workouts

Equestrians treat their horse as “the athlete,” however consider themselves last on the list. Why don’t we take our health seriously? Every competitive athletic sport has a stretching program to prevent injuries and improve performance. We have a program for our horses– why don’t we have one for ourselves?

It is time that we, as equestrians, take our fitness and health seriously to reduce our risk of injury. It doesn’t have to be regular pilates practices or a stretching routine worthy of a yoga guru. I’m talking about a short controlled and coordinated equestrian physical therapy program that will have you ready to be a better partner for your horse.

Why You Need Pre/Post Ride Workouts

It’s important that riders match their horses in terms of fitness and health. A rider who is out of shape will quickly find themselves overwhelmed by a very fit horse. In contrast, an extremely fit rider could push an out-of-shape horse too far, leading to injury. 

Fitness and health are not synonymous. Being fit can be easily obtained through practice, whereas health must be cultivated. Fitness is about using balance, coordination, and cardio to create the physical stamina that benefits the horse. Health is when all physiologic body systems within horse and rider are working in harmony.

If you and your horse are having an off day, you may want to consider the health of you and your partner. Were you stuck at school, work, or in traffic that increased your frustration level or gave you a headache? Was your horse stressed by their stablemate calling out to them? These are all examples of you and your horse’s health not being in balance. 

Of course we can’t be perfect all the time, that’s impossible! To improve your riding and become skilled dance partners, both rider and horse should match fitness and health levels. A pre- and post-ride workout, as well as a general fitness program, will help you achieve balance more frequently. A specific equestrian physical therapy program can help you create a plan that works for you.

The benefits of a pre- and post-ride workout are huge. A simple stretching routine can increase circulation, delivering oxygen and nutrients to working muscles. It also helps you become mentally prepared to ride your best, every ride. Through your workout, you can activate the right muscle groups for great equitation. 

On the other hand, a post-ride workout can prevent an excessive drop in blood pressure or pooling in the lower extremities. If we stop working out too suddenly our blood pressure will drop to or below our pre-workout levels. This can cause light-headedness and pooling in lower extremities. It’s for these same reasons that we walk our horses to cool down as well. A Doctor of Physical Therapy (like me!) can design the right pre- and post-ride workout based on an equestrian physical therapy program to help you obtain all of these benefits.

Types of Stretches

To get all of the benefits of pre- and post-ride workouts, it’s important to understand the different types of stretching and when to use each one. A Doctor of Physical Therapy can help you design an equestrian physical therapy plan that incorporates each one appropriately. There are several types of stretches, including: static, ballistic, dynamic, and proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF).

Static stretching targets a single muscle group by stretching for a period of time and then repeating. It is used mainly to increase muscle length and achieve an increased range of motion for a particular joint. One of its biggest benefits is to decrease muscle and joint injury. Research shows that this type of stretching is best done during your cool down workout, as it may decrease muscle force when performed prior to activity. 

Ballistic stretching provides a sharp contrast to static stretching. Instead of slow repetition, ballistic stretching involves uncontrolled and uncoordinated movements usually involving momentum and bouncing. While this can increase muscle flexibility, the risk of injury is much higher as it can cause unwanted soft tissue tearing.

Dynamic stretching uses controlled, coordinated functional movements of the joints and muscles without holding a position. These moves are repeated with an increasing range of motion and force. Dynamic stretching is best done as a warm up to increase muscle coordination during sport-specific movements.

Proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) is a physical therapy modality that activates muscle proprioceptors through facilitation, inhibition, strengthening, and relaxation of selected muscle groups. A PNF-trained partner assists with stretching by providing isometric contraction to a targeted muscle, followed by a relaxed passive stretch to increase muscle elasticity. A lot of technical terms there, let’s break it down.

For example, to increase the range of motion in your hamstrings, a Doctor of Physical Therapy may have you lie on your back and raise one leg straight up in the air. Then, they would use their expertise to push your leg to a straighter position and gently lengthen the hamstring. 

Research has shown that PNF stretching techniques provide the greatest increases in range of motion in the shortest amount of time. As a Doctor of Physical Therapy, I am trained and skilled at PNF stretching to achieve your fitness goals.

My Pre- and Post-Ride Program

I put my expertise as a Doctor of Physical Therapy to practice in my own riding routine. When I was 15 years old, I was competing in the hunter/jumper ring. I sustained a lumbar spine injury and eventually had to have a spinal fusion from the multiple traumas I had as a young competitive rider. Now, as an adult equestrian, I have had to learn how to incorporate a dynamic movement warm up to get me ready to be a better partner for my horse. I start with standing anterior, posterior, and lateral pelvic tilts. This helps me understand how my pelvis and spine are moving or not moving that day. 

In order to perform these pelvic tilts, place your hands on your hips. For a lateral tilt, shift your hip bones up and down vertically. For example, at one point your left hand will be higher than your right and vice versa. An anterior tilt moves the front of the pelvis horizontally forward and down, moving your rear end higher up in the air. A posterior tilt pushes the back of the pelvis down and your hip bones forward. 

Next, I have to turn on my gluteus medius. Yes, that’s right I said turn on! Since pain and muscle imbalances have caused poor posture habits in my past, my gluteus medius needs to be reminded to activate when and how I ask it to. This means tapping into muscle or motor memory. 

Start by standing with your left side close to the wall. Bring your left thigh parallel to the floor keeping your knee bent and your foot also parallel to the floor. Press your right foot into the floor, while pushing your left knee into the wall. Do not let your torso lean to any side. Make sure that you are in posterior pelvic tilt and your right knee is not bent. The gluteus medius of your right leg is now firing all its muscle fibers.

I don’t have to do all these exercises very long anymore because I have created new motor memories. I started at 1-2 minutes each, so really my pre-ride workout was no more than 5 minutes. Now on good days it takes about a minute, but some days are better than others. This drastic decrease in the time it takes me to perform my workout was all thanks to equestrian physical therapy.

My post ride workout consists of static stretches to help with the flexibility of muscles and joints. If at all possible you want to do these in the saddle while walking your horse out. 

The first one is to drop the stirrups and open my hip angle while bending my knee and lifting the foot. This is targeting my overworked and under-stretched hip flexors. To avoid goosing your horse, it’s important to keep your spine in neutral.

If my horse is cooperative, I then go into frog legs. This is when you flex your hips and knees lifting both legs out and off the saddle while keeping your pelvis neutral. This is stretching your back muscles. My horse is now able to tolerate me doing this at a walk– and I don’t feel like I’m falling off! Yes, I still hold onto the pommel for dear life sometimes. 

Lastly, I make sure my chest, upper back, and arms get stretched. Sometimes this happens off my horse (she only lets me get away with so many shenanigans on her back). It starts with stretching my arms forward clasping hands together while nodding my head down and holding it. With my hands still clasped I raise my arms to the sky rolling my shoulder back and down. Lastly, I drop my hands to my waist keeping my shoulder blades back and down. I try to touch my elbows behind my back as I look up, allowing the chest to open and the spine to extend. 

Treat Yourself Like the Athlete You Are

No matter how you look at it, equestrians are athletes and we deserve better than the treatment I see most riders offer their bodies. A pre- and post-ride workout is a great start to cultivating a better health and fitness mindset and become a better partner for your horse. As a Doctor of Physical Therapy, I offer the expertise you need to become your best self. If you want a pre- and post-ride workout program tailored to your strengths and weaknesses, sign up for a full rider assessment today.