Unpacking Posture – Part 3

Harmony in motion: Exploring posture in horse-rider interactions

by Kevin K. Haussler, DVM, DC, PhD

in collaboration with Caroline Lindsay, BSc(Hons), PGCert, MSFC Dip, AdvCertVPhys, CertEdVPT; and Alissa Mayer, BSc(Equine), EHSE-C

Part 1 of our posture blog explored static posture in horses. Part 2 discussed dynamic posture. In Part 3, we examine posture as it relates to horse-rider interactions.

Posture in the horse-rider interaction includes aspects of static body position of both horse and rider as well as the dynamic interaction of the horse and rider during movement. The horse has several tasks that it needs to accomplish during ridden exercise – it must control its own body, adjust itself to the weight and movement patterns of the rider, and respond to the rider’s cues. The role of the rider is to provide postural stability and move in synchrony with the horse.

The dynamic interplay between a rider’s static posture and how the rider responds to the movement of the horse during ridden exercise shapes the quality of this interaction, influencing performance, comfort, and mutual understanding. In this blog, we delve into the fascinating realm of the interaction between horse and rider posture during ridden exercise.

Why assess horse and rider posture?

Effective posture supports clear communication, aids in biomechanical efficiency, and enhances the partnership between horse and rider so that tasks or athletic activities are conducted in a safe and timely manner with a minimized risk of injury for both horse and rider. A balanced, centered position and ideal posture allows the rider to follow the horse’s movements fluidly and without pain or discomfort, while providing clear and consistent aids. Conversely, poor rider posture, characterized by imbalance, stiffness, or conflicting aids, can hinder the horse’s movement, impede its ability to perform tasks, and create tension or resistance in the partnership.

Horses with aberrant static or dynamic posture can also directly impact the rider’s balance and body position during ridden exercise. The dynamic interplay between horse and rider posture can either complement each other and produce efficient movement patterns, or induce back pain, lameness, and reduced performance when aberrant postures in horse and rider are poorly integrated.

Assessing posture in the horse-rider interaction

Assessing posture in the horse-rider interaction requires a multidimensional approach that considers the alignment and biomechanics of both horse and rider. Observation of the rider’s posture, including alignment and stability while off the horse, and the position and effectiveness of aids on the horse provides insights into the rider’s influence on the horse’s movement and behavior. Additionally, evaluating the horse’s willingness and the quality of forward movement under saddle offers clues to the quality of the rider’s posture, postural control, and communication.

Assessing rider posture

Static posture of the rider is assessed in three dimensions (i.e., craniocaudal, mediolateral, and vertically) while standing, seated, and while seated in a saddle both on the ground and on a horse. Common postural deviations in humans (from the bottom up) include left-right differences in foot pronation, limb segment rotation and lengths, pelvic orientation, thoracolumbar scoliosis and lordosis, shoulder height and position, upper limb and hand position, and head and neck alignment.

Postural deviations detected in the rider when standing often directly transfer to the ridden situation. Left-right differences in pressure under the rider’s seat may not be visually evident based on postural assessment but will have direct implications when the rider sits on the horse’s back. Aberrant vertical alignment within the rider’s axial skeleton and pelvis has a direct negative influence on positioning of their rider’s center of mass, applied saddle pressures, and anterior-posterior postural defects (e.g., increased lumbar lordosis or pelvic orientation). Left-right postural asymmetries are often linked to increased resting muscle tone within different vertebral regions and asymmetric application of rein tension.

Postural stability of the rider is assessed during ridden exercise at different gaits, transitions, and directions of travel. Several motorized mechanical training devices have been developed recently to help assess a rider’s posture during riding in different simulated conditions without the influence of a live horse. Non-motorized measurement devices provide insights into a rider’s vertical, mediolateral and rotational alignment and core stability, which have direct effects on a rider’s postural control during ridden exercise.

Factors to consider

Several factors influence posture in the horse-rider interaction, including 1) rider fitness, neuromuscular conditioning, muscle tone, injury status, and biomechanics; 2) horse posture, conformation and training, tack use, design and construction, and saddle fit for both the horse and the rider; and 3) the dynamics of the riding environment. Body weight ratios between horse and rider have a direct mechanical impact on the horse (e.g., induced lordosis) and the functional ability to support the rider (e.g., fatigue). Current literature reports that 88% of horses competing in Federation Equestrian International (FEI) events are lame and 44%-51% are lame in multiple limbs. All these factors affect the rider’s postural control in the saddle, the horse’s response to cues, and the overall harmony of the horse-rider partnership. By addressing these factors holistically, riders can optimize their posture and enhance their connection with their equine partners.

Assessing horse-rider interactions

When horse and rider static and dynamic postures are well matched and complementary to each other, the rider can easily follow the horse’s movement and the horse can readily respond to the rider’s cues and carry the rider easily. Clear communication and efficient movement allow for a rapid progression in the rider’s ability and the horse’s athletic development, performance, and well-being.

However, riders with aberrant posture can have a direct negative impact on how a horse looks, feels, and performs under saddle. Rider asymmetry requires the horse to compensate for the unbalanced forces and timing of the rider’s altered center of mass and movement restrictions. If the horse has the required strength, range of motion, and stability, it can better support the rider depending on the duration and type of ridden exercise. If the rider’s deviated posture is not corrected, then the horse is at an increased risk for injury and developing compensatory postural deviations. Ideally, both horse and rider posture are assessed and addressed to promote harmonious and mutually beneficial interactions.

Horses experiencing postural deviations can be improved temporarily by a trained rider who can support the horse though appropriately timed and applied cues and strength. However, as soon as the rider’s support is reduced or removed, the horse’s postural deviations may immediately recur. Deviated posture in both horse and rider involves increased muscle co-contractions to hold the body in alignment; however, any excess muscle tone can cause restricted joint range of motion, reduced coordination and synchronicity, increased effort and energy to dampen extraneous movements, and a reduced ability to compensate for the added weight of the rider. If both horse and rider have poor posture, then the combined effects can produce significant pain and dysfunction in both horse and rider.

Rider asymmetries

Functional and structural asymmetries of both horse and rider directly impact the combined horse-rider interaction. Functional asymmetries due to pain or stiffness can have pronounced detrimental effects on the rider’s posture, position, and comfort (e.g., tilted head or pelvis, unequally weighted seat bones or leg length discrepancies). Physiologic functional asymmetries of the rider include handedness and left-right differences in muscle tone and development, which have direct effects on rider stability, range of motion, motor control, and horse-rider synchronicity.

Like horses, there are no humans who are 100% symmetrical, and many riders have additional structural asymmetries that affect their posture in the saddle (e.g., scoliosis, pelvic fractures, or joint replacements) and that many horses are asked to compensate for in ridden work. Likewise, structural and functional deviations from the ideal in a ridden horse will have an impact on the rider, who often must change their own posture to compensate or adjust for the movements or limitations of their mount. For example, hind limb lameness in the horse has been shown to induce saddle movement asymmetries, which directly impact rider posture and stability.

In closing…

Static and dynamic posture are integral components of the horse-rider interaction, influencing everything from musculoskeletal health to performance in the arena. A better understanding of posture helps to shape rider stability, the quality of communication, and the synchronized movement of both horse and rider. By understanding and appreciating the nuances of equine posture, we can better support the horse’s and rider’s physical and emotional well-being. Individualized instruction and targeted exercises can improve a rider’s body awareness, mobility, and core strength. When horse and rider are in sync, their postures mirror each other and foster a seamless connection that enhances their partnership and overall performance.

Read our 3-part blog, then join Dr. Haussler and guest collaborators Caroline Lindsay and Alissa Mayer for a fascinating conversation about posture – May 30, 2024 at 3 pm MDT (an hour earlier than usual).

Interested in learning more?

Resources

Bystrom A, Rhodin M, Von Peinen K, et al. Kinematics of saddle and rider in high-level dressage horses performing collected walk on a treadmill. Equine Vet J 2010; 42: 340-345.

Clayton HM, Hobbs S-J. The role of biomechanical analysis of horse and rider in equitation science. Applied Animal Behav Sci 2017; 190: 123-132.

Contino E, Daglish J, Kawcak C. The prevalence of lameness in FEI equine athletes and its correlation to performance. Proceedings of the American Association of Equine Practitioners 2023; 69: 369-370.

Greve L, Dyson S. The horse-saddle-rider interaction. Vet J 2013; 195: 275-281.

Greve L, Dyson SJ. The interrelationship of lameness, saddle slip and back shape in the general sports horse population. Equine Vet J 2014; 46: 687-694.

Mackechnie-Guire R, Mackechnie-Guire E, Fairfax V, et al. The effect that induced rider asymmetry has on equine locomotion and the range of motion of the thoracolumbar spine when ridden in rising trot. J Equine Vet Sci 2020; 88: 13.