Physical Therapist Sharon Classen Gets Horse & Human Bodies Where They Need To Be

BY KIM F MILLER

If there was ever any doubt about the value of Physical Therapy for horses and riders, Sharon Classen’s fall itinerary dispels them. The in-demand Physical Therapist lives in the Omaha, Nebraska area but will see very little of it this season. 

Tryon, North Carolina for the World Equestrian Games is her next major stop. As 1,000 to 1,200 horses collect for this quadrennial international tournament, Sharon will be hands-on with many of them as one of the International Equestrian Federation’s few “Permitted Equine Therapists.” Their riders are on her docket, too.

She’ll arrive early to work with the American reining team, then be on call for the Bolivian show jumpers, the Irish Eventers and Para Dressage pairs. Sharon’s WEG 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 physical therapists at the monumental competition.

Sharon Classen working on a horse.

No time for resting after the WEG with Kentucky, Florida and Las Vegas on the following month’s calendar. Assignments include evaluation through palpation of muscles, to mobilizing joints and providing education for audiences ranging from experienced veterinarians to junior riders. Driving Sharon’s busy agenda is a wave of growing appreciation for what she does. 

Often referred to by its common European label, “Physio,” Physical Therapy is gaining popularity in equestrian sports on par with that in mainstream sports, explains Sharon. Elite athletes in any athletic endeavor consider Physical Therapy an extra edge and their embrace of it 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 physical therapy’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.”     

Physical Therapy uses exercises and treatments to restore, maintain or improve movement and physical function. “Most athletes aren’t aware of what we do and some don’t like our tough exercises,” Sharon explains with a laugh. While some might grouse their way through PT-led work-outs, everyone likes the results. 

Client Mandy Porter & Milano winning the Temecula Valley National Horse Show Aon Grand Prix. Photo by Kim Miller

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 horse and rider 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 PT’s exercise prescription makes those a habit for horse and rider.

Sharon is excited that educating regular riders is part of her fall agenda. She’ll be one of the main educational presenters at the inaugural USHJA National Championships in Las Vegas Nov. 13-18. She’ll gear separate talks toward professionals and owners and junior and amateur exhibitors. Take-aways are likely to include rider exercises and tips for products like ComfortStall® orthopedic sealed flooring that provide everyday therapeutic benefits to horses. Sharing experience that enables horses and riders to be healthy and perform at their peak is a major job perk for Sharon.

Sharon Classen & a happy client

“I don’t believe in holding the cards close to the vest,” she says. “I only do this for one reason: I’m extremely passionate about the athletes.” Her knowledge, experience and enthusiasm are packaged in practical explanations and applications so everybody –from FEI riders to the backyard pony kid – and their horses can benefit. Whether it’s explaining the “proprioception” benefits of ComfortStall flooring or walking riders through exercises to improve hip joint mobility, Sharon is all about sharing her knowledge. 

“I have high energy,” she says of her ability maintain a crazy-getting-crazier schedule. “The more I speak, the more I find people asking me to help them or make presentations.” Somewhere in the schedule, she manages to continue what drew her to this life in the first place, working with her own horses. Sharon bought her first shortly after earning her degree in Physical Therapy in 1981 and went on to compete up to Grand Prix Level show jumping. At her family’s Serenity Ridge Farm near Omaha, she imports and trains Irish Sport Horses for the jumper market and maintains her riding chops. With the WEG on the near horizon, Sharon recently handed over the reins on her two of her elite jumpers, Viserion and Notorious, to California professional Mandy Porter, who is also a client. 

Fulfilling demand for her work is Sharon’s 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’m excited that equestrian sports are catching up to other Olympic sports.”