As a responsible equestrian, it’s almost a given that you do everything in your power to make sure your equine’s back is protected every ride. After all, how can he perform well if he’s experiencing pain? With the welfare of your riding partner taken care of, have you ever paused to assess if your own back needs protection, too?
You may not feel pain as you train or race, but once the riding high is gone, you may start to feel sore on your lower back. As explained by WellingtonAdvancedMed.com, “low back pain is common among horseback riders. These are mostly the aches and pains of strained muscles from excessive riding or improper posture while on the horse.”
It’s easy to dismiss any discomfort as an effect of overexertion, but any form of pain must be addressed immediately to prevent bigger problems in the long run, especially since horseback riding is a sport that subjects the spine to high-impact loads and unpredictable landing forces. They say it takes two to tango, and when it comes to horseback riding, ensuring a productive ride means you and your equine are both healthy and safe.
Don’t worry, just as we have your horse’s back, we definitely have yours covered, too!
In this article, we will talk about:
- The anatomy of your spine and why you need to care for it
- The common pain points of equestrians
- The back injuries you need to avoid
- What you can do about existing pain
- How to manage pain
- Easy stretches you can do to avoid or alleviate pain
Why should you prioritize spine health?
Can you imagine doing all the things you love without a spine? Hard to picture, isn’t it? The spine is the backbone of your ability to move freely and function properly. According to The Joint, the spine “provides support for the whole body, protects the nerves, and allows us to move in many different ways.”
Without a healthy spine, you won’t be able to sit, walk, and ride your horse. When your spine is injured, limited mobility is expected which can affect your quality of life. To be able to give your backbone the care it deserves, it’s important to understand it better.
The Colorado Comprehensive Spine Institute explains that the spine has four major sections – the cervical, the thoracic, the lumbar, and the sacral spine. Each section is made up of bones called vertebrae and discs keep them together while also acting as shock absorbers, allowing your spine to move in different directions. More importantly, it’s through the spine that the nervous system transmits electrical impulses resulting in feelings of sensation. According to Ability Rehabilitation, “a damaged spinal cord can interrupt neural responses, disabling sensations in certain parts of the body.”
Simply put, your spine is a lifeline of sorts as spinal injuries and pain can affect your overall health. Since horse riding is a strenuous activity, you need to be careful when doing movements and activities that can affect your spine. Some of the causes of spinal problems that are too close to home to equestrians include poor mobility in the muscles around the spine, muscle imbalance, and poor posture.
What are the common pain points of equestrians?
Experts say that horseback riding has a higher injury rate than motorcycle riding. Since you use your entire body each time you saddle up, injuries may vary. Every ride, the following areas often get strained:
- Hips and Knees - Are you sure you have a proper riding form? An improper form is said to cause strain on the knee ligaments and hip adductor muscles. Leduc Physio further adds that “the problem with constantly compressing the knees and thighs around the horse is that these muscles can become strained.”
- Lower back - There’s nothing like a good trot to get training day started, but the motion of trots and faster gaits can affect your lower back which then causes the compression and strain of the disc tissue. Do you often feel lower back pain that reaches your backside? This is a sign of lower back compression that you need to attend to quickly with the right exercise or with the help of a doctor.
- Hip flexors - This often becomes tight, causing the rider to lean back or arch through their lower back contributing to lower back pain
- Upper back - Pro Chiro identifies the upper trapezius muscles which also become tight during a ride. When this happens, the shoulders become shrugged towards the ears, causing the rider’s shoulders to be uneven.
- Chest - When the pectoral muscles become tight, riders tend to round their shoulders forward leading to a hunchback appearance.
- Whole-body imbalances that affect the spine - Poor posture and muscle control affect the spine and can result in minor injuries. According to physiologists, “a slouch that tucks the tailbone is common, or else hyperextending the lower back can amplify small impacts and exacerbate compression on the entire spine.” Not only will having a good posture guarantee spinal health, it can also help make controlling your mount easier.
What are the back injuries you need to avoid?
Any sport or activity is not without risk of injury, more so if you’ve chosen the path of eventing or jumping. According to an article on Braceability, riders are susceptible to different spinal back conditions. “Often, this discomfort is centered in the lower back, with a herniated disc being one of the common injuries,” it explains. It also lists Sacroiliac joint pain or SI joint dysfunction as a common back injury in equestrians. Learn more about these injuries below:
- Herniated Disc - Do you often hunch forward while doing activities with your riding partner? Dressage Today explains that doing so causes the spine to be in a flexed position which then leads to the intervertebral discs absorbing the force generated by the horse. The repetitive concussive forces absorbed by the discs result in herniated discs which make riding extremely painful as the pain intensifies with your activity.
- Joint Pain - Just like how your riding partner’s back and legs absorb shocks every ride, your knees, hips, and lower back are also shock-absorbers. As Healthfully.com explains, “rider tension is the primary reason why joints get sore.” Since the rider is required to sit up straight in dressage, western, and endurance riding, chances are, it will affect the hip joints.
The back muscles, abdominals, shoulder muscles, hamstrings, and calves are just some of the common muscle groups used when riding. When these muscle groups are weak and lack flexibility, the rider will have a hard time staying balanced in the saddle which then creates a cycle of tension. “When the rider doesn’t feel balanced, he or she tenses up muscles, which can have a negative impact on the horse, causing the horse to respond back with tension,” the article on Healthfully continues.
Remember that during every ride, you and your riding partner are one. Similar to how you sense if he is not uncomfortable, he can also feel it when you’re not a hundred percent on the saddle. Maintaining balance is one of the most important things a rider needs to master, which can become difficult if you have an ill-fitting saddle that slips or moves as you perform your routine.
To remedy this, a quality saddle pad is a worthy investment you can add to your list of horse riding essentials. It can help keep your saddle in place to avoid sleeping while providing enough cushion the entire ride. The sweet spot? It also helps protect your horse from rubs, soreness, and injury – it’s a win-win for you and your riding pal!
- SI Joint Dysfunction - There are two SI joints at the bottom of the spine which are not meant to be mobile. When these two move too much or too little, inflammation may happen which then leads to discomfort. Dismounting could also affect these joints in a way that “you’re twisting your lower spine and hips as you prepare to dismount.” Some of the symptoms of this injury include groin or thigh pain, stiffness, a burning sensation in your pelvis, and pain located in the back of the hips.
What can you do if you’re already experiencing pain?
Don’t sleep on it. Consult with a doctor or a professional immediately to get a thorough checkup so you know what kind of pain or injury you’re dealing with. You can work with a physical therapist to slowly correct imbalances through exercises and stretches that target specific areas. You can also look into starting a rehabilitation program that includes doing exercises that reduce pain while increasing back strength.
Are you familiar with those videos of chiropractors “cracking” bones into place? A well-recommended chiropractor can perform adjustments to correct the alignment of your hips and spine. As explained by an article on The Joint, the process of alignment allows riders to look forward to “reducing the impact of future injuries, as well as getting into a better groove with the horse’s gait.” In a nutshell, consulting with a chiropractor can help you enjoy a healthier equestrian experience by enhancing your performance, preventing injury, and helping you recover faster should you get hurt.
In addition to seeking help from doctors, you may also consider getting a coach or trainer who can help correct your posture and riding technique. By studying and understanding how you work with your equine, your trainer can introduce techniques on how to prevent injuries as well as nip problematic habits such as slouching and arching your lower back too much, in the bud.
What are the back injuries you need to avoid?
If you already have a schedule with a therapist or a chiropractor but the pain is becoming unbearable, you can start managing the pain on your own by checking which part of your routine you can tweak. To get temporary relief from back pain, here are some must-dos you can consider:
- Try ice and heat therapy. Applying a combination of both hot and cold therapy is the first step in treating an SI Joint Dysfunction. The cold can help reduce swelling while the heat is said to increase the blood flow to your joints.
- Maintain your health. Work on maintaining a healthy weight to help lessen the tension on your joints.
- Strengthen your core. A stronger core can prevent imbalances that cause lower back pain.
- Check your saddle. A misaligned saddle can result in imbalances that increase stress on your back and hips. Make sure your saddle fits correctly, and if you need to make slight adjustments, a saddle pad can come in handy in ensuring proper saddle fit while helping keep it in place.
- Don’t self-medicate. While anti-inflammatory medications can help reduce swelling, it’s unsafe to drink medicines without proper prescription. If you don’t have a prescription yet, consult with a doctor to check which medicine suits your situation.
What practices can you add to your routine to avoid back pains?
Aside from striving to maintain a healthy posture and keeping in mind the tips above, you may look into adding stretches to your riding routine. As Dressage Rider Training suggests, “these rider back stretches and exercises are designed to help relieve lower back or hip pain.” It will also help if you will stand or walk for a few minutes if you’ve been sitting down for too long.
- Child's Pose – can relieve tension through the lower back while helping open up your hips
- Key Hole Spinal Twist – can improve internal hip rotation and stretch into the glutes
- Seated Forward Fold – can stretch out the lower back and hamstrings
- Runners Lunge – can get into your hip flexors and quadriceps
- Happy Baby Pose – can open up the lower back
For more stretches and how to perform each properly, click here.
Listening to your body and understanding what it’s trying to tell you can help address any pain you’re experiencing as an equestrian. Just like how you make sure your riding partner gets the TLC he deserves, it’s only right that you give the same amount to yourself.