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Strength and Balance: Solid in the Saddle helps equestrian athletes reach their best form

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

People often think horses are the only athlete in the equation when looking at equine sports disciplines, but this is not the case. 

Doctor of Physical Therapy Aleisha Shirley and founder of Solid in the Saddle has dedicated her career to making sure riders are in their very best shape in order to be at the top of their game, whether it be for barrel racing and roping or cutting and reining. 

Aleisha’s mission is to give horseback riders more confidence through strength, balance training and knowledge.

While the idea for Solid in the Saddle came about in physical therapy (PT) school, Aleisha notes her own rehab process following an injury played a huge role in her professional journey.

“While I was living in Houston and taking dressage lessons, I was exploring the idea as to how PT could be specialized to equestrians,” she says. 

Aleisha began hosting clinics in Montana in 2019, with a focus on mobility, strength and balance in the saddle. However, in 2020, she suffered an injury of her own, which would end up being a blessing in disguise.

“In 2020, I broke my back, and I was heartbroken,” she says. “I was leasing a pro horse and felt really confident about going down the road. However, this injury became the catalyst for Solid in the Saddle becoming what it is today.”

Aleisha took a year off to do rehab so she could come back stronger than ever before, and during this time, she had the opportunity to purchase a great horse. 

“I spent the year rehabbing myself until my back pain was completely gone,” she says. “Looking back, there is no way I would have been able to ride this horse effectively had I not rehabbed and gotten stronger.”

Medical Background

Aleisha has a Bachelor of Science in Health and Human Performance with a speciality in exercise science from Montana State University and a Doctorate of PT from the University of Montana, Missoula. 

While in PT school, she had the opportunity to take a class on the biomechanics of runners. 

“A lot of PT is intense information about the human body, how it works, what happens when things go wrong, identifying movement patterns leading to injury and how to correct those movement patterns,” she explains. “A huge part of PT is movement analysis, like watching people walk and why one hip may rotate more than the other and picking up on complex movement.”

According to Aleisha, students in the class would record runners on a treadmill, slow down the videos to one-eighth speed and evaluate factors such as the angle the runners’ feet hit the treadmills and whether or not their pelvis dropped off to one side as they were running. 

They would then compare their analysis to the complaints runners had about specific pains and create exercises to remedy their pain. 

The skills and experiences in this class would have a heavy influence on the creation of Solid in the Saddle.

“I realized we could do this with riders too. When I do evaluations of riders, I will video them walking, trotting and loping each direction,” she says. “For discipline-specific issues, I may video them both catching and missing while roping or performing a sliding stop and evaluate what their issues may be.”

Balance is key

Aleisha notes the key to being balanced and in line with a horse is rooted in aligning both the rider’s and horse’s center of balance.

“A rider will exert the least amount of influence on their horse if they are lined up with the horse’s center of gravity,” she says. “For example, if a person is cutting to the right but they don’t open their hips up, they will get left behind, and their horse will have to work that much harder to drag this momentum with them.” 

She explains a human’s center of gravity is directly behind the belly button, while a horse’s center of gravity is approximately two to four inches below the withers, which is essentially right where a saddle sits. 

“The goal of balanced riding is keeping our center of gravity over our horse’s. The more we can do this at higher speeds and in competitive situations, the more our horse will only have to worry about his own body, without having to compensate for ours,” she says.

Aleisha notes there is fundamentally not a lot of differences between equine athletes and human athletes, such as runners and basketball players. 

“The simplified explanation is athletes are moving their limbs from a stable base,” she says. “So a basketball player is running and then stopping, the core is stable but the limbs are moving independently. If they have stability of core, they can control their arms to shoot the ball at exactly the point they need.” 

For riders, this looks like being able to move the limbs independently from a stable core base. The biggest issue with novice riders is they are holding on with everything they have and they cannot move their limbs independently, which can cause issues with riding.

Reaching patients 

Solid in the Saddle does not operate as a typical PT clinic. Instead, Aleisha offers clinics and various packages for patients via Zoom. 

“When someone is injured, I recommend they go to a local PT first to rule out any issues and get manual therapy if necessary,” she says. “However, a typical therapist can only get so far to getting back to riding goals, and this is where I come in with more specialized programs. It is hard for regular PTs to understand the effect a horse can have on the rider, which makes it hard to get back to riding shape.”

Aleisha begins by conducting four different muscle tests to evaluate the major muscles associated with riding. She will walk patients through movements via telehealth. From there, she will determine exercises the rider can perform to meet their specific goals. 

“I offer packages of four and eight sessions and will walk patients through exercises and videos of their riding,” she explains. “I will look at the riding videos and evaluate and assign exercises and then expand throughout the process.” 

In addition, Aleisha conducts two-day clinics for anywhere from four to six riders at a time. She also has two online courses with video workouts and PDFs geared toward getting back in the saddle post-partum and a general six weeks to being solid in the saddle. 

In the age of social media, Aleisha also posts informational videos and other media on various platforms including Instagram and Facebook, and she is dabbling in YouTube and Tik Tok as well. 

For more information on Solid in the Saddle, visit

Callie Hanson is a corresponding writer for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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