Unlike other sports, the rider has unique physical demands placed upon their body on a daily basis. Before considering mounting their horse, many riders have already mucked out stables, changed heavy rugs, filled and carried heavy buckets, moved bales of hay and heavy bags of feed as well as having swept the yard.
We are all acutely aware of how a fall can affect us physically, but how many riders consider the consequences of the heavy, often one-sided workload that comes with caring for our horses? Regular chores such as carrying saddles, rugs and buckets as well as sweeping, cause us to become one-sided or adopt poor postures on a regular basis. This can lead to asymmetries within our bodies, resulting in muscle imbalances and increasing the risk of musculoskeletal injury.
Riders are not immune to cumulative or repetitive strain injuries when dealing with horses on a daily basis.
The Lumbar Spine, Sacroiliac Joint and Pelvis
Causes of pain and dysfunction include:
- Loaded flexion postures - picking up dung in the paddock, cleaning hooves, mucking out stables, filling hay nets.
- Heavy lifting – buckets, bales and bags of feed.
- Poor core stability, making the spine more vulnerable to injury as well as potentially causing back pain in the horse.
- Asymmetrical activity e.g. mucking out stable and sweeping can adversely affect the sacroiliac joint, particularly in people who are very dominant on one side.
- Trauma from falls frequently lead to sacroiliac joint issues in the rider.
Thoracic and Cervical Spine
Causes of pain and dysfunction include:
- Riders adopting a ‘defensive position’ in the saddle when riding a challenging horse.
- Rib dysfunction is common post falls.
- Riders ‘hanging on’ to the lead rope of a barging horse on the ground.
- The neck is very vulnerable to injury during a fall.
- The unpredictable nature of the horse can lead to whiplash like injuries in the handler or rider.
- Eventers, show-jumpers and jockeys can sustain upper back injuries due to holding a sustained forward position in the saddle.
- Dressage riders can develop upper back pain due to maintaining almost perfect posture whilst absorbing large amplitude movements from the horse.
Upper and Lower Limbs
Riders may encounter the following muscle injuries:
- Hamstring or groin pain resulting from riding style or saddle shape.
- Overuse of wrist flexor or extensor musculature from gripping the reins, repetitive sweeping, mucking out or even plaiting manes and tails.
Remember that any imbalance in your body will also affect your horse when you ride. Ensuring your body is as symmetrical as possible is crucial for both you and your horse’s well-being.
Ideal Rider Posture
It can be very difficult to identify any postural issues you may have by feel alone. It is worth getting a friend or your physiotherapist to use photography or video footage of you in the saddle so that you can see for yourself.
Correct posture includes the following:
- Plumb line alignment throughout the ear, shoulder, hip and heel
- Lumbar Spine lordosis
- Chest open
- Shoulders level
- Elbows close to your side
- Wrist straight
- Hands level
- Arms and legs move softly around a stable core
- No gripping!
- Balls of feet balanced
- Toes forward
- Still lower leg
- Shock absorbing body
- Aids stable and carriage still
Poor Rider Posture
Incorrect spinal postures include:
- The Slumper
- Sway back posture
- The sideways curver
- Leaning forward
- Leaning backwards
- Twisted posture
Poor leg postures include:
- The thigh gripper
- The knee gripper
- The hamstring gripper
Poor leg position combined with poor posture:
- Leaning back with legs forward
- Sway back with toes out
Top tips for staying healthy and injury free when dealing with horses
- Plan your chores and perform warm up exercises and stretches before performing heavier tasks.
- If you have done core stability or Pilates training, use your knowledge and skills to protect your spine during stable chores.
- Train yourself to be ambidextrous when mucking out and sweeping, to balance out the stresses on your body.
- Carry two half-filled buckets instead of one full heavy bucket.
- Use your wheelbarrow!
- Use safe manual handling lifting technique – keep loads close to your body and use your legs rather than bending your back. Activate your core which will increase the stability of your spine and increase your awareness of how your body is moving.
- Remember to warm up when you first get on your horse.
- Always wear a helmet when mounted and consider wearing a back protector when riding – you don’t have to be out on the cross-country course for serious accidents to happen.
- Get yourself assessed by your physiotherapist if you experience a fall. Remember, when injured, the sooner you see your physiotherapist the better. Don’t let your injury become chronic before you decide to get help. The sooner you see your physiotherapist; the sooner you will be back in the saddle.
- Plan your chores and complete less intensive tasks at the end of your day to cool down effectively.
- Finish your day at the yard with a few stretches!