Horse and Rider performance

“It takes two to make a thing go right”

by Phoebe Bolton, PB Equestrian - Osteopath and Strength and Conditioning Coach

As a human and equine osteopath, I frequently get asked to treat a horse “to make sure his back is right” before a competition. When asked whether the rider would like a treatment afterwards too, most decline.

Tilly is a 16.2 mare who competes with her rider Julia in Dressage. They are currently making the transition from elementary to medium level.

When I first saw Tilly, I noticed that when she was being lunged she was very tight in the shoulders and she pulled herself along with her front legs rather than carrying the weight behind. When I was assessing her, her shoulders felt stiff and her neck muscles were rock solid, she was also quite asymmetric behind – her left leg was stepping underneath but her right was not.

By giving Tilly a full assessment it was clear from her muscle development that Tilly found it more difficult to do right canter, right half pass and would be much less supple and submissive on the right rein. Therapists are trained to read and understand muscle development and as such we can interpret it’s abilities and restrictions.

It’s so important to strengthen as well as stretch as a rider, so you can maintain a good position for longer

Your horse’s body doesn’t lie; it can only do so much.

In this instance, the rider, Julia asked to be treated as well. As I took her history she revealed how, like most riders, she suffered from back pain. She mainly experienced it on the left hand side of her lower back, but also felt tension across the top of both her shoulders. She said her right leg often felt weaker than the left and she has suspected this was why Tilly found the right rein more difficult.

Julia was rotated left in her pelvis and thoracic region and collapsed her left rib cage. This caused a lot of muscle tightness in her left shoulder and neck as the muscles were trying to hold her shoulder up to prevent it from dropping in the same way as her ribcage had.

It’s really important for the rider to understand where they are weak and unstable, so they have an idea about how to correct it

So what does this mean?

Red lines = painful muscles, trapezius (top) and quadratus lumborum (bottom). Arrows show the direction of rotation in the thorax and pelvis. Notice how everything leans left.

Julia’s tendency is to lean left, weight bare into her left stirrup and then collapse her upper body. As she is rotating left, her right shoulder and right hip will be carried further forward, thus reducing her ability to sit in her right seat bone and making it much more difficult to open her body to the right – which is mirrored by Tilly who was also stiffer on this side.

Her left lower back is having to work very hard to “anchor” the rest of her body. When a muscle is persistently activated it fatigues and becomes painful, due to the lack of bloodflow and oxygen. When this happens repeatedly, the muscle remains sore constantly and the body starts to adapt and change how it moves to try and accommodate this. This causes an antalgic posture, where the body is moving in a different way because of pain.

You can clearly see how this affects their dressage performance. My main aim with all treatments is, firstly, to educate the rider about what their body is doing. So many riders are unaware of their weaknesses and asymmetries and this leads to all kind of problems. Awareness of the body helps the rider to understand why they have been experiencing problems and why its important to fix them. Secondly, I want each person to take away something which they can do to help themself.

With Julia, I focused on getting her pelvis and thorax straighter. The psoas muscle starts on the front of the lumbar vertebrae, runs through the pelvic region and attached onto the front of the pelvis and hip. When the pelvis is twisted, this muscle is often short and tight. In this case the right psoas muscle needed to be released and stretched as it was pulling the right hip forward.

I then focused on her hamstring and glute tension, as well as her slightly rotated spine and shoulder blades. Although osteopaths do manipulate the joints if needed, I typically find that soft tissue work and stretches make up the majority of my treatment, for the horse as well as the rider.

Left: Julia’s pelvis twisted to the left as she squats – right hip more forward, more pressure on left leg. Right: Julia’s pelvis straight as she squats – thinking about pulling the right rein in her bum backwards

When treating I am always thinking about the anatomy and how one muscle connects and relates to another. This concept of “muscle chains” is becoming more and more popular and refers to the musckuloskeletal system, which is that all muscles are connected. As a result, the psoas muscle merges into the hip flexor which merges into the quadriceps which merges into the patella tendon as it runs through the knee and so on. This allows you to “track” the tension through different chains and muscular slings in the body creating a pattern which you can try to unravel through treatment and exercises.

It is important, though, to strengthen alongside relaxing. This helps the body remain stable and maintains a better posture for longer. So, once Julia had had her treatment, we went through a variety of different exercises which she could do to maintain her body in a good position.

My rider strength and conditioning programme contains 5 sessions where we work on balance, strength, flexibility, endurance and core control. The riders use stretchy resistance bands at home to make the exercises more difficult, alongside an exercise booklet which is tailored to their exact problems.

At the start when Julia squatted, she was leaning to the left and only using her left leg – much like how she rides! For her, the main thing was to practice getting an equal feel on the ground with each foot when she was stood still. When she started to go into a squat, I told her to imagine she had a rein in her right bum cheek which was trying to pull that side of her back.

As you can see, her pelvis levels out completely and she is able to activate her right glute and leg muscles correctly. If she has just been told to squat to improve her leg strength, she would have done more damage but repeatedly practicing this bad, twisted position.

One of the other things Julia had to learn was how to balance on one leg – without letting her upper body and ribcage collapse left. Although she though she could stand on her right leg ok, she was so twisted in her upper body that again, practicing this without doing it correcly, would have cause several problems.

Teaching Julia how to stand up tall and ‘lightly’ – like a ballet dancer not a army officer, really helped consolidate her new, upright posture. She left feeling lighter, with several exercises to work on and a clear picture in her mind about how she was standing and moving, and how best to avoid falling back into bad habits.

I was delighted to hear that at her dressage lesson the week later her instructor couldn’t believe how much she’d improved and how straight she was sitting!

Julia and Tilly are not an exceptional cases. These types of problems are typical of lots of riders and their horses! For this reason I find the joint treatment of horse and rider to have hugeley positive results. Repeatedly riding asymetrically is one of the leading causes of rider back pain and also drastically hampers your and your horse’s performance.

If you would like to ask anything regarding this article or any treatment reIated questions please get in touch. You can email me at or find more information on my website or facebook page


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