If you were an imbalanced rider, wouldn’t you notice that?
Not necessarily, scientists say. People usually feel their own natural asymmetry as symmetrical. Their horses, however, would notice—managing uneven weight across their backs which might even make them compensate by becoming asymmetrical themselves.
“For the welfare of the horse, it’s important we recognize our own asymmetry and adjust that for better balance in the saddle,” said Mette Uldahl, DVM, Cert. Equine Diseases, of Vejle Hestepraksis in Denmark, Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) National Head Veterinarian for Denmark, veterinary consultant for the Danish Equestrian Federation, and president of the Federation of European Equine Veterinary Associations.
To help riders see their own asymmetry, Uldahl and her fellow researchers developed a simple home test using commercial bathroom scales. Riders can stand with one foot on each of two scales, set equal distance apart from the middle of the rider’s body, and note the differences in the weights given under each foot, she said.
They can also check their balance by doing simple balance exercises on an inflated polyurethane gymnastic ball. If they struggle to stay upright with their hands extended to the sides or in front of them, they might need to improve their balance, she said.
To test these ideas, Uldahl and her fellow researchers compared bathroom scale readings and gymnastic ball exercise scoring to pressure mat readings under saddle. They worked with 20 dressage riders of various levels of experience, who were involved in a larger study on the effects of rider weight on horses. Both studies were presented during the 15th annual conference of the International Society for Equitation Science (ISES), held August 19-21 in Guelph, Ontario, Canada.
On average, these 20 riders showed a weight difference of about 3 kg between the left and right sides on the bathroom scales, Uldahl said. This corresponded well to the readings the scientists saw in real-time on the pressure mats during the three-gait dressage test during which the riders rode their own horses. The researchers also noted that the more imbalanced the rider was on the gymnastics ball, the more asymmetry she showed in the saddle according to pressure mat readings.
Interestingly, however, that asymmetry tended to dissipate as the riders added artificial weights to their bodies, she added. As part of the rider weight study, the riders had to add up to 25% of their own body weight during the ride, using weighted metal bars slipped into pockets of a vest they wore during the ride. Uldahl noticed that when the riders had 25% of their body weight added, they seemed to “fix” their poor balance. “Perhaps they became more aware of their asymmetry because of the excess weight,” she said, adding that this incidental finding might become a starting point for researching ways to improve straightness in riders.
The study, which was presented at the conference for discussion and the development of ideas for future research, has not yet been peer-reviewed. However, Uldahl said she feels confident that this home-check method is a good way to help riders become aware of asymmetries that they might not have realized that they had.
“Most of the riders in our study were surprised—both by the scale readings and by the pressure mat readings,” she explained. “People just don’t feel themselves as being off balance because they’ve adapted to that imbalance over years and years, and it feels natural to them. It just doesn’t feel natural to the horse.”
Going forward, Uldahl said she hopes to continue working with Lasse Christensen, MSc Sports and Health, who has already studied the physics of the Danish dressage team riders. “No doubt he has improved their balance by testing them and retesting them and applying specific exercises to specific rider problems,” she said. “Riders can improve balance through simple exercises, as he has shown, or even possibly by riding with added weights (following specific safety guidelines) as our study suggested. It would be good to test these exercises on a larger scale in order to make recommendations to riders in general, who could then monitor their progress at home using easy-to-acquire equipment like basic bathroom scales and gymnastic balls.”