Good pelvic mobility and control appears to trump static balancing ability when it comes to good riding, the findings of fresh research suggest.
During their equestrian education, riders learn to move and stabilize their pelvis to accommodate and influence their horse’s movements.
In general, the rider’s pelvis pitches in the opposite direction and rolls in the same direction as the rotation of the saddle.
Indeed, pelvic control is regarded as a key determinant in the sport of dressage.
Researchers Mette Uldahl, Janne Christensen and Hilary Clayton, writing in the journal Animals, note that, in terms of the horse-rider partnership, it is difficult to differentiate between the causes and effects of asymmetry in the horse versus the rider since the two interact so closely.
Riders, they said, need core stability to follow and guide the horse’s movements and avoid giving unintended or conflicting signals.
In their study, they evaluated the performance of riders undertaking exercises on a gymnastic ball, then related those findings to their on-horse performance.
Twenty experienced female riders were used, all with at least five years’ experience riding their own horses or ponies.
Each rider’s performance in the saddle was assessed based on analysis of a video recording of their efforts in a standardized dressage test which lasted five minutes and 20 seconds. The riders were subjectively scored on the quality and harmony of their riding by a professional physiotherapist who specializes in evaluating and training riders to improve their mounted performance, and in rehabilitating riders after injury.
Any conflict behaviors in the horses during each dressage test were also noted. Each horse’s heart rate was recorded during the dressage tests, and salivary levels of the stress hormone cortisol were measured after the test.
After the dressage phase, the riders dismounted and each horse was fitted with a saddle pressure mat. The rider then re-mounted and rode the horse in two 20-metre circles in a sitting trot on each rein.
Each rider’s standing weight distribution between the left and right legs was measured with two bathroom scales that had been calibrated with a validated industrial weight.
The rider’s balance and mobility were graded in tests on a gymnastic ball.
The riders were seated on the ball with their thighs horizontal and their calves vertical.
They were scored, based on later video analysis, on rolling their pelvis to the left and right; and rotating their pelvis left and right while keeping their legs and trunk as still as possible.
They were then asked to attempt to balance on the ball for 30 seconds after lifting their feet off the ground.
The study team found that the riders’ ability to roll the pelvis from side-to-side on the gymnastic ball was highly correlated with their ability to circle the pelvis on the ball (both indicative of pelvic mobility) and with quality and harmony during riding.
Pelvic roll and the quality of riding showed a trend toward a negative correlation with balancing skills on the ball. “It appears,” they wrote, “that the ability to actively move the pelvis is more relevant to equestrian performance than static balancing skill.
“Horses ridden by riders with better pelvic mobility and control showed significantly fewer conflict behaviors,” the study team reported.
“On the contrary, high scores for balancing on the gymnastic ball were negatively correlated with the horses’ working heart rates, suggesting a less energetic performance.”
Horses worked with significantly higher heart rates in riders with a good rating for pelvic roll and showed a trend in the same direction in riders with a good rating for pelvic circling compared with those who scored poorly.
“The differences may indicate that riders with better pelvic control are in a better position to increase impulsion, engagement and collection, which require greater energy expenditure by the horse and hence a higher heart rate.”
During riding, horses showed fewer conflict behaviors but had higher heart rates when ridden by riders with good pelvic roll ability compared with those assessed as poor.
There was a similar trend for the rider’s pelvic circling ability.
“It appears that the ability to actively move the pelvis is more relevant to equestrian performance than static balancing skill,” they concluded.
Simple exercises on a gymnastic ball that emphasize the ability to move and control the pelvis may be useful to evaluate and potentially improve rider skills, they said.
Uldahl is with Vejle Hestepraksis, a horse consultancy service in Denmark; Christensen is with the Department of Animal Science at Aarhus University, also in Denmark; and Clayton is with the Department of Large Animal Clinical Sciences at Michigan State University.
Uldahl, M.; Christensen, J.W.; Clayton, H.M. Relationships between the Rider’s Pelvic Mobility and Balance on a Gymnastic Ball with Equestrian Skills and Effects on Horse Welfare. Animals 2021, 11, 453. https://doi.org/10.3390/ani11020453