Why physiotherapy principles are so effective in equestrian performance.

Coming from a Physiotherapy background I am of course a bit biased, but I truly believe that a scientific understanding of how horse and rider work together is essential for improving performance.

Both horse and rider are athletes in their own right but must harmonise in equestrian sport. Now horses are incredibly adaptive, just look at the Paralympic dressage horses – they demonstrate amazing displays of athletic performance despite major biomechanical changes in their riders. But they do have huge amounts of physiotherapy support to counter and improve the compensatory changes that result from adapting to their riders.

Asymmetries are present in everyone, horse or human no one is totally balanced, but by minimising these as much as possible we will ride better and our horses will perform better. Evidenced based research into rider asymmetry has proved a significant increase in forelimb load difference when a horse carries an unbalanced rider; basically the horse will brace away from the load to try to balance themselves – great in that it wont fall over when we are hanging out of the side, not so great for the increased stresses going through that loaded limb (R Mackechnie-Guire et al. 2018). 

So many riders report issues such as: a stiffness on one rein, being on the forehand, losing momentum during collected gaits, difficulty bending through a corner/ circle and knocking a pole down predominantly on one rein, losing the line between angled corner fences. These problems are common and at least one of them will likely resonate with you; they can all be improved with performance physiotherapy support. Each of them, and so many others that we face in our training, are exacerbated by: rider asymmetry, reduced muscle engagement, compensatory movements and weaknesses in the horse’s musculoskeletal system.

At Epona we focus heavily on assessing horse and rider, separately and during ridden work, to establish where your limitations are and how they are affecting you and your horse. Only by pinpointing each partnerships problems can we hope to make significant change.  Exercise prescription, fitness improvement and manual therapies are all effective ways of managing asymmetry, but if used indiscriminately they will not provide maximal improvement. Think of it like a patient who’s fractured their arm, they are given morphine which removes the pain but the arm is still fractured. By not defining the root cause of your training issues we are unable to provide effective treatment, sure the hour of full body manual therapy will feel nice, give an endorphin release and temporarily improve flexibility but it won’t address the reason behind the limitation.

Incorporating performance physiotherapy support into your equestrian training enables you to understand the biomechanics behind the movements you’re asking your horse to complete, shows you how your own asymmetries are affecting your horse’s performance and gives you strategies to improve them. As your training develops so will your athletic ability, enabling you to progress to more advanced levels of competition within your chosen discipline.