With so many of us suffering from back pain at some point in our lifetime it’s a common problem that only seems to be getting worse. After all, five years ago 70% of adults experienced some sort of back pain whereas today that has increased to 80%. While back pain is a fairly broad term that covers many different forms from a pulled muscle to a prolapsed or slipped disc it can still be extremely difficult to know what the right thing to do is when it comes to horse riding. Of course, we’d all like to be riding no matter what but is that the best thing to do if you have any sort of back pain? As somebody who has suffered from several prolapsed discs (along with other back problems) and continues to ride, I thought it might be helpful to other people to write about some of the things I’ve learned about riding with back pain over the years.
Does horse riding cause back pain?
There will also be people that say horse riding causes back pain but is this correct or are they just non-riders who don’t really understand horse riding? It would be wrong to say that there are no risks involved in horse riding, after all, horses are big animals with a mind of their own, not to mention how high up you’re sitting, but that doesn’t mean to say that the risks out way to benefits nor does it say that horse riding will cause back pain. Of course, if you fall off then the risk of injury is greater but luckily, while nobody intends to fall off, there are steps you can take (such as wearing a body protector) to reduce the risk.
Anyway back to the original question, does horse riding cause back pain? As you can probably imagine this isn’t an easy question to answer and there are lots of things to take into account in order to answer the question properly and fully so I’ll go through those one at a time.
General ‘pleasure’ riding
When I talk about general or pleasure riding I’m talking about mainly walking and trotting with a bit of cantering and galloping but mainly on steady ground with no jumping at all. There is absolutely no evidence at all to suggest that sitting on a horse or walking will cause any pain in the back if you’re a fit and healthy rider. That said though, although it’s unlikely to, if you’re riding a particularly bouncy horse and aren’t rising properly then there is a chance that the effect of you rising and sitting (particularly sitting) could cause soreness and bruising to the lumbar (lower) or sacral (bottom) regions of the spine. If you don’t have any other issues with your back then this won’t last, and if you’re an inexperienced rider, it will likely improve as you progress as a rider.
Cantering on the other hand, whilst being faster, is a far less ‘bouncy’ pace than a trot so won’t do any damage to your back. Another advantage of cantering is that it’s a rhythmic pace where you move in time with the horse, almost in a rocking motion. And while galloping is faster still, again there’s no bounce, even if firmly seated in the saddle the horse’s back stays level.
Verdict: If you have a healthy back and rise in time with the horse then there’s no reason as all while pleasure riding should hurt your back or cause you any sort of pain.
Jumping, on the other hand, is a whole different ball game than just pleasure riding. Even the best and most experienced show jumpers will experience a certain amount of impact as they ‘land’ back in the saddle but that doesn’t mean to say that jumping will cause back pain.
Every time you jump you lift yourself forward and out of the saddle and, while this is obviously a good thing, you will still need to sit back in the saddle again at some point. The best time to do this for both you and your horse is as he’s landing and moving forward with his stride. The problem with this though is that at that same moment you’re also starting to lower yourself back into the saddle which will, even if you time it correctly, inevitably result in a certain amount of impact as you both meet in the middle.
Verdict: When jumping the spine experiences a lot more impact than it would if you were pleasure riding so naturally, this is more likely to cause back pain. That said a more cushioned saddle will help to chances the risk of this while back strengthening exercises will help to improve the muscles around your spine and lower back. With strong back muscles, your spine is better able to absorb impact and therefore lowering the risk of injury while jumping.
As with jumping, cross-country can involve a lot of jumps but in cross-country, these jumps tend to be much harder, not in terms of how difficult or easy they are to clear but in terms of how forgiving they are if you make a mistake.
As you would expect cross-country carries the same risks that jumping does but also has its own risks on top of that. As I say the fences are much less forgiving and if your horse trips or you fall then you’re more likely to injure yourself. Of course, you’re going to try and clear every fence you can, but even with the best horse in the world this isn’t always going to happen and if you do fall then there’s every chance that you could hit the fence.
Verdict: The risk of injury is far greater than it is with jumping and while the same steps can be taken to minimize the impact felt when landing there is also the added risk of falling and hitting a fence that won’t move. While you can’t do anything to prepare your back for a fall, you can wear a back protector to reduce the severity of the fall, in fact, most organizations won’t allow you to compete unless you are wearing a back or body protector.
You might think that I’ve gone mad including reining and dressage under the same heading but although they are both very different disciplines they do share a lot of similarities with the only real difference being the speed.
If you go by what I said earlier about the effects of trotting then you’d say that dressage can cause you back pain, but the difference with ‘dressage trotting’ is that it’s a much more collected (when a horse is collected his center of gravity is underneath him and he moves in with less of a forward motion) trot where the rider experiences less bounce and sits deeper into the saddle.
With reining, on the other hand, the horse is either at a lope (or canter) or gallop and both of these paces are better for the back. The lope because the rider is moving in time with the horse and the gallop because even if the rider does sit while galloping the horse’s back is straight and there’s no bounce in the movement.
Verdict: While reining is much faster than dressage (sometimes referred to as high-speed dressage) they’re both unlikely to cause back pain and can even help to reduce the pain that you may already have.
Although you’re changing your position and direction suddenly you generally sit firmly in the saddle when barrel racing which is good at lowering the risk of suffer pain. Barrel racing though is often said to be the most dangerous of all equestrian sports with people breaking all sorts of bones when they fall (which is a regular occurrence). With this in mind, it’s easy to see why barrel racing can cause back pain. It’s not the riding itself but more the sudden transition from riding to not riding, ie the falling off, that can cause back pain, especially if you and your horse fall into a barrel.
Verdict: There are no rules about any form of rider protection in barrel racing and the risk of injury is the highest out of all disciplines which makes it the activity where you’re most likely to injure yourself. I know that there’ll be a huge number of barrel racers who disagree with me on this but I’m only talking statistically.
If you already suffer from back pain
If you already have back pain then you’ll already know that you need to consider everything before just going ahead with it and horse riding is no different. As with all types of riding there is always the risk of falling but if you take this out of the equation then, instead of causing back pain or making it worse, riding can actually help.
Any physiotherapist will tell you that not only is it important to keep you back moving but that rhythmic moves can help to strengthen your back muscles which will, in turn, increase the speed with which your back can heal.
What does it mean if I suffer back pain while riding?
With 4 out of every 5 people suffering from some sort of back pain during their life it’s very common and doesn’t necessarily mean that anything is wrong so don’t worry straight away. There can be many reasons why your back is painful when you ride but the good news is that more often than not your back will get better in time.
If you’re new to horse riding or have been out of the saddle for a prolonged period of time then your muscles won’t be strong enough or developed enough to be able to support you fully. This is perfectly normal and unfortunately one of those things that people don’t tell you about before you learn to ride. If this is the case with you then don’t worry, your muscles will improve with time but you can also do simple exercises to help strengthen those muscles more quickly.
If you’re an experienced rider and have just recently taken up a new discipline that it’s more than likely that the same thing is going to apply as if you are a new rider, after all, you might not be a completely new rider but every discipline uses a different set of muscles and muscles groups and your’s won’t be used to that way of riding just yet.
Having a bad riding position can also contribute to back pain when riding, if you slouch or are too ridged then it will cause the upper (or thoracic) region of your back to ache. This is because you’re using your muscles rather than your core strength to hold that position. If you find it difficult to relax and sit upright in the saddle you can practice at home, simply sit right back into a high-backed chair and make sure your back is against the chair. Next, bring your shoulders up as high as you can and hold them for a few seconds before relaxing them. As you relax your shoulders keep your back straight, this will help you to relax while maintaining your posture. Practicing this regularly will help you to ride with a more relaxed and less slouchy posture.
In most cases, back pain will get better over time and while the amount of time it can take is different for everybody you should seek medical advice if the pain gets worse or if you start to get numbness in your leg.
Why does my back hurt after riding?
As with back pain that occurs while riding this is, in most cases, a result of weak muscles or muscles that aren’t yet used to the type of exercise you’re doing and will pass in a few days if not a few hours. If your muscles are weak then there are simple exercises that you can do to help improve those muscles. Even if your back hurts because you’re not used to riding these exercises will help.
If, on the other hand, the pain doesn’t go within a few days or gets worse then it’s important to seek medical advice, you may have only pinched the sciatic nerve (The main nerve that travels from the end of the lower back down the back of the thigh and divides just above the knee) but that’s painful enough and it’s always best to get it checked out anyway.
Page 2 – Does riding help back pain?