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Rider Fitness Tip: Fixing Back Pain

Article by Heather Sansom

Heather Sansom

Heather Sansom is the author of rider fitness ebooks Complete Core Workout for Riders, and a regular columnist in several equestrian publications including Dressage Today. Equifitt.com offers personalized coaching through clinics and convenient online coaching available anywhere. Clinics available include fitness, yoga and fitness, and sport-psychology and fitness. You can get a free subscription to monthly rider fit tips, or download the ebooks at Equifitt.com.

Many riders suffer from back pain, particularly in the lower back. There can be many reasons for experiencing discomfort in the back during or after your ride. Because you only have one spine, it is really important to get yourself checked out by a qualified medical or therapeutic professional if you experience chronic or sharp pain in your back. You do not want to leave a problem unattended until it produces irreversible damage in your disks.

In the space of this article, we can look at some of the common reasons riders experience low back pain, and provide exercise ideas for helping to fix the problem. However, exercise articles do not replace the role of a qualified professional. If you try an exercise and experience more pain, you should cease immediately and consult a physiotherapist or doctor.

How the Spine is Supposed to Work
Your spine has natural curvature: outward at the top, and inward at the bottom. The natural curves can be exaggerated (kyphosis if upper back, lordosis if lower back) or insufficient (too straight a back). What is important is that the curves balance so that when you are sitting straight on your seatbones, you can have balance all the way to your occipital joint (where you head rests on top of your spine like a ball on the small end of a pool queue).

All the disks in your back are involved in absorbing the motion of your horse as you ride. If you have insufficient core tone, there will be too much motion. Core is understood to mean all the muscles supporting your torso, all the way around, and not just your abdominals. If you have tension anywhere in your torso, you will have insufficient movement in your spine.

Insufficient movement in a part that is supposed to move, creates too much movement somewhere else. Think of the principle as being similar to the uneven wear that happens on a tire, when your wheels are no properly aligned. The further you go, the faster you wear down that tire unevenly.

The motion of the spine in riding is a soft and undulating up and down movement when you are free of tension, and properly aligned.

How the Hips are Suppose to Work
The way the pelvis works in a rider is quite complex. There is some movement laterally (out and in) as your weight floats up and back down again with each stride. The iliac crest, which is the large protruding hip bone near your waist, needs freedom to move outward slightly. There is also some movement forward, up, back and down again of the seatbone.

When Back Pain Starts
When your hips are not moving properly to follow the motion of your horse, the energy of the movement has to be absorbed somewhere above your pelvis. In most riders, the motion goes right to the lower back. The movement can find an outlet higher up if a rider happens to have a tense lower back and loose upper body (head bobbling, excessive shoulder bouncing), or downward (leg flapping).

There are several factors that can cause reduction in hip motion. One of them is age: hips get less mobile with age, and riders are not immune. Another is improper alignment in the saddle. Many riders, especially female, roll forward toward the pubic bone, pointing seatbones slightly backward. If you are in correct riding position, and your saddle fits you correctly, you should never experience pressure in this area.

Here Lori Albrough, of Bluebird Lane Fjords, is riding with her seat bones more underherself and much more uphill. | Photo courtesy of Bluebird Lane Fjords www.bluebirdlane.com

This anterior (forward tilt) hollows the lower back, and reduces the ability for motion in the pelvis (Fig. 1). It also removes the first building block (seatbones) of your position from correct alignment. Even a correctly aligned rider in two-point or light seat, should be tipping at the hip, rather than rolling forward onto the pubic bone.

Sometimes saddle-fit can be a culprit. Quite often riders are predisposed to falling into this position due to tightened hip flexors and a weakened back in the lumbar region from activities like deskwork and driving.

Once you are in the position, the lower back is essentially hyper-extended, which would put pressure on your disks in your lower back even if you weren’t moving. Add the movement of your horse, and you have a situation where you are repeatedly overloading your lower back with too much motion.

The Vicious Circle
When your position has put you out of alignment, you are out of balance. Your body will organize itself to help you stay in the saddle, often using muscles like your inner thighs (adductors) or hip flexors (groin area) to grip the saddle. Engagement of these muscle groups further limits the motion of your pelvis. I have seen many riders try and fix problems with sitting trot, or sitting a big canter, by lots of wobble at the waist or rocking if it is canter. In other words, the rider actually creates even MORE movement at the lower back.

While they may achieve stillness in the shoulder/upper back area by being hyper-mobile at the waist, the motion not only strains the lower back, but also constantly shifts the rider’s weight around in the saddle, throwing their center out of alignment with the horse’s on a constant basis. This puts pressure on HIS back, and makes throughness over the back from the hind legs difficult. This is why a rider with a hollow back always looks like they’re sitting on a horse with the same problem. Over time, the rider’s lumbar weakness creates the same in the horse- or at least blocks correct development.

Fig. 2. Heather demonstrates face down leg raises supported by ball.

The Fix: Helpful Hints
Generally, maintaining suppleness in the hip area, and strength in the core will help a rider maintain correct alignment and take undue pressure off the lower back. A simple exercise to get tension out of the inner thigh area is the splits. If you are just beginning, you can lean on the back of a couch or higher object. Only go as wide as is comfortable (about 5/10 for discomfort), and that you can hold the position for several minutes. Gently moving side to side with much less width between your feet is a better option if you are really tight.

Fig. 3.

To strengthen the muscles in your lumbar area, I like face down leg raises supported on a ball (Fig. 2 & 3). For a rider, work with the ball serves a dual purpose of also helping you with balance and strength in your core generally. You want to raise your legs to about level with your spine, and have a feeling of sucking your stomach muscles up at the same time to support your lower back. You may want to start out by lifting your legs only until your feet are just off the floor. This exercise works small muscles very close to your SI joint. You will feel a burning low in your back when you have done enough repetitions. You should stop at that point. If you raise your legs too high or allow your lower back to hollow and do all the work, you will be putting more strain on your lower back.

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