I’ve been riding horses since I was five years-old. I never wanted to participate in any other sport and I didn’t, aside from what I was required in PE class. I was so hooked on horses that I pursued a major in Animal Science and a minor in Equine Business at the University of Connecticut before turning to Physical Therapy. It was my life. Growing up, I rode once or twice a week at a nearby stable. In college, I rode 5 or 6 times every week on horses I either owned or leased. I was always told that my posture and position on the horse was not my strong suit, but it was good enough to ride and show – and that was all I cared about.
What it should look like:
What I used to look like:
I recently moved from the UCONN area around Storrs to Waterbury to work at Physical Therapy & Sports Medicine Centers. I began taking lessons at a barn in Southbury owned by another UCONN graduate. Much to my chagrin, she immediately began to critique my riding position. “Shoulders back! Belly tight! Don’t collapse your core! Heels down! Don’t let your lower leg slide forward!”
Appreciation for Good Posture
This time, I heard her critique through the eyes of a physical therapist. I preach proper posture and abdominal strength to my patients all day long, but I had never before put it together – how important postural control is for riding. Proper posture makes a lot of sense; It requires quite a bit of strength and stability to convince a 1,200-pound animal (who would rather be eating) to follow your lead.
“Is that even a sport?”
Anyone who considers themselves an equestrian has been assaulted by the question, “You ride horses? Is that even a sport? Doesn’t the horse do all the work?” I’ve felt irritated by that often enough, but it wasn’t until now that I considered what it means that horseback riding really is a sport. I began to see that, although I was a longtime rider, I had never appropriately “trained” for it. Many other athletes are expected to train outside of their sport but I had not once been given a training program. My friends who were football players, track athletes or rowers, had all been expected to work out in the gym outside of their usual practices. In my experience, most amateur equestrians do not hold themselves to the same standard.
Why posture matters
Why does posture and position matter during equestrian sports? Horses take their cues from their rider’s position. For example, more weight through the left seat bone tells the horse to move right, a forward right leg position tells the horse to move their shoulders left, and a lighter seat tells the horse to pick up the pace. Riders communicate with their horses through their body position, which is crucial when riding toward a solid four-foot high obstacle on a cross country course. If a rider doesn’t have a strong core or solid body awareness, he or she won’t be able to maintain the proper pelvic alignment which is required for an effective seat. Also, a weak core can result in a sore low back due to poor support of the lumbar structures. And as I quickly learned (by getting scolded during my weekly lessons), riding alone is not enough to build strong abdominals.
When I brought this up to my instructor, she acknowledged that she was frequently frustrated by her amateur riders’ lack of stability, aerobic conditioning and flexibility. It was time to put my training to use in my own practice. As a physical therapist, I knew how to appropriately activate my core but I needed to improve my endurance so that I could better control my position during my full ride. I began incorporating one core exercise after my usual workout routine, as well as one day a week of 20 minutes of abdominal strengthening with a focus on lower abdominals.
Change is good!
I noticed a difference within less than a month. My horse was more balanced over his hind end, I was able to direct him with my seat rather than with my hands and my spur, and he was more responsive.
Since equestrian sports are very popular in my area, I am in the process of developing a training program specifically for riders as an adjunct to their time on horseback, available through Physical Therapy & Sports Medicine Centers. I look forward to introducing amateur riders to a regime of professional training. Stay tuned!
Click here to learn more about guest blogger and Waterbury PT, Joanna Fisher.