Report from the Study Day at Hartpury College

Wednesday 2nd March 2022

Those of us who were fortunate to be able to attend both of the study days in the Talland and Hartpury double bill were struck by the huge difference between them. At Talland, we focused on the effect that the rider has on the horse, but at Hartpury we drilled down into how the movements created by the horse influence the rider. Our host, Kathryn Nankervis, welcomed us to the Hartpury Equine Performance Department and started the day by introducing us to her first fully funded PhD student, Celeste Wilkins. 

Morning sessions

Celeste, who has successfully graduated and now holds a lecturing post at Hartpury, talked to us about her doctoral project, which focused on rider biomechanics using a riding simulator. It was interesting that the results of her study showed that riders use similar postural strategies on the simulator compared to a real horse, although a simulator does not move in the same way as a real horse. When analysing the rider’s posture, she starts with the pelvis, where the Centre of Mass (CoM) is located, and then looks at what connects to it, i.e., the trunk, limbs and head. In biomechanical terms, the most efficient posture is what coaches recognise as the classic ear, shoulder, hip and heel alignment, although this is related to individual rider conformation and fitness, and it is important to recognise that it is not always achievable. 

There is a high prevalence of back pain amongst riders, but this is related to trunk muscle function and is not necessarily due to poor posture. The connection between the pelvis and the spine allows a lumbopelvic rhythm and whether the pelvis is upright (neutral), tilted forward (anterior) or tilted backward (posterior) influences lumbar spine alignment. There is greater pelvic Range of Movement (RoM) in anterior tilt compared to posterior. In posterior tilt, there is greater hip RoM compared to lumbar RoM. 

As coaches, we often expect that a neutral pelvic position is more likely to achieve that holy grail of “harmony”, but Celeste’s work has indicated that pelvic posture is individual, varies amongst riders and that there is no correlation between static and dynamic posture. Another interesting finding from Celeste’s analysis was that none of the Grand Prix level riders that she studied demonstrated a neutral pelvic position. 

An independent seat is achieved by the rider’s ability to maintain a synchronised coupling with the horse through pelvic coordination. When movement of the horse is translated to the rider, it causes some loss of independence, particularly in trot when the vertical accelerations are greater. The horse’s movement patterns that are exerted on the rider’s pelvis vary between gaits, with walk creating more yaw (clockwise / anticlockwise rotation), trot creating more roll (left / right balance) and canter creating a strong pitch (orientation from the side). As the horse’s movement increases, riders increase their hip movement to maintain coordination. Strong pelvic coordination allows the feet and hands to be looser and move independently. In the quest for harmony, one of the Key Performance Indicators (KPI) in dynamic movement is a still head, which is necessary for the rider to maintain optimal balance. Another desirable feature in rider posture is symmetry viewed from the rear, but this is unlikely to be fully achievable due to natural human patterns of inherent laterality or “handedness” and any acquired strain or traumatic injury. 

Throughout the session, Celeste emphasised that “the movement has to go somewhere” and that there is no “correct” dynamic posture; for example, most dressage riders hinge at the hips and stiffen the trunk. Rider strategy can change after warm-up, between gaits or with speed changes and this variability in different coordination patterns is likely to be beneficial. It is more important when assessing the rider to consider if they are performing at the level they wish to and whether or not they are experiencing discomfort or are in pain.


  Dr. Celeste Wilkins explains her rider assessment methods using “Margaret” the riding simulator

Afternoon sessions

Our next session was a highly entertaining presentation “Banish the Bounce” with Lorna Cameron, Senior Lecturer at Hartpury. Not a lecture subject for the shy, retiring wall flower academic, rider breast health is something that has not been openly discussed until very recently. Welfare of the ridden horse is very much about making the rider a good load to carry, but if excessive movement of the breast tissue causes rider pain, the rider will be unable to harmonise with the horse. Breasts have weak intrinsic support with no muscle but comprise glandular and fat tissue. The ratio of fat to glandular tissue differs between individuals and means that in some females, bodyweight loss corresponds to a decrease in breast size. Different sports move the breast tissue in different ways, for example the arm movement in a runner creates a figure of eight swing pattern. The vertical accelerations and decelerations exerted by the horse on the rider create more bounce. Unsurprisingly, exercise induced breast pain increases linearly with activity intensity.

Embarrassment of breast movement is a barrier to exercise, particularly amongst young women. Results of a recent survey showed that 90% of riders in the UK are female and in 75% of women who ride, that is the only exercise that they take. The survey respondents were an even split of small-breasted and large-breasted females, but 40% reported breast pain while riding with 58% reporting that this was worst in sitting trot. 


Lorna Cameron brings a light-hearted approach to a highly sensitive topic 

There is conflicting evidence in the literature regarding the efficacy of bras in controlling breast movement and reducing the occurrence of pain. The British Olympic Team female athletes are offered bespoke bras because it is believed that this can give a competitive edge to performance. Different types of bras give different support: an encapsulation bra separates without compression to control motion in larger breasts; a compression bra compresses small breasts against the chest wall; a combination bra has moulded cups which both separate and compress. In the literature, it has been reported that over 70% of runners wear the wrong bra size, but Lorna’s study showed that up to 100% of riders wore the wrong size. An effective sports bra should have wide, padded, fully adjustable straps, a high neckline that gives full breast coverage, and a strong elastic underband that allows full range of arm movement. Lorna’s very strong take home message was “everyone is unique so it’s important to have your bra expertly fitted”. 

In a lively Q&A session, male testicular health issues and how they can be a barrier to participation amongst young male riders was also discussed. (And we didn’t even start talking about female nether regions and saddles….!) Clearly, as coaches, we need to get better at having these sensitive conversations with our riders and their support teams.

The final presentation was from Senior Lecturer, Vicky Lewis, and PhD student, Isabeau Decker, who focused on rider assessment off the horse. Some shocking results from a recent survey that investigated chronic pain in riders from different disciplines gave pause for thought.

Amongst dressage riders:

  • 54% reported pain; of those, only 18% used a therapist 
  • 76% reported lower back pain (LBP)
  • 62% reported pain from the saddle
  • 69% use medication, 51% self-medicate

Amongst event riders:

  • 77% reported pain, of those 80% used a therapist
  • 35% reported neck pain, 48% shoulder, 32% upper back
  • 26% experienced pain while riding, 74% after riding
  • 39% reported pain related to stable duties, 16% from the saddle
  • 93% rely on medication

The results from show jumpers were similar to the eventers. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there was a relationship between pain and a negative effect on performance. Amongst competitive riders:

  • 55% said pain affected their performance
  • 26% reported that pain caused fatigue, 13% loss of concentration, 64% decreased RoM

Chronic pain was reported amongst older riders:

  • 66% of leisure riders
  • 78% of professional riders
  • 80% of competitive amateur riders

Back pain is correlated with poor lumbopelvic motor control. Contributory factors may include lifestyle, asymmetry, traumatic injury and repetitive strain. Perhaps surprisingly, female riders were 1.28 times more likely to experience chronic pain than male riders. As coaches, we can assess riders through exercises, static posture and dynamic posture using a Functional Movement System (FMS), which scores performance throughout a series of movements, such as the squat and the push-up. Two very simple exercises that are particularly good for rider assessment are the lunge and the leg raise. No specific expertise is required to carry out a basic assessment; all that is required is that the movement is carried out through a full RoM smoothly and symmetrically. 

This was an extremely valuable day, packed full of ways that we, as coaches can up our game in helping our riders achieve their goals by embracing scientific and technological advances to promote evidence-based best practice. Our thanks go to the Hartpury team for a thoroughly thought-provoking day.

Report by Anne Bondi

Further reading

There are resources available which coaches may find useful: has breast health advice, which is aimed at 11–17-year-olds 

– The British Equestrian Trade Association publishes The Riders’ Guide to Bra Fitting. 

– The FMS scoring criteria is described in the book Movement: Functional Movement Systems – Screening, Assessment, Corrective Strategies. Gray Cook (2010).