What do horses and physiotherapy have in common? Plenty, say Sandra Oxtoby and Keira Forsyth, the owners of Equus Physio.
“Keira and myself are registered human physiotherapists,” said Oxtoby. “We both grew up riding horses and we had our own injuries.”
The two say many chiropractors, physiotherapists, or massage therapists, many of the health-care professionals they’ve met don’t understand the dynamics between riding and being able to care for horses.
People who have injuries often have challenges when working with horses. For example, a knee injury can make it difficult to walk out on uneven ground and catch a horse while a shoulder injury makes it difficult to put a saddle on.
The pair met at a physiotherapy school at the University of Alberta in 2012, and came up with the idea of a physiotherapy clinic specializing in treating equestrian riders.
“It expanded into one of the largest problems that we saw, which was injury and dysfunction in horses as well,” said Oxtoby, adding their business is the only one of its kind in Canada.
Horse and equine physiotherapy is a dynamic process that is intricately linked, she said.
“If you have an injury and you’re sitting on your horse asymmetrically or if you feel sore after riding your horse, they need to be paired together,” she said.
Forsyth and Oxtoby opened their human clinic with two treatment beds in Cochrane in March, but also travel to barns to treat riders (as well as at a Calgary-area stable). Their most popular service is mobile clinics.
“We travel across Canada doing clinics where we watch you initially ride for 15 minutes and ideally have a conversation with your coach, or your trainer, or yourself about what is working well and what isn’t working,” said Oxtoby.
After observing riders, one physiotherapist treats the horse and the other treats the human, and they then provide the clients with an exercise and treatment plan.
Most of their clientele comes from the show jumping world — Oxtoby is a dressage rider and Forsyth is a show jumper — but they’re hoping to expand their business to the rodeo world.
Injuries to riders can be very discipline specific, said Oxtoby. Team ropers are more likely to have shoulder injuries, while steer wrestlers will have more back pain.
It’s the same story for horses — dressage horses are more likely to have ligament and tendon injuries, while show jumping horses often suffer from overuse of their hamstrings or pain in the sacroiliac joint.
Since Forsyth and Oxtoby are registered physiotherapists, their services are covered through most benefit plans. They also educate people on how they can prevent injuries, and improve their performance as riders.
“If you’re a barrel racer and your pelvis is asymmetrical, you’re going to turn on one barrel better than the other barrels,” said Oxtoby. “And is that indirectly causing pelvis issues in your horse?”
Problems in the rider’s body can also make big differences to the horse, because humans and horses communicate through body language, she said.