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xxBarry Godden 12-02-2012 03:09 PM

Accursed back ache.
The Accursed Back Ache
Looking back over my riding career, I realise that back ache has been a regular occurrence for me. As a younger man I could ignore the tweaks but as I have aged, back pain has affected my sleep which in turn has affected my ability to relax whilst in the saddle. Tension has crept into my riding and the horse has decided to query why I have been showing signs of nervousness. Of course it does not help that with ageing, arthritis begins to creep into one’s skeletal structure by stealth and suddenly one hears words from even a sympathetic doctor like: “you must expect little problems like this at your age - do you want some painkillers?”

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.

Barry G

Northernstar 12-02-2012 03:13 PM

Very good advice, Barry, for the young and the old :)

tinyliny 12-02-2012 03:57 PM

I know that I am starting to have back issues. I can trace the start to one incident in a stupid attempt to try barrel racing at the age of 50. The rest has very much to do with spending too much time SEATED. Sitting too much really wrecks your back. the back is not designed for sitting, but for standing.

jamesqf 12-02-2012 10:45 PM

Much back pain can be prevented or reduced by proper exercise. While we could argue about whether riding is indeed exercise (it isn't at my level), it certainly isn't the type of exercise that helps with back pain. For a good basic set of back exercises, look online for "Enhancing Low Back Health through Stabilization Exercise" by Stuart McGill. A more strenuous program will be found in the book "Foundation" by Eric Goodman & Peter Park.

Last but not least, regular walking also helps.

WSArabians 12-02-2012 11:28 PM

I have degenerative arthritis in discs four and five from too much trauma (read getting slammed into the ground from horses) so I'm no stranger to back pain.
Now that I have a broken femur and hip (which will need another surgery before I ride as I was informed if I rode without taking it out it will work its own way out through my skin) I imagine I will have lots of aches.
I will be asking my PT tomorrow what I can do to help in the way of exercises - I can share his advice / ideas if wanted.
Good post Barry!

skittlesfirehawk 12-02-2012 11:31 PM

ive had back issues since being bucked off at 14 my cerebral palsy dont help much its a pia trying to get legs and back to work together. my parents have remarked several times now i think your ridding days are behind you i ofcourse just snort and walk away.

WSArabians 12-02-2012 11:38 PM


Originally Posted by skittlesfirehawk (Post 1782469)
ive had back issues since being bucked off at 14 my cerebral palsy dont help much its a pia trying to get legs and back to work together. my parents have remarked several times now i think your ridding days are behind you i ofcourse just snort and walk away.

Good for you and not giving up! :D

riccil0ve 12-03-2012 12:19 AM

I'm 23 and already dealing with pretty wicked back pain. Getting trampled/kicked at 16 by a horse that just launched you over its shoulder will do that to you. Laugh.

Sitting and standing correctly, as well as not crossing your legs [did you know that's really hard on your body?], helps ease the pain. It's not just your posture on horseback. And you have no idea what a good, supportive shoe can do for your back!

I am also a firm believer in low-impact exercise. Running is good cardio, and many people enjoy it, but it's killer on your joints and back. I, personally, can't run very far without experiencing great pain in my hips.

Walking will *usually* [not for everyone] relieve back ache and relax your hips and low back. Some people, like me, hurt more in the cold weather, so I try to "warm up" my back and body before going out in the morning. An easy morning stretch will often do wonders!

I very much recommend chiropractic to anyone with an open mind. People don't usually realize the toll our bodies take as we grow up and live our lives. Car accidents, riding a bucking horse, falling off our bikes as a child, even being born will torque your body to one degree or another. Some, hopefully most, get through life with relatively easy to deal with aches, but others aren't as lucky.

Barry, brilliant post. I especially love the bit about Pilates. I'm sure many people would find that, or yoga, to be very helpful.

May we all not ache! *clinks glass* =P
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