Equine Ridden Assessment

Original Editor - Petra Zikmann Top Contributors - Jess Bell, Tarina van der Stockt, Kim Jackson and Chelsea Mclene

Introduction[edit | edit source]

Assessing the rider on a horse is not a routine part of an equine assessment. However, it has been suggested that there is a lack of recognition of lameness in horses due to the impact of riders on movement asymmetry.[1] These assessments can, therefore, provide valuable clues in the assessment of equine patients with chronic issues.[2]

You might perform a ridden assessment when:[2]

  • The rider specifically raises a concern about his / her own riding, especially when there is a history of trauma or pathology (e.g. back surgery / pelvic fracture)
  • You want to assess saddle fit in more detail
  • You are asked to do so

It is, however, important to remember that equine physiotherapists are not (typically) qualified riding instructors, so you should limit your assessment to issues of biomechanics rather than technique and skills.[2]

The components of effective riding are:[2]

  • Alignment
  • Awareness
  • Core control
  • Breathing

Alignment[edit | edit source]

Neutral Spine[edit | edit source]

Spinal column curvature 2011.png

Neutral spine refers to the position where every joint of an individual’s spine is held in an optimal position. This helps to ensure an even distribution of forces through the overall structure[3] and allows for:[2]

  • Optimal absorption of concussive forces
  • Optimal activation of the core muscles

Correct Riding Alignment[edit | edit source]

Maintaining the correct riding alignment means that riders are able to hold themselves in a natural upright position (i.e. they retain their natural spinal curves). If riders do not maintain this position (e.g. move into excessive anterior tilt), they are unable to keep their pelvis in a vertical position. Thus, they are less able to stay “glued” to the saddle during trotting or cantering as they have insufficient mobility in their lower back or hips to absorb the horse’s movement.[2]


It is, therefore, beneficial to be able to find the correct alignment off the horse. To achieve the self-carriage needed to ride in the Classical seat, riders can try the following exercise:[2]

  • Stand sideways by a large mirror with feet slightly apart
  • Stand with back straight (i.e. upper back straight, lower back curving in slightly), shoulders back, chest open with a relaxed stomach
  • Bend knees (make no other change apart from lifting arms slightly as if holding the reins) to move into a "horse on" position
  • An imaginary straight line should connect the ear, point of the shoulder, hip joint and ankle
  • These points remain the same whether standing or riding - the only change is the bend in the rider's elbow and knee

To find this position on the horse:[2]

  • Riders should settle into the deepest part of the saddle with their back straight
  • Without stirrups, riders should lift up their legs, so that their knees are by the withers
  • This shifts the weight from the knees and thighs to the seat bones
  • Riders should adjust themselves until they feel that their weight is evenly placed over the two seat bones and their crotch (the crotch should rest on the rising part of the pommel, but not press down)
  • They should then check the position of their back - their back should be neither too flat (rounded) nor too hollow (stiff), and it should allow for natural curves
  • When riders achieve this correct alignment, with their shoulders over their hips, they should feel stable
  • Finally, riders should check that their shoulders are level (opening at the front rather than holding them open on a flat back) and that neither side of their rib cage bulges out more than the other

Awareness[edit | edit source]

Centring (off horse)[edit | edit source]

When riding, it is important to be balanced. To enhance a sense of balance, it can be helpful to:[2]

  • Sit square in a chair with your weight over your seat bones, your knees at 90 degrees and your body upright
  • Become aware of your own body, feel any areas of tension and try to let them go
  • Be aware of your breath filling your lungs and abdomen
  • Become aware of your “midline” - the imaginary line that passes between your eyes, down through your spine to your coccyx
  • Sit and think about your breathing and your midline for a few minutes
  • Remind yourself of the connection from your seat bones down through the floor towards the centre of the earth
  • Think of your arms hanging off the midline at C7 and your legs off at L5
  • Next open up your awareness and feel the space around you
  • Consider how far you can spread your awareness while focusing on your midline and being connected to your body

Fulcrum[edit | edit source]

A fulcrum is a point of balance. For a rider to be balanced, his / her fulcrum should be down in the centre of the pelvis. To find this point, the rider can imagine a line running from the pubic symphysis to the sacrum and another line running through the hip joints. The fulcrum is approximately where these lines cross.[2]

Many riders carry a lot of tension in their diaphragm / abdomen, so this fulcrum shifts proximally. This creates instability and riders will be more likely to topple forwards or backwards. It is, therefore, important for riders to learn to take long, slow breaths to keep their diaphragm moving (see below).[2]

Balance[edit | edit source]

It is often said that riding requires the rider to be both balanced and relaxed. To develop the necessary skills (i.e. the correct isometric tension to remain stable without gripping) to balance on a horse, it can be beneficial for riders to try the following moving base balance exercise:[2]

  • Sit on an exercise ball
  • Close eyes
  • Lift left foot of the ground and hold for 10 seconds
  • Repeat on the other side

Balancing on a Horse[edit | edit source]

Sitting on a horse at rest is very different to sitting on a horse that is trotting or cantering. To balance on a horse, riders must always work in the context of the horse's mobility and balance. They cannot just sit passively on the horse or they risk being thrown off every time the horse stops or transitions.[2]


To achieve a Classical alignment, once the horse is in motion, the rider must make continual small muscular adjustments to stay relaxed and in balance. The sitting trot demonstrates the relative relaxation required by riders as they must be able to effectively absorb the motion of the horse. To achieve this, they must understand how the horse moves at the trot and how this movement affects them in the saddle.[2]

Moving at the Trot in the Lunge[edit | edit source]

If you observe the deepest part of the saddle from the side, it will appear to move like a series of arcs. The point between the arcs corresponds to the moment when the horse makes contact with the ground. This bump at the bottom of each stride is what jars the rider out of place.[2]

If you viewed the centre of the saddle from above, you would observe a zigzag pattern that follows the swing of the horse's back. While most riders are able to absorb the swing of a horse's back at the walk, many riders do not notice this swing at the trot unless it is pointed out to them. There is, therefore, both an up-down and side-to-side aspect of equine gait that riders must accommodate to stay with the motion of the horse.[2]

Core Control[edit | edit source]

There are certain key muscles to consider when riding:[2]

  • Psoas
  • Transversus abdominis
  • Multifidus

Psoas[edit | edit source]

The psoas muscles (i.e. psoas major and minor) are located deep in the abdomen on both sides of the lower spinal vertebrae.[6] Psoas major attaches to the anterior aspect of the lumbar transverse processes and to the anteromedial aspect of all the lumbar discs and adjoining bodies apart from L5/S1. The muscle fibres converge, becoming a common tendon which travels down over the pelvic brim before inserting into the lesser trochanter of the femur. It shares a common insertion with the iliacus muscle.[7]


The psoas muscles act as a bridge between the upper body and the lower limbs - they are the only muscles that directly link the spine to the legs.[6] While they are recognised as the primary flexors of the hip, their other functions are less well understood.[7] Moreover, many of their functions are performed in conjunction with other more superficial muscles, so they are often overlooked during assessments of horse riders.[6]

They are, however, important muscles to consider while riding. When activated, they help riders achieve lumbar stability and hip approximation.[9] If riders achieve balanced flexion of their psoas muscles, they are better able to maintain self-carriage as they can tone their inner thighs and follow the movement of the horse with their pelvis.[6]

Breathing[edit | edit source]

Diaphragmatic vs Chest Breathing[edit | edit source]

Breathing is not often discussed in connection with riding. However, it is very important that riders adopt a diaphragmatic breathing pattern when riding.[2] Riders who adopt a shallow or chest breathing pattern may signal to their horse that they are worried / fearful, which ultimately can spook the horse.[10] By breathing deeply and rhythmically, the rider can convey a sense of calm and of being in control to the horse, even if this is not the case.[2]

Basics of Breathing[edit | edit source]

Breathing is discussed in detail here and here, but the following section provides a brief summary of important points in relation to riding.

949 937 muscles-of-respiration.jpg

The main purpose of breathing is to maintain homeostasis, which is achieved by the inspiration of oxygen and the exhalation of carbon dioxide (CO2). This process stabilises pH. The normal range of pH in the human body is 7.35-7.45.[11] A normal breathing rate for adults is between 10 and 14 breaths per minute.[12]

Diaphragm[edit | edit source]

The diaphragm is a dome-shaped muscle that is primarily involved in respiration. The superior portion of the diaphragm originates at the xiphoid process anteriorly, the lower six costal cartilages of the thorax laterally and the first two lumbar vertebrae posteriorly. It converges into a central tendon which forms the dome’s crest.[13]

The diaphragm and intercostal muscles are the only muscles that are active during quiet inspiration.[14] The diaphragm contracts and pulls its central tendon down. This increases the negative pressure inside the thoracic cavity, which draws air in. At the same time, the external intercostal muscles raise the anterior chest wall - in a bucket handle action.[13] As the chest cavity increases in size, air is able to enter from outside the body. During quiet exhalation, the rib cage and chest wall relax and return to their original position. Concurrently, the diaphragm relaxes and lifts. This movement expels the air from the lungs.[13]

Habitual Chest Breathing[edit | edit source]

At rest, our shoulders, upper chest and stomach muscles should be relaxed when we breathe in. However, a number of riders and other individuals adopt an upper chest breathing pattern. Chest breathers tend to hold in their stomach, make little use of the diaphragm and instead breathe using the muscles of the upper chest, neck and shoulders. This style of breathing becomes automatic and the body adjusts the volume and rate of breathing as it does in diaphragmatic breathing.[2]

Breathing Exercise[edit | edit source]

For riders who have this upper chest pattern, the following exercise can be useful: [2]

  • Concentrate primarily on the exhalation, which should be calm, long and deep
  • During the exhalation, exert a free, relaxed, expanding downward pressure on the lower internal organs, without pulling the abdomen in
  • The inhalation should be natural, automatic and spontaneous
  • Breath in for two and out for four

Saddle Fit[edit | edit source]

Saddle fit has a significant impact on the horse and rider. Basic principles to consider:[2][15]

  • The panels should make even contact with the horse’s back along their entire length
  • The seat of the saddle should be level, with the deepest part of the seat in the centre of the saddle[16]
  • If the saddle is too wide, it may drop at the pommel and lift at the cantle
  • If the saddle is too narrow, the saddle will perch at the pommel, tilting backwards
  • The shape of the tree should mirror the shape of the horse’s back, lying parallel to the horse’s back


Parts of the Saddle[edit | edit source]

Each type of English saddle is designed for a specific kind of riding. The flaps, knee rolls, seat and stirrup position will change based on what the saddle is being used for.[2]


  • Flaps can hang straight down or be moved forwards:[2]
    • Straight hanging flaps are used for dressage
    • Forward flaps are used for jumping
  • Knee rolls can be over stuffed or lightly stuffed:[2]
    • Over stuffed knee rolls are used for jumping saddles because the rider needs a point on which to anchor their knees as they lean forward during the jump
    • Lightly stuffed knee rolls are more popular for dressage riders as they enable better contact with the horse
  • Seat position:[2]
    • Most riders prefer level seats that do not tilt up or down
    • For all types of riding, stirrups should hang down towards the middle of the saddle
  • Panels and gullets:[2]
    • Designed to ensure the horse’s comfort
    • A good saddle will have thick, wide stuffed panels that are springy when pressed on
    • They should not appear bulky or lumpy
    • The gullet should clear the horse’s spine and withers - it should not be resting on top of the horse’s withers
    • Make sure to check that the panels do not rest on the horse’s spine when looking down at the spine from the back of the saddle

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Persson-Sjodin E, Hernlund E, Pfau T, Haubro Andersen P, Rhodin M. Influence of seating styles on head and pelvic vertical movement symmetry in horses ridden at trot. PLoS One. 2018;13(4):e0195341.
  2. 2.00 2.01 2.02 2.03 2.04 2.05 2.06 2.07 2.08 2.09 2.10 2.11 2.12 2.13 2.14 2.15 2.16 2.17 2.18 2.19 2.20 2.21 2.22 2.23 2.24 2.25 2.26 2.27 Van der Walt A. Assessment and Management of the Equine Spine Presentation. Physioplus, 2021.
  3. Linton A. What is core stability? [Internet]. 2016 [cited 29 April 2021]. Available from: http://alexalinton.com/apprenticeship/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/CoreStabilityhandout.pdf
  4. YourRidingSuccess. IMPROVE YOUR SEAT (Horseback Riding Perfect Seat) - Dressage Mastery TV Episode 2. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vVzXdLm-Eyg [last accessed 29/4/2021]
  5. Amelia Newcomb Dressage. How to Sit in the Saddle and Move with your Horse. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=29tzSVH5ccw [last accessed 29/4/2021]
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 Zen and the Horse. The Psoas muscles [Internet]. Zen and the Horse [cited 29 April 2021]. Available from: https://www.zenandthehorse.com/blog/the-psoas-muscles
  7. 7.0 7.1 Sajko S, Stuber K. Psoas Major: a case report and review of its anatomy, biomechanics, and clinical implications. J Can Chiropr Assoc. 2009;53(4):311-8.
  8. Kenhub - Learn Human Anatomy. Iliopsoas Muscle: Action / Function, Anatomy & Innervation - Human Anatomy | Kenhub. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cHWjpQ06-cE [last accessed 6/5/2021]
  9. Zikmann P. Assessment and Management of the Equine Spine Course. Physioplus, 2021.
  10. Barton A. Breathing [Internet]. Tilefield Equestrian [cited 29 August 2021]. Available from: https://www.tilefieldequestrian.com/breathing-2/
  11. Hopkins E, Sharma S. Physiology, Acid Base Balance. [Updated 2020 Aug 16]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2020 Jan-.
  12. Clifton-Smith T. How We Breathe Course. Physioplus, 2020.
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 Bains KNS, Kashyap S, Lappin SL. Anatomy, Thorax, Diaphragm. [Updated 2020 Apr 21]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2020 Jan-.
  14. Clifton-Smith T. How We Breathe Course. Physioplus, 2020.
  15. Harman J. The horse's pain free back and saddle fit book. North Pomfret: Stackpole Books, 2007.
  16. Nedrow-Wigmore S. The nine points of saddle fitting [Internet]. Dressage Today. 2017 [cited 29 April 2021]. Available from: https://dressagetoday.com/instruction/eq9points447-12536
  17. SmartPak. How to tell if your saddle fits | Kate Ballard, Society of Master Saddlers. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ht4izu65gD4 [last accessed 29/4/2021]
  18. Miracle Mountain Ranch. Parts of the English Saddle. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vNr1nmk2IZs [last accessed 29/4/2021]