Most riders are asymmetrical in their weight distribution in stirrups, the findings of an Italian study suggest.
Paolo Baragli and his fellow researchers, writing in the journal Animals, described equestrianism is a unique sport, involving two athletes of different species and shape moving together as a pair.
It has been reported that asymmetry and functional laterality in body movements may be related to the characteristics of both humans and horses.
Laterality — the preference most mammals show for one side of their body over the other — is strongly task-dependent. In humans, it is more pronounced in the upper limbs, but has also been identified in the lower limbs in studies.
The study team said that the laterality of both the horse and rider could contribute to potential asymmetry. However, it is difficult to measure the force exchange at the interface between the horse and rider.
Asymmetry could be due to the rider, the horse, the riding combination, and/or the type of equipment being employed.
Variables such as the rider’s experience, riding position, type of gait, the anatomical and functional characteristics of both rider and horse, and saddle design and position, have been identified as contributing to the degree of asymmetry found in horse-rider movement.
They also sought to identify possible associations between riders’ asymmetry and their gender, age, level of riding ability, years of riding experience, riding style, motivation of riding, primary discipline and handedness.
The 147 riders in the study were recruited at a fair dedicated to horse enthusiasts. After completing an interview to obtain the previously mentioned information, the riders performed a standardized test on a saddle fixed on a wooden horseback-shaped model.
Each had the opportunity to practice on the wooden horse before the test, and could adjust the stirrup lengths to suit themselves.
The riding simulation was split into three phases of one minute each: being seated in the saddle, standing in the stirrups, and simulating a rising trot.
During the test, the riders were asked to keep their hands on their hips in order to maintain a neutral standardized position
The directional force on the left and the right stirrup leathers was recorded every 0.2 seconds for later analysis.
In the sitting phase, it was found that 99.3% of the riders were asymmetrical, with 53.4% of them heavier on the right leg.
In the standing phase, 98% were asymmetrical, with 52.8% heavier on the left.
In the simulated rising trot, the number who showed asymmetry fell to 46.3%, with 51.5% of them heavier on the left. The incidence of the asymmetric loading of the stirrups decreased by 54% among the riders at the rising trot.
The study team found no evidence that asymmetry reduced with riding experience.
While most of the test riders were right-handed, the researchers did not find any association between handedness and asymmetry of leg load.
The researchers, discussing their findings, said they had hypothesized that most of the riders would be asymmetrical.
“Since our design excluded the horse as a variable (i.e., riders were tested on a saddle fixed on a wooden horse), the asymmetry detected was exclusively due to the rider.”
For all three riding positions, the results showed that the loading was different between left and right. “Few riders demonstrated the same leg mass distribution in all three phases,” they said.
Only the riding style – whether each rider tended to use one or two hands on the reins – had a significant association with increased asymmetry in the stirrups. Those who usually rode one-handed were twice as likely to be asymmetrical than two-hand riders.
This may be due to the position of the hands, and also the different positions of the feet and the different habit of assuming certain riding positions while riding.
“This association between asymmetry and riding style may be an important consideration for both riders who experience back pain from riding and clinicians treating horses for back problems,” the researchers said, “especially during ridden rehabilitation.”
The study team said it is worth noting that one-handed riders were asked to perform a rising trot – something to which they were not accustomed. “This may have challenged their balance and, therefore, their symmetry and may have biased our results.
“However, our findings are in line with the literature and riding style should be listed as a risk factor for asymmetry and subsequent back problems in both riders and horses.”
The authors said that, overall, the use of inexpensive, easy-to-use and quick-to-assemble instrumentation allowed the extensive collection of data, suggesting that this technology could be used as a preliminary cheap and easy way to identify asymmetries in riders that does not involve videos or expensive saddle-pad tests.
“Further studies using a larger sample size with equal numbers of left and right-legged riders, with both riding styles, over a longer test and comparing the measurements of load cells in different parts of the stirrups are, however, needed to confirm our preliminary findings.”
The authors said their findings confirm that the majority of the riders are asymmetrical in load distribution on stirrups and suggest the riding style as a possible risk factor for asymmetry.
The study team comprised Baragli, Asahi Ogi and Angelo Gazzano, with the University of Pisa; Alberto Alessi and Marco Pagliai, with Addestramento Etologico in Pistoia, Italy; Martina Felici and Barbara Padalino, with the University of Bologna; and Lesley Hawson, with Harness Racing Victoria in Australia.
Baragli, P.; Alessi, A.; Pagliai, M.; Felici, M.; Ogi, A.; Hawson, L.; Gazzano, A.; Padalino, B. Rider Variables Affecting the Stirrup Directional Force Asymmetry during Simulated Riding Trot. Animals 2022, 12, 3364. https://doi.org/10.3390/ani12233364
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