Too many riders accept back pain as an unpleasant byproduct of the sport. Lower-back pain, in particular, plagues many riders, with causes ranging from fitness levels to improper riding position. But help is available.
Start with your physician. Only he knows if you’ve sustained injuries and the specifics of your physical condition. Be clear both about where the pain is and what kind of riding you do. Be explicit about your plans so that he can assess your risk and management. He may recommend you also see a physical therapist.
Once you’ve gotten a thorough medical assessment, involve your trainer, as he should be aware of any kind of pain you’re experiencing and the cause. This will help him work with you to improve your riding position and ease the pain.
Causes Of Back Pain
Many riders tense up when they ride, which can cause aches. Slouching can cause upper back pain. Missouri trainer Lanie Frick explained that riders who are too rigid between the shoulder blades can have tension in the thoracic region, leading to back pain. Sloppy riding also leads to tension. Deep breathing and work on suppling yourself while you ride can help you relax, and thus loosen up, which in turn can keep your back from becoming rigid and painful.
In addition, your own body may predispose you to back pain as you ride. Women with larger breasts may notice more back pain, said Chris Mitchell, who coaches the Cornell University equestrian team. Frick added that riders carrying extra weight overall may suffer from lower back pain. A good sport bra and losing weight are helpful.
Your everyday activities may lead you to soreness without you even realizing it. Try not to hunch over your computer at work. At the barn, avoid lifting overly heavy loads by yourself and, when you must lift something, use your legs, not your back.
Mental tension can also lead to back pain. If you can’t set your worries aside when you ride - or if riding causes worries, such as concern over your coach’s demands or fear of the horse itself - that tension builds on the strain of the actual physical activity of riding. And, for some reason, it often goes right to your back.
You should also monitor how quickly you jump back into riding after a layoff. If you haven’t ridden for several weeks, don’t start right back at an hour a day for six days a week, especially if you’re wanting to do a lot of trot half passes or cantering over a lot of uneven ground. Walking on a long rein for several days is the better part of valor here.
Like any athlete, you should stretch before you ride, even as you groom your horse. Use a mounting block, which gives your back and your horse’s back a break. Women who wear high heels all day may find that switching to lower ones may make their backs feel better.
Seek ways to lessen stress on your back while in the saddle. Riders may notice the most pain when they sit the trot or jog. Posting can be easier on the horse, but it’s also easier on the rider. Posting requires control and leg flexibility, but it saves your back. Even if you ride Western, posting may help your back, especially if you trot for long lengths of time.
Practices like Centered Riding and Connected Riding focus on releasing tension that causes back pain. Work with someone trained in one of these styles of riding may help you to relieve the tension that hurts your back.
Lisanne Pearcy, an Oregon rider who has a weak back partially as a result of a long torso and muscular cramping, noticed that if she rides with a balanced, relaxed posture - not trying to hold herself and the horse in a tight frame - she reduces her pain. Riding can even make her back feel better.
An instructor can help by reminding you to avoid habits of tightening instead of releasing. If you’ve been riding for a long time with a back that is slightly arched, slumped, or otherwise leaning forward or back, it takes a mental effort to retrain your body to a new position.
Pearcy learned to let her legs hang and move more with the horse instead of gripping with the thighs, which tensed her back and threw the horse on the forehand. She feels more secure in the saddle if she doesn’t hold on with her thighs but relaxes her seat deeper into the saddle.
Smooth-gaited horses, like Paso Finos or Tennessee Walking Horses, can help some riders with chronic pain. Because these horses’ leg movements create more floating through the back, the rider doesn’t need as much mobility with the lower lumbar-sacral region as when sitting the trot fluidly on a regular horse.But even riding a smooth-gaited horse can cause pain if the rider locks her knees and receives jarring from the horse. Also, if the horse isn’t properly conditioned and ridden correctly, the gait will suffer, and so can your back.
Previous injury can, obviously, increase your back pain, no matter what kind of horses you ride. Mary Sue Faulkner of Virginia fell while jumping and had a bad sprain. She took medication for the pain but also worked with her trainer to strengthen the area to improve her performance as well as alleviate the pain. Her exercises including trotting in a forward seat and ”posting” the canter.
Faulkner also found that riding three days a week wasn’t enough to increase her stamina and strength and found an aerobics class helpful. She learned that the added strength has not only helped alleviate her pain but also improved her riding, as she no longer gets in front of her horse’s motion before a jump. Strength training can help everyone, not just those with previously injured backs.
Ned Shannon, a certified licensed athletic trainer at the University of Indianapolis, emphasizes the importance of strengthening the lower back to help pain. Shannon says that strengthening and toning exercises, such as work on a large exercise ball or those included in the Pilates system, can help. Pilates is a strength-building fitness program that emphasizes balance and form.
Strong abdominal muscles can help support backs while riding. If your abdominal muscles are weak, your back may take up some of the task of support that should fall to the abdominal region. Abdominal crunches are helpful, but beware of traditional sit-ups: Do them incorrectly and you risk more pain. Get the help of a fitness trainer if you’re interested in these types of strength exercises.
Also, be patient. It can take four to six weeks to see changes in your fitness after beginning a strengthening program and, you’ll need to continue it to maintain your new build. Of course, at that point, you’ll likely be hooked for life anyway.