If, like me, it takes a while for you to loosen up in the morning, you won’t be surprised to learn that there is a higher prevalence of lower back pain in riders than in the non-equestrian population.
Perhaps more surprising is a study of elite dressage riders that suggests the majority are competing whilst experiencing pain and that this pain is considered chronic due to the repetitive nature of training rather than as the result of a one off injury like a fall. Other studies found that riding in a GP (general purpose) saddle compared to a western saddle is more likely to exacerbate lower back pain as is riding with shorter stirrups.
So does this mean back pain is something we just have to learn to live with if we want to ride? Actually, no we don’t. The main contributing factors to lower back pain include muscle tightness, asymmetry and a weak core - all things we can do something about.
Flexibility and core strength are the key to protecting your back
In riding it’s the abdominal muscles which require high levels of muscular endurance to provide good posture. This is often referred to as core stability or core strength. The main muscles involved in core stability are the transversus abdominus, multifidus, diaphragm and pelvic floor muscles. All these muscles work together to produce postural stability in the abdominal and lower back region as well as co-ordinate movement of the arms, legs and spine. That’s why core strength is so important for riders and why it can be a limiting factor in performance. Weak abdominal muscles encourage a forward leaning posture which can cause or exacerbate lower back pain. Research shows that, in general, professional riders have higher overall muscle tone and are using their core muscles to a greater extent than novice riders. They also have a greater ability to move each side of their body independently and adjust their centre of gravity to better adapt to and influence the movement of the horse.
Implementing a core strengthening programme with a focus on using both sides of the body independently and increasing awareness of your centre of gravity is likely to have a significant impact on your riding performance. Slow, deliberate exercise is best to ensure the long term health of your back which is why Yoga, Pilates and Tai Chi are so effective. The other benefit of these types of exercise is that they involve whole body movement and coordination which helps improve asymmetry (commonly known as crookedness) in the way we sit and move. Several studies have confirmed what we probably all knew, that crookedness reduces our ability to follow the horse’s movement and often results in miscommunications because our aids are likely to be less precise or consistent.
Riders also require flexibility in their hip, knee and ankle joints and this involves stretching the calf muscles, hamstrings (back of thigh and buttocks), quadriceps (front of thigh) and hip adductors (inner thigh). Lack of flexibility in the hips can contribute to lower back pain so pay particular attention to the hamstrings, hip flexors and gluteus muscles in your stretching programme. In an ideal world aim to do core strengthening exercises 3-4 times per week and flexibility exercises 5 times per week but, as with all things, something is better than nothing.
Flexibility and core stability are key components that influence the balance of a rider. The following exercise is great for working on all three:
Put one foot on a mounting block or step.
Bend the leg that is on the floor and lean forward slightly.
Now try and stand up without pushing off the back leg at all, keeping the hips level and ensuring the knee doesn’t drop in.
Aim to do 5-10 on each side.
Oh by the way, core strengthening and flexibility exercises work for horses too! Baited stretches where a carrot is used to encourage the horse to stretch itself helps activate the deep core stabilising muscles and allowing your horse to stretch the neck at intervals during exercise sessions increases longitudinal (front to back) flexibility.
Want to know more? Good books include:
The Rider’s Pain Free Back by James Warsden
Fit to Ride by Mary Bromily
Activate your horse’s core by Michelle Stubbs & Hilary Clayton
Pilates and stretching by Gillian Higgins