Schedule your appointment today: 803-649-9797

Rider Wellness for Equestrian Competition: Part One

by Lisa Burch, Physical Therapist, Doctor of Physical Therapy

About Lisa

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?

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:

  • 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

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.

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.

How is your general fitness?

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, stroke, 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; plus
  •  Two days per week of strength training. 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.

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 workout per week. 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.

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, during your high intensity work-out, 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 counter-productive because of the need to ratchet back significantly during rehabilitation, not to mention the loss of competition opportunities.

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.

How is your stress management?

It is well established that high levels of mental and emotional stress negatively impact your physical well- being. 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.

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.

Next month’s newsletter will discuss a variety of specific recommendations for both casual and competition riders. We will review the pre-ride warm up, muscle activation, specific joint mobility, and strength considerations to optimize your ride.

At South Aiken Physical Therapy and Wellness, the specialized programs and services are tailored to each individual’s needs and goals. Through collaboration, genuine concern and highly skilled Physical Therapy and Personal Training services, we will help you achieve your goals of recovery, fitness and wellness.

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.