The Accursed Back Ache
The problem of an aching back can start early in one’s riding career. Too often the rider gets to sit on a horse before he/she has been shown how to sit properly. There is no question about what is the desirable and basic riding posture and it can be found illustrated in most good riding manuals. It can also be seen on TV sports news as demonstrated by an accomplished dressage rider. Whether one can copy the pose is another matter but for basic arena riding, the rider should sit tall, erect, composed and relaxed, To hold this posture whilst in the saddle however calls for a firm set of muscles around the central core - that is the muscle structure from belly button to crutch and back via under thigh, the glutes and those muscles working the lumbar spine. It also embraces the hamstrings and the ankle joints. To see correct upright posture in action, then go find a mature lady from a London finishing school who has been taught to walk with a set of telephone directories carefully balanced on her head. She will still walk upright as she was taught by the school as a young woman when her ’frame’ was not fully formed. For her slouching, either when standing or sitting, will always be a ‘sin’.
In horse riding the objective when standing still, is to transfer the weight of the human body down onto the saddle and hence the horse’s back - with the body weight dispersed equally front to rear and side to side. Even the turning of the rider’s head can disturb that balance. If the distribution is correct then the horse also will stand with the weight of its body and that of the rider’s body equally discharged to earth. Of course when one graduates on to jumping or cross country riding then priorities change, because then the rider will be combating the forces of motion . However constantly throughout a ride the rider must revert to the fundamental balanced sitting position.
If the novice learns at home to ride by trial and error or perhaps through the kind generosity of a friend, then the probability is that he/she will not adopt the correct ‘position’. As a result the novice’s brain will learn incorrectly and in the future before the correct posture can be absorbed, the incorrect posture must be erased which is very difficult to achieve.
An in-correct posture is a cause of back ache because the human frame has to learn to adapt to unbalanced stresses. It will be quite likely that human brain will in due course automatically compensate for the imbalances in order to keep the rider upright but the resultant fault will then become instinctive. Without a doubt, once the newcomer decides that horse riding is a hobby for him/her, then a search should be made for a good - repeat - good and well recommended riding instructor who has access to a phlegmatic school master horse and a quiet, level, rectangular, arena. That is the required scenario for the rider begins to learn the alphabet of riding. Those first few lessons should if possible be on a one to one basis. The horse should teach the rider how to sit.
The novice should expect to ache after the first few lessons. The body is being subjected to new stresses for which the muscles may not be prepared. If the muscles are developed both on horseback and in the gym under a Pilates instructor, then those aches should disappear. So much the better if the arena has a full length mirror at the end of the track, then maybe the commands coming from the instructor in the centre of the arena will be better understood. Nowadays there is also the video camera on which to view one’s mistakes.
Those newcomers who believe that horse riding is not a proper sport because the rider is sitting down and the horse does all the work, will be in for a big surprise. It is the lack of muscle which presents the difficulty for the over weight rider - not so much the extra lbs - rather the lack of muscle tone. The responsible trainer is always concerned about the impact of a novice rider bouncing on the back of the horse. ‘Bang‘, ‘thud‘, ‘bang’ - especially at the trot - are the indicators of impacts beating down on the horse’s back. Over the long term, the blows are debilitating to any poor horse whose role it is to carry the unbalanced rider. That the novice is also misusing the reins attached to a steel bit fitted in the horse’s mouth as a rebalancing aid, can only make the discomfort of the school master horse even worse. This is exactly why in the old days at the beginning of the learning process, we novices were not allowed to hold the reins - the horse was controlled on lunge lines by the tutor.
Personally I have come to the opinion that before any new rider is allowed to sit in the saddle they must be taught in the classroom as to what is expected of them. Also I feel that before they ride they should take some physical exercise lessons under a Pilates instructor.
Back in the archives of HF there are several threads on the subject of ’toes up, heels down’. It is well worthwhile for the newcomer to look through those threads because unless the rider can hold the correct posture, keeping one’s feet at the correct angle in the stirrup irons is difficult.
Folks, over a lifetime our spines are going to be subjected to all sorts of unnatural stresses from sitting in front of a computer, from sitting in an airplane seat, from accidents and from lifting too heavy weights. The spine is a much over worked part of the human skeleton and it is vulnerable structure.
Take care of your back and make a friend of your local physiotherapist.