5 Things a Physiotherapist Wants You to Know About Horse and Rider Health

by Alyssa Friesen /

Published on

T

he anticipation was palpable in the room at the Physical Therapy Masters program. The students were going around the circle, introducing themselves to their new classmates and sharing their motivation for joining the program. When her turn came, Sandra Oxtoby knew exactly what she as going to say. She came to the program because she wanted to learn how to rehabilitate humans and horses. While a few of her classmates suppressed laughs at the mention of four-legged patients, Keira Forsyth knew she had just found her greatest ally.

Keira and Sandra connected over their passion for equestrian sports and their shared vision of providing rehabilitation to horses and humans. In the years since that first meeting, they have worked hard to make their dream a reality. From humble beginnings treating patients in a stall at Sandra’s family farm, Equus Physio has grown into a thriving clinic. They now boast 10 employees and are the first, and only, practice in Canada focusing on equine athletes and their human partners.

What does a physiotherapist do? Physiotherapists use their knowledge of the human body and hands-on skills to restore movement, improve function, and prevent injuries. They utilize treatments that are backed by scientific research, like joint mobilization, kinesio taping, dry needling, cupping, and exercise prescription. Physio isn't just for treating pain and recovering from injuries. It can also help athletes maintain and improve performance. 

With equestrian sports, there are two athletes that need to be considered. Horse and rider need to move together in harmony and balance for ultimate success. Keira shared her recommendations to keep both partners feeling great so they can perform at their best.

1. Remember: Your body affects your horse’s movement. 

As riders, we spend thousands of dollars on tack, training, and veterinary treatments to keep our horses in peak performance shape. However, we often neglect our own bodies, which are a critical part of the equation. Our body position allows us to communicate with our horse and changes in our position can affect the messages we are trying to relay. 

“Such a small change in your body can have a vastly negative effect on the whole team,” Keira says. “If you don’t change yourself, your horse is never going to change because they’re always having to overcompensate for your imbalances.”

At Equus Physio, Keira and Sandra prefer to assess equestrians by watching them ride their horses. Imbalances and asymmetries become evident as the pair move together. This method allows them to provide treatment for the horse and rider as individuals and as a partnership. “We try to get you moving at your most optimal, functioning at your most optimal,” Keira says, “and that goes for horse and rider.”

The next time something feels off in the saddle, don’t forget to think about how your body's imbalances might be impacting your ride. Working on your own body could be the key to improving your horse’s performance. 

2. Build a cohesive team to support your horse’s health.

Physio and massage are just one piece of the puzzle when it comes to your horse’s health and wellness. Your horse's team includes your veterinarian, trainer, barn manager, farrier, and saddle fitter. As an owner, you play an important role in facilitating effective communication between these different members. This could be as simple as taking notes during a farrier visit to share with your veterinarian or providing an opportunity for your saddle fitter to talk with your trainer. When the entire team works together, they can better manage your horse’s health to make you a stronger team.

3. Mount from both sides! 

The practice of mounting on the left is rooted in history, starting when riders carried a sword on their left side. When was the last time you carried a sword to your lesson? We should mount from the left and right side to prevent asymmetries. The same principle applies to leading our horses, saddling, and even shoveling manure.

Taylor St. Jacques' workout is all about balance and core strength.

Asymmetries can also result from how we hold the reins with our dominant and non-dominant hand. “Even though we may think we’re using the exact same pressure on the right and left, it’s not going to be because we’re not ambidextrous,” Keira says. “Something little you can do is brush your teeth or drink your coffee with the opposite hand. Slowly, with time, you’ll get the same strength out of it, and your horse will become more balanced as you use equal weight in both hands.”

4. Use cross-training to decrease injuries.

Cross-training is as important for horses as it is for riders. In every sport, imbalances occur because athletes are constantly performing the same actions. Cross-training can help improve strength, lower the chance of injury, and increase performance. For riders, training specific muscles at the gym or participating in a different sport can help prevent these imbalances due to repetition. For horses, Keira recommends hacking outside at least once a week. Working on uneven ground forces horses to develop body awareness, increasing their coordination and balance. Another option is to incorporate pole work and cavalettis in your training, regardless of your riding discipline. While the physical benefits of cross-training are evident, there are also significant mental benefits. Cross-training can help prevent burn out and keep training fresh for you and your horse. 

5. Be proactive about your health. 

Taking responsibility for your health and performance is critical. While equestrians are notorious for toughing it out, it’s important to seek the advice of a healthcare professional when you experience pain or discomfort. 

“If you have pain, something else is going to change as your body overcompensates and that’s going to affect your riding,” Keira says. Seeking assistance isn't just for pain. If something feels abnormal in or out of the saddle, a physio can help figure out the root cause of the problem. Recognizing imbalances before they cause pain can reduce treatment time, getting you back in the saddle and back to peak performance sooner.

Read this next: This App Took the Guesswork Out of My Horse's Fitness Routine

Photography by www.hoofbeat-to-heartbeat.com

Written by Alyssa Friesen

Alyssa Friesen is an amateur equestrian with a passion for storytelling. A conservation communicator by day, she enjoys riding her thoroughbred Speedy, exploring wild places, and reading good books in her spare time.