Can Horse Riding Cause Back Pain: A Guide for Riders

Horse riding is enjoyable and rewarding for many, but it’s not without challenges. For regular horseback riders, pain and discomfort are often concerns that accompany the sport, with back pain being a common complaint.

The following article provides insights into the anatomy, biomechanics, and common causes of back pain in riders. We’ll also offer prevention tips and treatment options to help riders remain pain-free and continue their passion.

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Anatomy of a Rider’s Back

A rider’s back undergoes significant stress during horseback riding. The spine, comprising 24 vertebrae and shock-absorbing discs, supports the rider’s weight and allows flexible motion.

The lower spine, particularly the lumbar region, often takes the brunt of riding stress. In fact, horseman, retired neurosurgeon, and author of The Rider’s Pain-Free Back, James Warson, said that at least 90 percent of his patients suffered from lower back pain.

Core muscles – found deep within the abdominals and back – stabilize the pelvis and assist the rider in balancing. The sacroiliac joints, or SI joints, are one of the biggest joints in the human body. Located between the sacrum and the two iliac bones, they absorb shock and enable hip motion.

Fluid hips allow riders to comfortably open and close hip angles, whether jumping over fences or sitting a lope or a trot.

However, excessive or insufficient movement in the SI joints can lead to inflammation and discomfort.

Biomechanics of Horseback Riding

The biomechanics of horseback riding are complex and require significant coordination of various muscle groups. Additionally, correct body alignment helps the rider remain in balance with the horse, freeing the rider’s hips to follow the horse’s movement and absorb shock.

Due to the nature of the sport, riders must often quickly adapt their balance and position to accommodate the horse’s motion, and the core muscles are significant in executing this. For an extreme example, imagine riding a bucking horse.

Strong core muscles stabilize the rider’s position. This stability enables the rider on a bucking horse to balance and ride out the buck, avoiding the dreaded involuntary dismount!

a western rider on a horse

Common Back Issues Among Riders

Several back issues can develop or be aggravated due to horseback riding:

Low Back Pain

Low back pain is the most common condition among horse riders. It results from repetitive stress on the lower spine from sitting in the saddle, such as Western riders who sit all gaits. 

According to Dr. Warson, this constant concussion inflicted on the spine causes premature ligament tightening, resulting in discomfort and stiffness in the lumbar region.

SI Joint Pain

Sacroiliac joint pain can be caused and aggravated by horseback riding. Sudden movements, such as your horse spooking or tripping, can trigger discomfort. 

Thigh Pain

Thigh pain can result from tightness in the hip flexors and iliac bones due to excessive pressure during prolonged sitting.

Upper Back Pain

Upper back pain often results from holding a posture that strains the upper body muscles, causing pain in the neck and shoulders. This pain is notable in working cow-horse riders.

Preventive Exercises for Riders

Riders can prevent back pain through targeted exercises that strengthen core muscles, improve flexibility, and enhance balance. These exercises reduce back pain and improve posture and riding if done regularly.

Core Strengthening:

  1. Plank: The plank (holding your body in the raised portion of a push-up) helps stabilize the spine and strengthens the entire core. Hold a plank position for 30-60 seconds.
  2. Bird Dog: Riders in the bird dog position enhance balance and stability by engaging the lower back and abdominal muscles.

Flexibility Exercises:

  1. Hip Flexor Stretch: This stretch relieves tightness in the hip area and improves hip motion, which is crucial for horse riding.
  2. Glute Stretch: By targeting the gluteus maximus and gluteus medius, this stretch is essential for pelvis stability.

Balance Training:

  1. Single-Leg Balance: This exercise enhances balance by engaging multiple muscle groups, which is crucial for maintaining a stable riding posture.
  2. Stability Ball Exercises: Practising exercises on a stability ball improves overall balance and posture.

(Note:  Would it be helpful to include an example of each exercise as all readers may not be familiar with them?)

helping back pain in horse riders

Proper Riding Posture

Good posture can undoubtedly help reduce back discomfort in horse riding.

You might be familiar with the standard description of proper rider position alignment. When mounted on a horse and viewed from the side, one should be able to draw a straight line down from the rider’s ear through her shoulder, hip, and heel.

Common pitfalls disrupting this alignment include collapsing in the abdominal area or over-arching the lower back. These are just two examples of poor posture that can contribute to back pain.

The correct posture requires riders to sit evenly on both seat bones and center themselves over the horse.

Sitting too much to one side or, as mentioned above, collapsing through the abdomen or over-arching the lower back interferes with the horse’s balance as the rider’s weight displacement is off-balance.

Since most horses are trained to respond to their rider’s weight placement, failing to distribute your weight correctly sends conflicting messages to your horse.

For riders, contorted postures over time can wreak havoc on their backs!

Saddle Fit and Customization

An improperly fitted saddle can exacerbate back pain and lead to long-term discomfort for both rider and horse. Correct saddle fit cannot be overemphasized. It’s a significant factor that enables a rider to sit correctly on her horse.

Riding is difficult enough without battling with a saddle that doesn’t put you in the proper position!

Ideally, Dr. Warson recommends purchasing a custom saddle fitted to you and your horse. Understandably, this can be expensive and not in everybody’s budget.

The next best thing is to work with a saddle fitter who can adjust your saddle and address minor issues with flocking or with shims. Dr. Warson endorses using ThinLine shims and pads.

The ThinLine Advantage

Because of their thin design and shock-absorbing material, they are non-slip. They reduce the sideways motion and slippage experienced with thicker saddle pads, long considered the best choice for reducing concussion and movement.

Dr. Warson described his first exposure to this unique, shock-defying material. A patient introduced him to it and asked if he thought it could be helpful in horseback riding.

Warson put the material on the floor and dropped a golf ball on it—the ball didn’t bounce upon landing. He immediately saw the benefit of this concussion-calming material to both horses and riders.

ThinLine’s slim profile and extreme shock absorption capability can help riders avoid back pain or prevent further aggravation by reducing the jarring motion intrinsic to horseback riding and providing additional saddle stability.

All ThinLine half pads and saddle pads offer these advantages and are shimmable.

ThinLine girths and cinches also contribute to saddle stability, further helping riders avoid undue pain-inducing motion.

Back Pain Management for Riders

Managing back pain involves a combination of treatments:

  1. Physical Therapy: Focuses on strengthening and stretching exercises specific to the rider’s condition, targeting areas that need additional support.
  2. Anti-Inflammatory Medications: Medications like ibuprofen help alleviate pain and reduce inflammation.
  3. Chiropractic Care: Chiropractic adjustments can improve spinal alignment, helping with mobility.
  4. Massage Therapy: Massage helps relieve muscle tension, reduce stiffness, and improve blood circulation.

Final Recommendations

Back pain can be a significant hindrance to enjoying horse riding. However, understanding the anatomy and biomechanics involved can help prevent and manage discomfort. Riders should maintain correct posture, ensure a well-fitted saddle, and regularly perform targeted exercises to strengthen their core muscles and improve flexibility.

By proactively addressing these factors, riders can continue to enjoy horse riding while minimizing the risk of back pain. Investing in your health and fitness will ensure many more years of pain-free riding.

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