Horse riding requires symmetry, balance, coordination and stability from both the rider and the horse, who must work in unison together to create fluid movements. This doesn’t often come easy, and requires training not only of the horse, but of the rider also- a poor rider can ruin a good horse.
Due to the static position we adopt when riding, lower back pain is a common problem, especially in the untrained rider. Poor core stability, lack of flexibility, and instability in the saddle can all create problems of their own, most of which reveal themselves through dysfunction and altered movement in the hips, pelvis, and lower back.
The pelvis moves in a complex, multidirectional way when riding, and so good core stability is vital to both allow and support these movements. Restriction in the movement of the hips is a common problem, and this can affect the pelvic movement and motion of the lower back- remember, if one area is not moving enough, another area will be moving too much to counteract this. Insufficient movement through the hips can cause stiffening of the lower back and buttocks and as a result, the upper body may become loose (causing head bobbing or bouncing shoulders), or the lower body may become unstable (leading to flapping legs).
These problems generally occur because the rider is tipping forward through the pelvis, causing their 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, you may feel out of balance in the saddle, and 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 above demonstrates (Left) tipping forward through the pelvis causing hollowing of the lower back, (Centre) correct position of the pelvis in the saddle), (Right) 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, impacting on their ability to swing their shoulders through the paces, and can cause them to have back pain too! Putting pressure on your horse’s back means that he will find it difficult to use his back and legs in the correct way- 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. A good stretching routine is therefore very important for horse riders in order to ensure their muscles function as they should.
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 eventers, and can mean that the pectoral muscles in the front of the chest becoming tight and sore, further encouraging rounded shoulders. 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- 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. While we can become accustomed to riding in what feels to be the most comfortable position, stirrup length should be measured and adjusted on a regular basis, particularly as you become more flexible which will lead to subtle changes in the length of the muscles.
- Tight hip flexors- tension through the front of the thigh will automatically lead to tension in the lower back due to the way in which these muscles work. A common mistake is to adopt a position in the saddle similar to the position we adopt when using an office chair- the hip is over-flexed and the lower back must hollow as a result. This will, in turn, cause weakening of your abdominal muscles and is a key contributor to lower back pain.
- Dropping the chin- A rider should always be looking up and ahead, not down at the horse. 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, which in turn can lead to headaches, neck, and upper back pain.
Top tips for reducing back pain in the saddle:
- Maintain suppleness and flexibility through your hips by stretching on a regular basis (not just before you get on the horse!) 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.
- Focus on your core stability. Yoga or pilates exercises will help teach you balance and coordination by encouraging your core muscles to work correctly, which will enable 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 the likelihood of you incurring injuries while riding.