Rider Wellness for Equestian Competition: Part One

Lisa Burch demonstrates "the Home horse" at South Aiken Physical Therapy. (Photo courtesy of South Aiken Physical Therapy)

By Lisa Burch, Physical Therapist, Doctor of Physical Therapy

This article was an honorable mention in the 2020 GMO Newsletter Award in first person experience for GMOs with 175-499 members. It first appeared in Tracking UP, South Carolina Dressage & Combined Training Association, July/August 2020.

Opening Ceremony 2019 YR Endurance World Championship, Italy

Editor’s Note:
Lisa Burch PT DPT obtained additional training and credentialing as part of the United States Equestrian Federation’s Physical Therapist Network. Lisa is one of only four physical therapists who have completed training Levels I and II of Management, Treatment, and Rehabilitation of the Human Equestrian Athlete with Andy Thomas, USEF Lead Physiotherapist. As a USEF-contracted Physical Therapist, Lisa had the opportunity to work with the US Endurance team in 2018 and 2019. She traveled to Italy with the Young Rider team as they secured their 6th place finish at the Young Rider World Championships.

Your horse is fit and ready for competition, but are you physically ready?
The equestrian world is enthusiastically but cautiously returning to competition. Riders from all disciplines go to great lengths to look after the needs of their equine athletes. After you have spent extensive time spent researching feed, supplements, hydration, training, and recovery methods, your horse is a relatively fine-tuned athlete.

In my line of work, I find that often riders forget to treat themselves as athletes. Is your body ready to be the best athlete you can be, to help your horse to perform at her/ his best?

If you expect to function at your best, then make sure to attend to your basic wellness or self-care. If you do not attend to the basics, you will not think, feel and physically function at your best. Rider wellness is all the same things you manage so carefully for your horse. These include rest, hydration, nutrition, fitness, and stress management.

Are you well rested?
It should go without saying, but sleep is essential for optimal function. Chronic lack of sleep can impair memory, increase your stress hormones, and disrupt your metabolic system. Importantly, lack of sleep has also been shown to decrease reaction time and the ability to make decisions.

Recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) vary by age:

• 8-10 hours of sleep for ages 13-18
• 7 hours or more for 18-60 year olds
• 7-9 hours for those aged 60 and above.

TIP FOR SUCCESS: Your tired brain affects your horse! Moments of indecision and an inability to quickly react to your horse can cause him/her to misunderstand your aids, or to lose confidence in your leadership. Slow reactions to environmental situations can also put you at additional risk for falls.

Are you well hydrated?
This is no easy task in the South Carolina heat. Dehydration is responsible for headaches, fatigue, irritability, poor energy and decreased reactivity. Of course, your hydration requirements vary greatly depending on your size, environment, and activity. A rough guideline from the Mayo Clinic is 8 (8oz) glasses of water per day.

TIP FOR SUCCESS: Consider pre-loading your hydration for at least two days before competition. This means extra water in the 2 days before you are required to perform at a high level or for an extended period of time. It can be difficult on competition day to keep up with your hydration. If you have fully pre-hydrated, then you can drink water as your body’s natural thirst mechanism dictates and you should be able to avoid the negative effects of dehydration.

How is your nutrition?
Nutrition is a topic of much debate and varies greatly by individual. After looking at a variety of sources I have chosen a few simple recommendations from the following sources:

• Website www.dietaryguidelines.gov
• American Heart Association (AHA)
• Steven Masley, MD, Nutritionist, author “The Mediterranean Method”

Let’s start with sugar intake. Americans average 77 grams or 17 teaspoons of added sugar daily. Sugar occurs naturally in food, but most sugar intake comes from added sugar. Added sugar not only refers to our sweet treats, but also includes sweeteners in our beverages, dressings, sauces, condiments, and those added to processed foods. Because of the naturally occurring sugars in healthy foods, we do not actually need added sugar for optimal function.
The AHA recommends limiting daily added sugar to:

• 6 teaspoons or 26 grams for women (this is about one third of the average consumption noted above)
• 9 teaspoons or 38 grams for men
• 3-6 teaspoons or 12-25 grams for children aged 2 to 19

Why is added sugar consumption such an issue? Most people associate it with weight gain but the effects of excess sugar are more insidious than bodyweight alone. Importantly, general inflammation can result from excess sugar intake. This can translate to pain, arthritic changes, and cardiovascular issues over time.

DID YOU KNOW : A single 20 oz bottle of regular soda contains the equivalent of 13 teaspoons of sugar? That is more than double the total daily AHA recommendation for added sugar for women!

On competition day, have a breakfast that includes protein and bring along foods that will  replenish your energy, such as fruit and nuts. Experiment with your food choices ahead of time so that you know what is easy for you to digest. This will help you to avoid the vendor burger and fries, and the inevitable feeling of lethargy that follows.

How is your general fitness?

What about other components of your diet? Multiple research studies support a Mediterranean-type diet. This diet has an emphasis on plant-based foods such as vegetables, fruit, nuts, and legumes as its foundation and biggest percentage of daily intake. This diet advocates seafood, eggs, and  dairy  as  additional  protein  sources with only occasional intake of red meat, sweets, flour products, and white potatoes. Modifications can be made to meet the needs of a vegetarian or vegan food plan.

In Dr. Masley’s book , ”The Mediterranean Method” , the concept of food as medicine is discussed at length with dietary suggestions for weight control, improving heart health, brain function, and a healthy gut. These concepts are consistent with both US dietary guidelines and AHA. We can affect a variety of medical conditions with dietary changes.

Avoid processed foods or food that come in  a  box. These foods often have large amounts of added sugar, sodium, and preservatives. They are typically loaded with carbohydrates that break down to simple sugars in our body, stimulating inflammatory processes.

Individuals with medical conditions such as diabetes , heart disease, kidney disease, or have food sensitivities should consult with a with a registered dietician. Also, a high performance athlete may need a registered dietitian for a more specific plan to use food as fuel during intense competition.

TIP FOR SUCCESS: Have a food plan for competitions. Eat a balanced healthy meal the night before. Avoid large portions of meat, heavy desserts, and fried food.

Guidelines of the American College of Sports Medicine, the World Health Organization, and the American Medical Association are consistent in their recommendations. These basic recommendations promote lower rates of heart disease, diabetes, stro ke, cancer, hip/ spine fractures, and improved ability to manage bodyweight.

According to these guidelines, adults need a baseline fitness level, which includes the following:

  • 30 minutes cumulative activity at a moderate exertion level (such as a brisk walk) five days per week;


  • Intense aerobic activity (run, swim, bike> 10 MPH) for 20 minutes three times per week;


  • Two days per week of strength t raining. Target major muscle groups with weight-bearing activities such as light weights or machines. Perform at least one set of 8-12 repetitions per activity.

Those of you physically managing farms or riding eight horses a day are already meeting the basic fitness level. However , optimal performance and resiliency may require additional activities such as yoga, flexibility/balance exercises, or Pilates. These can help to assure full mobility of your joints, core muscle recruitment, and maintenance of muscle reactivity.

TIP FOR SUCCESS: Have a food plan for competitions. Eat a balanced healthy meal the night before. Avoid large portions of meat, heavy desserts, and fried food.

Those of you with a desk job who ride a single horse 3-4 days per week at a boarding barn need to have a plan to meet your baseline fitness level, as listed above. I suggest that riders benefit from at least one high intensity work­ out per week. During your high intensity work-out, you should “sweat and breath hard”! This will help prepare you for the energy and intensity required on competition day. Certainly, your ability to demonstrate full joint mobility, engage your core muscles, and exert general muscle reactivity optimizes your function and safety.

My goal with these scenarios is to give a starting point. Your specific needs will differ from these reference points, according to your base level of daily activity.

There are people to help you! For pain issues/joint restrictions; consult your General Practitioner MD, Physical Therapist, Chiropractor, or possibly body worker. Questions about strength or fitness progression may require a personal trainer, strength and conditioning coach, or physical therapist.

DID YOU KNOW: Exercise should not be painful! Modify your activity as needed/recommended to protect joints with past injuries. If you push too hard, you are susceptible to excessive fatigue and possible injury. Many of my physical therapy clients are very fit people who have over-done their exercise program and sustained an injury. That’s clearly counter­productive because of the need to ratchet back significantly during rehabilitation, not to mention the loss of competition opportunities.

How is your stress management?
It is well established that high levels of mental and emotional stress negatively impact your physical well­being. Ongoing high levels of stress can increase blood pressure, disrupt normal hormone levels, and cause increased vulnerability to disease.
Here are a few simple activities that can help to reduce stress:

  • Try deep breathing for 5 minutes with a focus on the breath not your thoughts,
  • Take a walk with a friend (equine, canine, human),
  • Plan a social engagement with a positive person.
  • Get a massage or have bodywork.

Implementing some minor lifestyle changes can have a big impact on how you feel in and out of the saddle! Consider making a few small changes in your areas of challenge and build over time.

If your level of stress or anxiety is severe, consider a consultation with a professional counselor, psychologist, or psychiatrist.

TIP FOR SUCCESS: Don’t have a general massage immediately before or during a competition. Another way to think about relaxed muscles is that you have deactivated them. This relaxation is great for stress reduction and recovery, but not what you want when you want to be an effective equestrian athlete.

Click here to read part two.

Lisa Burch, PT DPT , has over 25 years’ experience as a Licensed Physical Therapist. She worked in a variety of settings and locations before settling in Aiken, SC and discovering a way to combine her passion for outpatient physical therapy with her passion for horses.

Lisa holds a BS in Physical Therapy from the University of Buffalo. She received a Doctorate of Physical Therapy from Northern Arizona University in 2005. She currently works at South Aiken Physical Therapy and Wellness.

The majority of her experience and her primary interest is in orthopedic physical therapy. Lisa has pursued continuing education in sports medicine, as well as rehabilitation of spine, hip, shoulder, and knee problems.

In addition to her educational pursuits in physical therapy, Lisa has been in consistent training as an equestrian. The balance, posture, and athleticism required to effectively ride an equine partner translates very well to teaching posture, balance, and mobility in everyday life. When not working, Lisa enjoys riding and competing her Training Level OTTB at local horse trials.


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