Most riders spare no expense in caring for their horses, often neglecting themselves in the process. But did you know your own balance and structural health directly impacts your horse’s performance and well being?
Are you the cause?
Whether you are a jumper, reiner, dressage rider or backyard trail rider, you know that balance and freedom of motion are key to a successful ride. But it’s surprising how few equestrians recognize what effect the fixations within their own bodies have on the motion of their well-tuned horses. The best horses compensate for their riders, but the spinal contortions this requires can lead directly to deterioration. When a rider’s balance is off enough, she leaves a visible impression on the horses she rides. To aid you in identifying the signs and symptoms of rider induced imbalance, we present the following two cases from our own experiences.
Case #1 – Matching fixations
During a recent barn call we were asked to check 20 horses. Three had identical presentations: rib pain on the right, withers tender on both sides, and difficulty flexing at the poll. While any one of these conditions is fairly common, to find three horses that match 100% in their diagnoses is not. Thus it was no surprise that these three (and only these three) belonged to the same rider.
We asked to see him, and over walked a young man with his head held far in front of his body, chin jutting out, short-stepping in his stride. Checking the strength in his legs revealed he was much weaker on the left and could not adduct (squeeze inward).
This conformation often means the rider holds on too tight with the dominant leg, causing pain in the horse’s ribs and a preference for that lead. The forward head posture results in too much weight forward in the saddle, which in turn compresses the withers equally on both sides. The general lack of lower body strength causes the rider to hang on with his upper body – fixating the poll.
Case # 2 – The repeat fixation
A rider called us to check her horse because he was swapping leads behind and could not track a straight line. His pelvis was stuck on the right side and there was very little motion in his left shoulder. These two issues fit the symptoms the rider described, and after an adjustment, the horse cleared out and went well for several days. A week later, the rider was back on the phone reporting the same issues. This time we came prepared with more equipment – video and still cameras for complete biomechanical analysis.
The second spinal evaluation revealed the same fixations, which again cleared after adjustment. It was time to observe the team in action, since there was no obvious reason for these subluxations within the horse. At the walk and trot, the horse moved freely without any signs of discomfort or restriction. But when the rider got on, a new pattern presented – the horse’s tail pinned to the left and the right side of the pelvis locked up. Viewing the footage in slow motion revealed a startling picture. This rider placed all her weight in her left leg and seat bone. The stirrup on that side had been stretched almost two holes longer than the right, and the wear pattern on her tall boots showed much more rubbing on the right side (from hanging on). When a professional rider was later placed on the horse, the horse’s tail swung freely from side to side and all restriction in the pelvis disappeared.
The only way for us to leave a lasting improvement on this horse’s performance was to correct the rider’s balance and alignment. Her own pelvic imbalance was causing a large discrepancy between the contact pressures of her right and left legs. This conformation not only gives false aids, but also restricts the horse’s sacrum enough to cause lasting fixation. In this case, despite numerous visual and performance-related clues, the rider had no idea she was this imbalanced, or that she could have such a dramatic influence on her horse.
Many riders show signs of imbalance that negatively impact their horses, but often do nothing about it because they cannot see the problems in themselves. If a horse wears out a shoe, the farrier is called immediately for correction, because we all know that neglect can have serious consequences! Look at your own shoes; see if they wear evenly. If your boots wear out differently on one side relative to the other, it is impossible to ride with ideal balance. Even if this imbalance originated in your horse (perhaps you ride consistently on a horse with a weaker side) it will eventually translate to your structure, and then impact every other horse you ride.
If the spine or any of the extremities are “kinked”, then messages from the brain do not flow freely to the rest of the body. You may only glimpse this effect when a trainer says, “drop your shoulders” or “breathe” or “keep your heels down and more leg.” Yet you know you are holding that leg on as hard as you can! If you apply 100% of your strength and talent, but only 50% of the message gets there, your performance and your horse will suffer.
If you want to perform at the highest level of your sport, or simply find the most effective way to spend a limited budget on horse and human health care, checking your balance and recognizing when you are the cause of your horse’s “dis-ease” is essential. That way, your horse won’t have to compensate for rider issues that are so easily fixed!
Dr. Wendy Coren and Dr. David Lundquist received their doctorates from New York Chiropractic College and National College of Chiropractic respectively. They continued their education in veterinary orthopractic manipulation with Options for Animals in Wellsville, Kansas, receiving certification from the AVCA (American Veterinary Chiropractic Association).
They have both been in private practice in the states of Connecticut and Florida for over 25 years each, and have lectured extensively throughout the world on various topics of chiropractic health and communication. Both doctors served as team teachers with Parker Chiropractic College.
Co-Founders of Equalign Chiropractic Systems LLC, Drs. Coren and Lundquist have devised a structural health program for horse and rider to promote lifetime wellness and enhance performance. Clients participating in their program represent all levels of competition from novice to A Circuit and numerous disciplines of riding.