Who Cares About The Rider?

Jan 8, 2009 - 10:00 PM

There seems to be little support for the well-being of the rider in our horse sports, and the author believes there’s a need for change.

Yes, you read the title correctly. As a sports massage therapist practicing and teaching the Jack Meagher method for nearly two decades, I’ve made long-term, first-hand observations of the overall health and well-being of equestrian athletes. We need some improvement in our sports.

My primary work is serving equestrians, but I do see athletes in other sports including baseball, rowing, tennis, golf, running, dance and, most importantly, the largest and strongest athlete, the horse.

Sports require the highest level of stamina, perseverance, flexibility, and good physical and mental conditioning. Equestrian sports are not exempt. However, equestrian sports are different from all other sports in that they require a balance between the needs of the rider and the horse.

The demands of maintaining and managing the horse are huge, encompassing intense hours and years of training, with a tremendous workload for the care of the horse. Additionally, there is the physical labor of mucking, mowing, heavy lifting, fence repair, tack cleaning, dragging an arena, etc.

What all this boils down to is the fact that there’s little time left in the day for riders to care for themselves and make sure their needs are met.

Cultural Support

Most sports seem to have a particular culture connected with them, which sets or dictates values, standards and resources, as well as spoken and unspoken rules, all aimed at supporting the performance and well-being of its athletes.

Athletes look to the culture of their particular sport for guidance.

Marathon runners have access to resources that include preventative health care, proper footwear, jogging strategies, fitness regimes and nutritional advice. Football players are taught physical and mental strategies to develop skills, fitness and stamina to meet top expectations. They expect to receive preventative care, including strength training, massage, acupuncture, physical therapy, orthopedic medicine and chiropractic—all modalities necessary to support a professional athlete’s efficient and well functioning body and mind.

Triathletes know how much rest they require for peak performance, how many carbohydrates and proteins to eat, when to push themselves, when to back off and when to seek preventative care.

Randy Ward, an event rider and trainer from Ocala, Fla., played on hockey, soccer and lacrosse teams throughout his elementary, high school and college years. He remembered the basics—exercise, drink three glasses of water at night before a game, eat well and get a good night’s sleep.

“The basics have always been the same,” said Ward. “These basics were across the board in each sport and at every level.”

Ward suggested in order to change the mindset in the equestrian world that we need to educate the young riders because that’s where it starts in other sports. “My pee wee coach was just as important as my college coach,” he noted.

Ward also suggested that we look at how other sports educate their athletes and perhaps develop a program in conjunction with the trainer certification programs that address rider health and fitness.

Physical And Mental Challenges

Many sports have strong financial backing directed at caring for the athlete and team. Equestrians do not. At this point, I feel it’s critical for the equestrian culture to undergo a sweeping change and create a new mindset that recognizes the health of the rider.

The demands the sport places on the athlete are greater than other sports, simply by the nature of partnering with a horse. Because riders are not participating on a team (which accounts for 90 percent of riders), coupled with the lack of a definitive culture, this may further undermine the rider.

Interestingly, riders have solid standards, or a culture, for their horses. For example, grooms or riders receive prizes for their horse being the best groomed or conditioned. Yet, in comparison, the groom or rider presenting the horse is usually not in the same top condition as the horse he is presenting.

While the sport is a 50:50 partnership between the horse and rider, the scales of care are imbalanced. Of course, with everything this is a generalization because there are self-motivated equestrians who go to the gym, do Pilates and yoga, eat well and use preventative care, but they are in the minority.

In general, the individual rider must seek this information on his own, outside of the cultural expectations.
If a rider is on a team, he may receive minimal physical and mental support during the training phase or at the competition, but usually it’s in relation to his status as a team member. Once he leaves the team, he’s again, like most riders, on his own.

On every level, our equestrian culture does not support the rider in the same way it does the horse. I do not know of a place where a rider can go and learn riding and horse care as well as a healthy approach to physical and mental well being, an approach I feel needs to be a way of life.

“I expect the best out of my horses, and to get the best I know I need to take care of myself,” said Patty Ray, FEI-level trainer and rider of Grand View Dressage, Rowley, Mass., and Loxahatchee, Fla. “In order for my students to have the best possible rides, they need to care for themselves, so their rides become easier, and the horse moves cooperatively, correctly and comfortably.”

“I have observed a situation whereby a rider is struggling with the horse to get the correct lead. The next day, after
the rider has a chiropractic adjustment, the rider no longer struggles, and the horse takes the correct lead!” said Ray. “I would like to see more information and more support for rider health in this industry.”

Ray recommends “as we have a training pyramid for the horse, perhaps we should have a health training pyramid for the rider.”

More Demands

Riders are a special group of athletes, whom I greatly admire more than most other athletes because of the grueling demands placed on them. Riders deserve the care afforded other athletes.

I’ve seen a rider drive 10 to 12 hours to a competition, skip breakfast, eat a bag of potato chips, a banana and drink a Gatorade after she stops for gas. She then skimps on dinner because once she reaches her destination she has to unload, set up the stalls, feed, water, muck, possibly ride and do all the jobs required to care for her equine partner.
By the time all of this work is accomplished, it may be 10 p.m., and her first ride may be scheduled at 8 a.m. the following day. However, she has to be back to the barn by 5:30 a.m. to feed, muck, braid, water andwalk the course or ride the horse before the actual competition.

The above scenario is all too common and is not preparing the rider to give 100 percent to her end of the partnership. Her equine partner may be at his optimum thanks to her care, but she’s not there for him.

I recall a rider who asked if I could work on her leg after her horse stepped on her ankle. It was three times its normal size, and she couldn’t put weight on it. When I suggested she go to a hospital for an X-ray and medical attention, she said she didn’t have time and would just tape it and ride her grand prix show jumping course the next day.

In 2000 when I was planning to travel to Sydney, Australia, for the summer Olympic Games to work as the sports
massage therapist for the three-day event team’s horses and riders, I was told my plane would arrive at 8 a.m. Sunday and that I needed to be working on the horses by 8 a.m. Monday. When I asked if I might arrive one or two days earlier to rest and acclimate, I was told, “We hit the ground running.”

So, that’s what I did too. If the equestrian culture made the welfare of its riders equal to horses, I might have had a couple of days to rest up before my job. 

Not long ago a trainer asked me to work on some of her horses. She also asked if I could work on her as well. When I arrived at the barn, the trainer had had a minor incident and was wearing a soft cast on her hand. She said she knew I had a time constraint and told me unconvincingly, “I will be all right, the horses are more important than the people.”

I’m an animal lover, and I often tend to put the needs of my animals before my own, but is there a way in this arduous sport that we can bring greater equality into the picture?

There’s an old Greek saying: “The fish rots from the head.” In other words, the mindset and direction needs to
come from the top. A mindset, a way of life that is contained within the equestrian culture. I propose that a new culture evolve encompassing a holistic approach. The U.S. Equestrian Federation needs to develop guidelines supporting the rider’s needs, as other sporting cultures offer to their athletes. Perhaps an exploratory committee or a task force can be formed to address these issues so there’s equal emphasis placed on the rider, enabling good health and well being.

As Jack Meagher used to say, “Athletes should not have to wait to be injured to get treated.”   

Jo-Ann Wilson


Jo-Ann Wilson, M.Ed., a clinician, teacher and researcher, is a licensed and nationally certified sports massage therapist based in Concord, Mass. She’s the director of Wilson & Meagher Sportstherapy, a program that teaches the Meagher method to therapists and horse owners worldwide. Wilson was the sports therapist for the horses and riders of the 2000 Olympic Three-Day Event team, and her clients range from professional and amateur human athletes, to horses of all levels of riding, driving and racing.

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