Each year, precious time and money is spent on your horse to ensure a successful dressage season. But do you find yourself often calling the veterinarian to have a look at your horse, assessing problems with its function and performance? Perhaps the deficiencies in performance are not horse-related, but rather rider-related.

Ask yourself this: are you physically ready for a long dressage season? Are you dealing with a nagging injury left untreated for a number of months or years? Your body needs as much attention and care as that you provide your horse. As we know, balance is an integral element in dressage, so it’s only fair that you hold up your end of the partnership.

Let me start by saying I am no expert in the technical aspects of dressage or equine function. As a physiotherapist, however, I am an expert in the technical aspects of the human body and its physical function. My experience has shown me that many people do not look after their bodies enough and fail to meet the demands of their particular sport. Having a body that is operating pain-free and efficiently is important to performing dressage, whether recreational or competitive. Working with patients in King Township, I have come to learn how important riding is to many of them. In this article I would like to highlight the importance of recognizing and managing your injuries, maximizing physical fitness, and maintaining achievements to ensure optimum performance.

Horse and rider in harmony

Dressage is a fine dance requiring balance between the horse and rider. The use of aids by the rider provides the horse with information of desired demands, and being able to provide these aids both mentally and physically is the most important job of the rider.

A study done by Licka et. al. in 2004 looked at the effect of riders on lameness in trotting horses. Evaluation of novice and experienced riders versus no rider on dressage horses resulted in significant increases to both front limb and hind limb lameness in those horses that were ridden, regardless of the rider’s experience level. Clearly, a horse on its own has a defined balance; when the rider is added to the equation, this balance must continue to occur or the horse will begin to compensate. Imbalances in the human body can cause difficulties with performance and potential injury to the horse.

When things go wrong

Let’s examine some of these human health issues that may prove to be problematic to a horse’s performance. As a physiotherapist, I see most injury or dysfunction arising from improper postures derived from the physical stresses and demands of daily living (even if it just involves long hours spent in front of a computer). What if the rider is “out of balance” or “misaligned”? Pelvic misalignments are frequently diagnosed and can cause adaptive biomechanical faults to the body. Such faults can, for instance, cause a person’s body to be twisted in a particular direction and affect their perception of centre. This is a crucial problem as a dressage rider; if you are unknowingly misaligned, you may be placing uneven weight on your seat bones, thereby providing the incorrect cues to your horse. A resultant back-and-forth of compensatory corrections between rider and horse ensues and performance suffers – along with the possibility of injury.

A lot of riders feel some sort of pain when riding. Many will say, “So what? I always have pain when I ride, it’s no big deal.” On the contrary, these untreated injuries restrict the rider’s ability to perform the necessary tasks to control the horse.

Underlying chronic conditions can create problems for the rider. For example, hip osteoarthritis left untreated or undiagnosed can limit the rider’s ability to provide the necessary leg and seat aids required to direct the horse. Chronic underlying low back pain as a result of degenerative discs, arthritis, or weakness can reduce the rider’s ability to collect the horse and control tempo.

Poor posture is often the basis for injuries. Particularly, poor posture of the head and neck is often a problem born in the workplace that affects our recreational activities. With the classic forward head posture and rounded upper back position of a desk-bound worker, the ability to utilize the shoulders, elbows, and hands efficiently with rein aids is impaired. The single greatest fault of poor posture is weakness to the inner core muscular system. These internal muscles are responsible for stabilizing our spine and providing a solid base to maneouver and generate strength in our limbs. A strong core is a fundamental element to a dressage rider because of its use during all types of aids provided to the horse, not to mention the high amount of strength and endurance needed to perform this sport.

How can physiotherapy help?

Physiotherapists are trained in the assessment of the body including posture, potential misalignments, and muscular strengths and imbalances. Through evaluation, they can determine the cause of the problem and create a treatment plan designed to meet your goals. With the dressage rider in mind, I have provided three specific exercises you can try at home to improve strength and balance, and promote good posture. (Note that for people with sedentary jobs, if your office will allow it, try replacing your desk chair with an exercise ball, which subtly works on your core during the day. These exercises can be performed at work to provide a break from monotony, improve posture and increase circulation to the lower body.)

Exercise 1: Seated Inner Core Activation

This exercise will help improve inner core strength to maintain a relaxed seat and stable body control.

Using an exercise ball, sit in the centre with feet flat on floor. Hips and knees should form 90-degree angles. Try to sit “tall,” imagining you are a puppet being lifted at the top of your head. In this position, place the first and second fingers of each hand on your skin just inside of your hip bones and relax them. Now imagine tightening the hip bones together (like pulling a string together between these two points) and gently feel for a slight tension under your fingertips. You should not be consciously activating the abdominals; do not hold your breath. Hold this gentle contraction for 10 seconds, relax, and repeat 10 times. Perform this twice daily.

Exercise 1a: Increased Difficulty to Seated Inner Core Activation

Increase the difficulty by raising one foot at a time off the ground and holding for five seconds while keeping the inner core activated. Repeat back and forth for a total of 10 each side. Perform twice daily.

Exercise 2: Sit Squats

This is a functional exercise for the dressage rider to help increase strength to the legs, hips, and inner core combined. Stand in front of a chair with feet shoulder width apart and arms at shoulder level. Perform squat by pretending to sit in chair, ensuring you lead backward with your hips. Your goal is to get to a 90-degree knee angle with the squat. Make sure you do not drift forward over your knees; you should be able to see the tips of your toes when performing this exercise. Hold for five seconds, repeat 15 times. Perform twice daily.

Exercise 3: Seated Posture Correction

This exercise will help you break the habits of your daily driving or desk job routine. Re-training this postural position will allow your shoulders, elbows, and wrists to relax, thereby maintaining the self-carriage position. A straight vertical line dissecting the ear, centre of shoulder and elbow from the lateral view exhibits proper posture of the head, shoulders and elbows. While sitting, relax the shoulders and gently tighten the lower shoulder blade muscles “down and in.” This will automatically put the shoulders and elbows in a good position. Now, consider the “puppet” analogy again and imagine the top of your head being lifted vertically. At the same time “tuck the chin in” to provide proper neck posture. Hold for 10 seconds and repeat 10 times. Perform twice daily.

Equal Time

You should be spending as much time and resources on your health as you do with your horse. Your previous injuries or faulty biomechanics may be steering you and your horse to failure. A rider requires the perfect amounts of joint mobility, strength, balance, and endurance to obtain fluidity and best performance from the horse. Any deficiency in these areas will lead to improper technique and compensatory strategies by the horse, or even subsequent injury to the horse or rider, causing frustration and unmet expectations. Simple solutions include exercises or medical intervention by a registered physiotherapist. Stop pushing your health aside; it’s crucial to a safe and healthy dressage season.

Michael Pameli, Hons. B. Kin., BSc.P.T. is a registered physiotherapist and co-owner of Nobleton Physiotherapy in King Township, ON, where he treats many local equestrians. His treatment philosophy is directed at treating the cause of the problem with client-specific manual therapy, exercise, and education for maintenance and long-term health. For more information, visit www.nobletonphysiotherapy.com.