A good rider knows that they must work in unison with their horse. To create fluid movements it requires symmetry, balance, coordination and stability. This doesn’t come easy, and requires training on both parts as a poor rider can ruin a good horse.
At Acorn Health we see patients that are involved in a variety of equestrian activities, including carriage driving, showjumping, cross-country and dressage. In addition to this blog post, we have prepared a brief video to help you reduce the impact of back pain whilst riding (see below), but first please read our hints and tips!
Lower back pain is a common problem in horse riders, due to the static position we adopt when riding – especially in the untrained rider. These problems reveal themselves through dysfunction and altered movement in the hips, pelvis, and lower back from the result of poor core stability, lack of flexibility, and instability in the saddle. There are some simple steps to prevent this.
If you only have a few minutes, scroll down to the bottom to read our top tips to improve these problems.
Restriction in the movement of the hips is a common problem, and this can affect the pelvic movement and motion of the lower back. The pelvis moves in a complex, multidirectional way when riding, if one area is not moving enough, another area will be moving too much to counteract this. Good core stability is vital to allow and support these movements. Insufficient movement through the hips can cause stiffening of the lower back and buttocks so the upper body may become loose (causing head bobbing or bouncing shoulders), or the lower body may become unstable (leading to flapping legs). An example is seen in the video below.
If you feel out of balance in the saddle, this may be because you are tipping forward through the pelvis. This in turn causes your seat bones (the ones you sit on) to angle backwards. The result here is that the lower back hollows, and the hips are unable to move freely at this angle. When this happens your body will immediately attempt to compensate for this, usually through recruiting other muscles to stabilise the area- commonly, the inner thighs or hip flexors (the muscles in the front of your thighs) will become involved, and this can lead you susceptible to yet more muscle and joint strain.
The image in the video demonstrates tipping forward through the pelvis causing hollowing of the lower back. The correct position of the pelvis in the saddle, and rotating backwards through the pelvis causing flattening of the lower back and protruding stomach.
Importantly, these imbalances in the rider can also affect the way your horse is able to
move. Putting pressure on your horse’s back means that he will find it difficult to use his back and legs in the correct way. This impacts on your horses ability to swing their shoulders through the paces, and can cause them to have back pain too so over time, you will both perpetuate each other’s lower back issues.
Many riders find that their hamstrings (in the back of the thigh) and their quadriceps (in the front of the thigh) become shortened as a result of the position we adopt in the saddle. Ensure you muscles are functioning at their best by adopting a good stretching routine.
What are the most common postural faults in riders?
- The “en avant” position. Leaning forward in the saddle and balancing the majority of the weight in the stirrups. This is most commonly seen in show jumpers and cross-country eveners. Riding too much in this position also means you will be unable to provide the correct aids to your horse, and are already out-of-balance in the saddle. The pectoral muscles in the front of the chest become tight and sore, further encouraging rounded shoulders. Due to this imbalance, should the horse spook, you may find yourself thrown forward on to his neck or coming off over his shoulder.
- Riding too short or too long. Stirrup length should be measured and adjusted on a regular basis. Why? As you become more flexible, your body will change and as a result subtle changes will adapt the length of the muscle.
- Tight hip flexors. Tension through the front of the thigh will automatically lead to tension in the lower back, causing weakening of the abdominal muscles. A common mistake is to adopt a position in the saddle similar to the position we adopt when using an office chair. When the hip is over-flexed, the lower back hollows as a result which is a key contributor to lower back pain.
- Dropping the chin. Constantly dropping the chin to look at the horse causes strain of the muscles in the back of your neck, and weakening of those in the front. This in turn can lead to headaches, neck, and upper back pain. A rider should always be looking up and ahead, not down at the horse.
Top tips for reducing back pain in the saddle:
- Stretch. Riders rely on their quadricep muscles to bear the weight of their body, and the calf muscles must work to keep the heels down in the saddle. This tends to lead to hamstrings becoming tight but weak, calves becoming long, and quadriceps shortening. Maintain suppleness and flexibility through your hips by stretching on a regular basis (not only before you get on the horse!)
- Focus on your core stability. Yoga or pilates exercises will help teach you balance and coordination by encouraging your core muscles to work correctly, allowing you to maintain the correct posture in the saddle.
- Ensure your saddle has been fitted correctly. A poorly fitting saddle can cause discomfort in the horse and affect its movement, often encouraging the horse to move asymmetrically to avoid pressure and pain from the saddle.
- Commit to physical fitness. A lot of riders use riding as their only conditioning activity, but a well-rounded fitness programme (which includes core stability, stretching routines and cardiovascular exercises) will help improve your overall fitness and stamina, and reduce injury while riding.
Please see the full video with guided help here.