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Physical Therapy Doctoral Grad Uses Her Equestrian Skills to Create 'Fit to Ride'

Danielle Rowland, in white, instructs a riding student.

You might say that Danielle Rowland galloped through the physical therapy doctoral program at Old Dominion University with blinders on. She knew precisely what she wanted for her career when she began the studies three years ago, and she was already engaged in her work of choice when she received her degree in May.

This work blends physical therapy with her longtime interest in riding and training horses. She is an equestrian athlete, a prizewinning competitor in the sort of formal dressage events you see in the Olympics.

"Ms. Rowland described her serious interest in horseback riding from the time she entered the program," said Gail Grisetti, an associate professor in the College of Health Science's School of Physical Therapy, and Rowland's adviser. "One of her goals was to look for ways to integrate horseback riding and physical therapy."

This integration of riding and therapy became real for the young woman during an internship she served earlier this year with a private company, Physical Therapy Works, in Suffolk. She was given the opportunity to create an original assessment tool and develop a series of exercises based on movement patterns riders use in the saddle.

"I had to market my idea to the horse community, as well," Rowland said. "I started my first class March 31. It has been an amazing learning experience." Next up for her: to expand the fitness training regimen to include rehabilitation therapies for injured riders.

Brooke Birdsong, a Physical Therapy Works employee and a client of the company's fitness and wellness division, FIT Works, also is a horseback rider. "So I was personally and professionally interested in Danielle's ideas. I have been very impressed with her ability to combine her physical therapy knowledge and her riding knowledge in order to design exercises with the specific purpose of improving riding performance. She quickly identified my deficits and designed exercises that would not only strengthen specific muscle groups, but also improve my reaction time and muscle coordination."

After Rowland graduated in May and began preparing to take her licensing exam, she took a part-time job with Physical Therapy Works and is continuing to teach her popular class. "Everyone in the first class is continuing on to the second class," she said. She has named the training program "Fit to Ride."

Kathy Rowse, a prominent dressage judge, trainer and rider herself, and who owns Silverleaf Farm in Suffolk together with her husband, Mike, may be best positioned to comment on Rowland's success. "She is uniquely qualified to do this class not only because she got her PT degree, but also because she is a professional dressage rider who has earned United Stated Dressage Federation bronze (2004), silver (2005) and gold (2006) medals," Rowse pointed out.

In fact, it is Rowse who took Rowland under her wing more than a decade ago. Rowland had started riding horses in central Virginia's Dinwiddie County, where she grew up, when she was 10, but it was not until she met Rowse when she was 14 that she started training in dressage. "My family could not afford a horse, but I was lucky to come across kind people who saw I needed help," Rowland said. Through high school she took lessons and had the opportunity to ride a variety of horses at Silverleaf Farm in exchange for working there. She also became in itinerant, free-lance trainer, driving to farms in the mid-Atlantic states to coach young riders.

After high school, she enrolled at ODU - she received her undergraduate degree in 2007 in physical education and exercise science - and the Rowses let her live, as well as work and train, at their farm. This setup extended through her PT studies. "I continued to teach lessons, train horses with Kathy's guidance, work off my board and training, and study for school. That took a lot of time management skills," she said, "but it has been a wonderful adventure."

Even in the excitement of beginning her career - and of developing the "Fit to Ride" program - Rowland is quick to say that her interest in dressage competition is as strong as ever. She and Rowse have become training partners, coaching each other almost daily. Both expect to benefit as well from the fitness assessment and exercise regimes Rowland has pioneered.

Physical therapists have paid a great deal of attention to other sports, especially those in which physical exertion is much more pronounced - or seems to be - than in horseback riding or equestrian competitions.

"Sports such as golf and baseball have been studied in detail for an understanding of the biomechanics of the movements and muscle usages," Grisetti said. "Horseback riding for the able-bodied rider has not been described or analyzed in quite this way. The program devised by Ms. Rowland will help riders understand and appreciate the muscles they need to develop to ride or compete successfully in this physically demanding sport that requires balance, flexibility and strength."

Rowland's success with the program, including the entrepreneurial component, came as no surprise to Grisetti, or to Martha Walker, the chair of the School of Physical Therapy.

"Her project combines an understanding of clinical knowledge with an understanding of the business side of the profession," Grisetti said. "Physical therapists in private practice are always seeking new and exciting programs to introduce into their businesses to attract new patients. This equestrian program will surely do that."

ODU turns out physical therapy graduates "who hit the ground running," Walker said. "Students generally have multiple job offers before they even graduate." Forty graduates received their doctor of physical therapy degrees from ODU in May.

Jeffrey Verhoef, someone who has hired ODU physical therapy graduates and who has been an instructor for the business/management class that the students take, added, "Graduates of the ODU program have always been well prepared for their first job. The program really does a great job of providing graduates with a solid clinical foundation while allowing them to explore and develop specialty interests and services." Verhoef is a partner in Tidewater Physical Therapy, which is based in Newport News.

In a letter to Walker near the end of the spring 2010 semester, Rowland wrote that she felt lucky to be headed into a career that she is so passionate about. "I want to thank everyone in the PT department for teaching all of us so well and having such a great program. I am very excited about my career as a physical therapist and, best of all, feel well prepared for the future."


What muscles do horseback riders use and how do they exercise and strengthen them? Danielle Rowland, a dressage rider herself and an ODU physical therapy graduate in May 2010, has created "Fit to Ride" to answer these questions.

To start, she had to identify the basic movement patterns of riders in the saddle. From this, she was able to develop an assessment that tested the strength of muscle groups required during riding, and the range of motion of certain muscle groups that she predicted to be tight. From the assessment, she was able to develop exercises for specific muscle groups that needed to be targeted, and work them in a way that they are used in the saddle.

"It was interesting to find that several of the movements are coupled, such as hip abduction and extension with hip external rotation, and hip adduction with hip internal rotation," Rowland said. "With all of the leg and hip motions that are used to cue the horse, the core needs to be engaged to maintain balance and stability on the horse. The less outside movement - weight shifting - we produce in the saddle the easier the horse can maintain balance and perform the movements the rider asks."

Her basic exercises focus on "teaching" the transverse abdominus to contract and keep the spine in neutral alignment. From there, she adds the specific movement patterns, then ramps up the exercise with the use of a Bosu, stability ball, Thera-Bands or free weights as the clients progress.

For example, one of the exercises that couples several motions involves clients rolling out into a plank over a stability ball (under the hips), holding a free weight between their feet and performing a hamstring curl. This exercise requires the hip adductors and external rotators to hold the weight between the feet, hamstrings to conduct the curl, the abdominal brace to keep from arching the back, and shoulder stabilizers to keep from bending the elbows and maintaining a plank.

"This correlates when a rider needs to move his or her leg back and apply pressure into the horse to ask him or her to bend around the rider's leg," Rowland said.

The results speak for themselves. "We have a full class, and it is proceeding wonderfully," said Sarah Meinertzhagen, one of the professional instructors Rowland has worked with at Physical Therapy Works in Suffolk. "Danielle has done a wonderful job implementing the new program," which Meinertzhagen described as integrating principles of physical therapy, sports performance and Pilates.

This article was posted on: June 15, 2010

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