by Kim F Miller
Sharon Classen has made a career of gently palpating, mobilizing and pulling human and horse muscles and joints in different directions, but it’s her who’ll be pulled every which way at the FEI World Equestrian Games this September. As one of the International Equestrian Federation’s Permitted Equine Therapists, Sharon will work with both horses and riders from all over the world.
With its eight disciplines, the games will host between 1,000 and 1,200 horse/rider pairs. The American reining team, Bolivian show jumpers, Irish eventers and Para Dressage equestrians are among her clients at the Tyron, North Carolina competition. Her role includes helping competitors from across the globe who are not able to bring their own Physical Therapist. She’ll also treat alongside FEI vets at the Veterinary Physical Therapy clinic and supply and oversee fellow physio therapists at the monumental, once-every-four-years event.
The WEG’s competitive intensity and density of athletes are a new challenge for Sharon, but treating elite horse and human athletes is not. Based in the Omaha area and an active show jumping trainer, rider and competitor herself, she earned her Physical Therapy degree from the University of Nebraska Medical Center in 1981. Early career posts included the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs and the University of Nebraska’s dynasty football team, the Cornhuskers.
Sharon bought her first horse soon after launching her career, and her two passions – horses and physiotherapy -- have combined. Demand for her services keeps her busy working with 30-40 horses and the same amount of riders every week at competitive and educational events around the country. Growing demand reflects the equestrian world’s growing appreciation for physiotherapy.
The popularity of physio in equestrian sports is catching up with that in mainstream sports. Elite athletes in any athletic endeavor consider it an extra edge and their embrace of physiotherapy explains why Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Lindsey Vonn and Tiger Woods are among top professionals significantly extending their peak performance years.
Over nearly 40 years of practice, Sharon sees the parallels between physio's place in human and veterinary medicine. “In 1981, we were educating orthopedic surgeons about the benefits and now we are doing it for veterinarians,” she explains. “We’re not reinventing the wheel. Olympic athletes and the world of human sports medicine have been doing it forever, and now we’re doing it with horses.”
Another sign of growth in physio for horses is the International Equestrian Federation’s requirement that practitioners at sanctioned competitions have the Permitted Equine Therapist accreditation as of July of this year.
It’s an exciting time to be at the forefront of equine sports medicine’s rapid expansion, Sharon enthuses.
What is Physical Therapy?
As most athletes who’ve been injured know, Physical Therapy uses exercises and treatments to restore, maintain or improve movement and physical function. “Most athletes aren’t aware what we do and some don’t like our tough exercises,” Sharon explains with a laugh. While some might grouse their way through physio led work-outs, everyone likes the results.
With equestrians, the practice is all the more interesting and challenging because it involves two athletes whose movements impact each other’s. Horse and rider’s physical issues are “always related,” Sharon notes. “I treat them individually and together. More often, it’s the rider affecting the horse.”
Many horse and rider problems begin with the rider’s hips and pelvis. The majority of riders she works with have mobility or range-of-motion issues in their hip joint, or a spinal asymmetry, that makes them shift more weight to the right—often corresponding to right-handedness. “The horse compensates for that by shifting his center of gravity, throwing his haunches to the left on landing and landing harder on the right front.”
Such tendencies are determined by functional biomechanical analysis of the rider, first off the horse, then on the horse, and then of them together. Three-dimensional motion capture video is one of Sharon’s evaluation tools along with slow motion capture video. The treatment is setting the athletes up on therapeutic exercises that correct body position and simultaneously strengthen the muscles needed to maintain that correct form. “Just as in any sport, form and technique are important,” Sharon explains. The physio's exercise prescription makes those a habit for horse and rider.
Flooring as a healing foundation
In treating injuries and post-surgical recoveries, and in prevention, maintenance or helping attain and maintain peak performance in her clients’ horses, Sharon keeps a weather eye out for anything that helps. She considers ComfortStall® Orthopedic Sealed Flooring mission critical in several situations. “There are a myriad of ways it can be used in a sports medicine context,” she says. The cushioned flooring’s comfort and safety benefits are “just common sense.” An important benefit in her work is the flooring’s ability to build proprioception that is critical to the body’s recovery from everything from a schooling session to a major surgery. Proprioception is the sense of where body parts are and the ability to move them in response to stimuli. Maximum strength cannot be gained without proper proprioception.
“Any time you have a soft tissue injury, you have an alteration of the proper neuromuscular pathways,” Sharon explains. “You need to re-educate that and that’s what ComfortStall does. Because it’s not a solid surface, the horse has to balance himself using proprioception. Side-to-side movement stimulates those pathways without compromising the tissue healing.” The more quickly and consistently proprioception is brought into the healing process, the faster the healing and recovery.
Many years ago in human medicine, treatment following a common injury – an ACL surgery, for example – involved immobilizing the knee joint for six weeks. “That actually retards the healing process,” Sharon explains. “Today, the patient is moving many times the same day as surgery.”
Trends toward post-operative early mobilization are crossing to equine care and ComfortStall makes that safely possible. Every rehabilitation facility should have a ComfortStall recovery stall, she asserts. Outside of post-surgery situations, the flooring helps horses rebound from the microscopic trauma that results from regular riding and competition recovery.
Busy as she’s been, Sharon insists on keeping up with her own riding. Through her Serenity Ridge Farm in the Omaha area’s Bennington, Nebraska, she trains horses imported from Ireland for sale in the States. With the WEG on the near horizon, she recently handed over the reins on her two of her elite jumpers, Viserion and Notorious, to California professional Mandy Porter.
Sharon has competed up to Grand Prix level show jumping, but fulfilling demand for her work is the priority now. “I love treating and working with motivated people,” she says. “There’s an absolute need for this work and a lot of people are looking for it. It’s very interesting and it’s the wave of the future. I am excited that equestrian sports are catching up to other Olympic sports.”
ComfortStall will be at the WEG, too, as part of its parent company Haygain’s booth in the World Equine Expo Vendor Village, near the giant Smartpak space. Sharon may be a little too swamped to spend much time there, but visitors can experience the flooring’s therapeutic benefits for themselves while enjoying some aromatherapy from another of the company’s healthy horse products: Haygain Steamed Hay.
Read more about the benefits of ComfortStall