There’s a running joke in the horse community: “My horse has a vet, farrier, saddle fitter, chiropractor, nutritionist and osteopath. Me? I have Advil.” And it’s true. Sometimes it’s easier to take care of our horse than ourselves. However, our bodies are integral to how our horses feel. Our movements impact how well we can follow and influence our horses’ movements. In turn, any asymmetry impacts how comfortable our horses are, and how easy it is for them to understand our instructions. Ultimately, taking care of your own body is taking care of your horse.
How Rider Asymmetry Impact the Horse
Think about the act of carrying a heavy bag in one hand. You cannot walk straight – you must adjust your stance to compensate for the off-centre weight. Doing so may encourage you to walk slightly sideways, or to curve your body to balance your shared centre of gravity.
It’s is normal for riders to intentionally shift their weight in the saddle to cue a horse. When you do this, your horse rebalances under you to accommodate the shift and, as a result, he turns or shifts the way you’d like him to.
The problem is that many riders aren’t centered in the saddle to begin with. Areas of tension or weakness may mean that you can’t sit symmetrically in the saddle with equal tension on both sides of your body.
When this happens, your horse may struggle with performing as you intended. You may find he does not bend well to one side – after all, you are unintentionally asking him to bend in the opposite direction. He may become uncomfortable with certain movements or activities, since he is having to work against you. At best, this leads to frustration and missed goals; at worst it can lead to discomfort or pain for your horse.
Identifying if Your Body Asymmetry is Affecting Your Horse
Nobody is perfectly symmetrical, and small differences in tension or strength may not matter to your horse. This is particularly true when you are riding a mature and well-trained horse, or if you are riding infrequently for short times. In more severe cases, there are typically clues to indicate that your body is impacting how your horse feels and responds to you.
The biggest clue is that your horse is asymmetrical. This manifests as movements being markedly easier on one side compared to the other. Typically in this situation we assume it’s the horse that is asymmetrical, but it’s equally likely that the rider is the root cause. This is particularly true if your horse has had body work done with little change, since the horse wasn’t the main cause to begin with.
Another clue that your body is affecting your horse is that you struggle with recurring issues with your posture while riding. Possibly one heel creeps up more than the other, or one shoulder sits further forward than the other. Sometimes these types of issues may seem cosmetic, especially if your horse is generally performing well. But a heel that creeps up may mean a seat that bangs down on your horse’s back, and a shoulder that rolls forward is often paired with a hand that pulls unnecessarily.
If your horse has behavioural issues, it can be a clue as well. Modern riders are good at searching for possible sources of pain that may cause these issues, such as saddle fit or back issues in our horses.
However, a perfectly fitting saddle is only comfortable if the rider sitting in it is balanced and following the movement. How the rider’s body is moving should be considered as a possible source of pain.
The last clue is if you are experiencing muscle or joint pain while riding. Pain causes our bodies to become tense in certain areas and weak in others. It quickly results in significant body asymmetry and a wide spectrum of compensatory movements. These make it harder for your horse to carry your weight and listen to your cues.
Simple Tests to Find Rider Asymmetry
Riders can be very good at hiding asymmetry. We are frequently coached on correct body posture, so we may compensate enough to appear straight and balanced to an instructor or judge. However, compensating creates unnecessary tension that can also impact your horse.
The following three tests can tell you how well you are moving in multiple areas of your body. These positions require full range of motion for multiple joints, so you may find them challenging. This makes them good screening tools, but also means you shouldn’t force yourself into these positions if they are painful.
The first position is shown in photo 1. This primarily tests shoulders, but also requires good mobility in your middle back and elbows. Your goal is to touch your hands together behind your back. Try to touch your fingers together or get a bit of overlap, but it’s more important that this movement is close to symmetrical from side to side than to have your fingers touch.
The second position is shown in photo 2. This position tests your hips, knees, ankles and low back. From standing, slowly lower yourself until your knees are fully bent in a deep squat position. Ideally you should be able to smoothly get into and out of this position. You should also be able to balance in this position with your feet flat on the floor, without holding on to something. Your feet should be symmetrically placed, and you shouldn’t feel more tension on one side than the other.
Finally, you may find that your asymmetries only reveal themselves when you are tired. It can be helpful to test your endurance with a medium squat like in photo 3. Focus on bringing your seat bones backward as far as possible during the movement, to align your whole body. Your back should stay neutral with your weight in your heels. Your knees should be lined up over your toes. Most riders should be able to perform slow squats for two minutes without fatiguing. Pay attention to whether one side or area tires faster. Besides revealing asymmetries, this exercise is also great for improving your strength and endurance for riding.
How to Improve Rider Symmetry
There is a growing industry of professionals aiming to assist horseback riders. This includes physiotherapists, yoga or Pilates instructors and general athletic trainers to name a few. Any and all of them can be part of improving your body awareness and increasing your symmetry.
An assessment by a physiotherapist can be a valuable tool for riders. A physiotherapist can test your joints and muscles, specifically identifying areas of weakness, tension or pain. Afterward, you can make a plan for how to correct your specific issues. Physiotherapists typically employ a combination of manual therapy and home exercises. This approach means that you are getting help to mobilize your tightest areas, and are also strengthening and stretching at home so you maintain your progress. Ultimately, your horse will appreciate your improved ability to deliver cues effectively, correctly and with less effort.