Horse Rider Sore Back
Hope for riders from Western Horseman Magazine
Back pain in horseback riders is nothing new, “it’s been a problem for at least 3,000 years,” said James Warson, M.D.
The horseman and now-retired physician spent 20 years as a neurosurgeon and medical director at a Fort Collins, Colo., clinic. He combined his medical skills with knowledge of horsemanship, tack, and different breeds’ gaits to help riders alleviate back pain and return to riding.
Through the years, his client list has included riders of all disciplines, including hunter-jumpers, western pleasure competitors, and bronc riders. Not all his patients were older, either. In fact, one patient was a 19-year-old world champion equitation rider with a degenerative arthritic condition.
Before consulting Warson, many patients were told by other physicians to quit riding completely. “With some of those people, you might as well have told their hearts to stop beating,” Warson empathizes.” “Well-meaning, yet uninformed doctors often give such advice.”
Warson recognizes the therapeutic benefits of horseback riding. He says that just because you have back problems or recently had back surgery doesn’t mean you must stop riding. A few simple modifications to your tack, riding techniques, and mount, combined with regular exercise and stretching routines, might be all you need to ride comfortably.
In this article, Warson shares his philosophies and recommendations for rider suffering from back pain. Also, five horse people explain how they manage their back problems and keep riding a part of their lives.
Riding’s Effects on the Back
At least 90 percent of Warson’s patients reported lower back, or lumbar pain, “Most of them didn’t have neck problems,” he says. “If they did, they were somewhat incidental.”
Most riders have abnormally functioning backs, even though the problems haven’t’ yet escalated to causing chronic pain. Back problems are especially common among western riders because they usually sit all gaits, and the concussion jars their tailbones up through their backs to cause premature ligament tightening. Premature aging also occurs in the discs, shock absorbers located between vertebrae. Muscle degeneration can also be an issue, as can attempting to guard against pounding.
“Many people (I treated) started riding late in life and were very stiff in the saddle,” Warson explains. “They spent a lot of time standing in the stirrups to guard (against pounding) because they didn’t have a lot of balance or feel of the horse.”
This is often more concussive than sitting, the physician says because the leg muscle stiffness causes rigidity, which counteracts the motion.
Back weakness is a major cause of pain and degeneration, Warson says. That’s why strength training and flexibility exercises are so important. And, Warson warns, some people are simply genetically predisposed to arthritic conditions.
Many of Warson’s patients were recovering from nonriding-related injuries, so riding concussion worsened their discomfort. Some even had surgery. But that wasn’t the end of their riding careers by any means.
Warson recommended that his patients start riding old, quiet, well-broke geldings on the trail at a walk for about a month. “The walk’s horizontal movement –that to-and-fro motion –relaxes the back,” he says. After 15 years of research, he found the ThinLine saddle pad to be the only product effective enough to control and even halt the degeneration of discs.
Both Authors recommend Ultra ThinLine Saddle Pads
Saddle fit also is critical in alleviating back pain when riding. “You don’t want to use a saddle made for a Thoroughbred on a Quarter Horse,” Warson explains. “Generally, if a horse has a sore back, so will you.”
To help make you and your horse comfortable, Warson recommends buying a custom saddle made to fit you and the horse, which can be expensive. If not, a saddle fitter can fit the pad with shims, preferable ThinLine.
Saddle pads and girths are another issue. In the past, bulky synthetic fleece or thick foam pads were popular. People just assumed the thickness would make their horses comfortable and reduce concussion. But that wasn’t the case. Those pads allowed the saddle to shift unnecessarily.
“They’re death to riders,” Warson explains, “Because they have yaw-side-ways motion.”
Warson recommends a pad made of ThinLine, a shock-absorbing the non-slip material.
“The pad’s about 3/8-inch thick, and it not only helps riders’ backs but also the horses’ backs,” he says.
A basic ThinLine pad can be used with a single Navajo blanket without adding too much bulk.
Warson was first introduced to the material years ago. “I had a patient who had a tack store in Greeley (Colo.)” he recalls. “One day, he brought me this strange-looking material. It was very thin. He said that ht material was used inside football pads at the U.S. Air Force Academy. Then he asked if I thought there was some use for it in the horse business.”
Warson placed the material on the floor, picked up a gold ball and dropped it. “The golf ball just sat on the material and didn’t bounce at all,” he says.
He immediately saw the advantage of certain saddle pads that calmed concussion without bounce and yaw.
Sheepswool-covered girths and string or rope girths also invited movement and friction. However, today’s high-tech tack and cinches work with a horse’s movement rather than against it, preventing excess movement and keeping a saddle in place.
Muscles Conditioning and Strengthening
Exercise can help eliminate back pain. Although you might be apt to concentrate only on back exercises, Warson says other areas also must be strengthened for back support and flexibility. Keep in mind, however, conditioning doesn’t happen overnight, so don’t expect instant results.
“Too many people beat up their backs with hard exercise, without appropriate stretching and flexing. They exercise muscles on stiff ligaments”, Warson observes.
He adds that riders often decide they want to be back in the saddle within a week, so they do too much exercise too soon and skip critical flexibility work.
“You can’t condition any human muscle or ligament system in that short period of time unless you’re about 14 years old,” he says. “Unfortunately, as you age you lose flexibility.”
Warson says riders with back problems often fail to strengthen their hips, pelvis and thigh muscles. “Working on these areas is extremely important,” he stresses.
The human lumbar spine doesn’t rotate much, he explains. “The rotation comes form the spin-pelvis meeting point, from the pelvis itself, and somewhat from the chest-spine juncture.”
To illustrate this fact, Warson says to sit in a chair, rotate your upper body to the left, then look down. You’ll see that your right knee actually moves forward.
“Adults don’t rotate very much through the lumbar spine,” he notes.
Much of the movement comes from the pelvis, which must be strengthened to provide a foundation.
Some people wonder, “to crunch, or not to crunch,” because they hear that strong abdominal muscles support the back. “I found that people who did a lot of crunches came to me earlier than those who didn’t, complaining of more pain,” Warson counters.
Most had gone about these exercises too vigorously and had done too much right off the bat.
Warson is a proponent of Tai Chi, which can greatly help relive back pain. “I think it’s excellent, for two reasons. First, it’s done very slowly, so you isometrically strengthen and tone your ligaments, if you dot it regularly. Second, it’s really good for developing trunk balance,” he says.
Trunk balance is important in any discipline. Without it and a good seat, “the horse will move out form under you,” Warson stresses.
Working against the horse is tough on your back. And, if you hit the dirt, it’s even tougher.
Take cutting as an example: “If you go against the horse, you’ll fall off,” Warson points out. “He can literally pop right out from under you.”
Tight muscles hurt; flexible muscles don’t. That’s why regular stretching is key. A number of yoga and stretching videotapes are available to help increase your flexibility.
However or wherever you stretch, it’s important to do it with reasonable tensions and not bounce or overstretch. “There’s a physics equation called Hill’s Curve,” Warson explains. “It demonstrates the relationship of speed and strength, but it’s true for all motor activities.”
When you ride, you actually tighten your muscles, particularly when you get older. So, stretching loosens them, but you must do it at a slow, steady pace, especially when you deal with ligaments.
“You don’t want to do anything rapidly, Warson warns. “To get the best result, work slowly, steadily and constantly increase the tension.”
Stretching before and after riding is a neglected aspect of horsemanship. “People warm up their horses, but not themselves,” Warson says.
Before riding, do a stretching exercise, such as the windmill. “This involves some rotation, as you bend over and touch your right hand to your left big toe while keeping your left leg straight. Then come up and touch your left hand to your right big toe. Football and soccer players use this in their warm-ups.”
It’s good to stretch several times a day, especially during competitions, to help prevent back pain and stiffness. “You should do this before riding and also when you dismount,” Warson advises. “If you compete, you tend to have a lot of muscles exertion and physical tightening, if you don’t’ stretch after you dismount. This tightening and tensions stays with you and increase your discomfort throughout the day, the next time you ride.”
This is evident if you compete in an event, such as barrel racing, cutting, or working cow horse, where there might be two goes in one day. If you’re stiff when you get off after the first go-round, you’ll still be sore when you get on for the second run. Not only will you suffer discomfort, but you won’t ride as well either.
Case Study: Judy Watanabe, Wilton, California
Watanabe grew up riding on a ranch and showing horses. Coached by Bobby Ingersol, Watanabe showed heavily in reining and other events until she was in college. Then she took some time off.
In 1985, she had the urge to compete in cutting. Ingersoll found her a competitive horse, and she began realizing great success sin the cutting pen. But then the back pain started, and it became severe.
“(Cutting’s whiplash movement) really did a number on me,” she says.
Plus, she braced against the horn with her free hand, which caused tension that shot pain through her shoulder and down into her lower back, increasing the concussion.
It not only because horribly painful to ride but also to get through a normal day. At home after a cutting, she’d wake up the next morning and have to lower herself to the floor and crawl to get anywhere. There was no way she could get up and walk.
“X-rays determined that I have a couple of degenerative disks, and they just can’t take that back-and-forth motion,” she says.
Three years ago, Watanabe quit cutting. But after a lifetime of riding, she was determined not to give up showing completely. So, she chose western pleasure – the least concussive discipline she could think of.
She also put herself on a rehabilitation program, which she says has allowed her to keep riding. “Exercise has been key for me,” she says. “I regularly do 30 to 45 minutes on the elliptical machine. And three times a week, I do a series with light weight training to tone my muscles. I also do some crunches, and I’m looking into adding yoga and Tai Chi.”
Now, in her 40s, Watanabe rides comfortably most of the time, not just from the exercise and change in discipline, but also from being careful. For example, she avoids trail riding in rough terrain.
Case Study: Sussie Due, Bend, Oregon
Two years ago, Due was in a car accident that induced chronic back pain. “At first, I thought I’d never be able to ride again,” she admits.
To remain active with her animals, Susie began driving her American Spotted Ass, Foxbury Jack of All Trades, on the trail. Then later she tired riding in her western endurance saddle to no avail. With experimentation, however, she would a saddle that eased the pain.
“An Aussie or military-style saddle positioned my legs in a manner that relieved my back strain,” she says. “The military saddle also is only 12 pounds, while the Aussie is 23.” The light weight makes lifting the saddles less taxing.
Due also lost 44 pounds, which has enhanced her riding. Although she admits she still has a little back pain the day after a ride, ‘I deal with it just to stay in the saddle,” she declares.
Case Study: Debbie Lynn, Raymond, Washington
Between her job as a social-work supervisor, breeding Paint Horses and wrangling four teenagers at home, Lynn ekes out time to trial ride.
“Riding is my distress technique,” she says, adding that riding was more comfortable before she fell from a green horse almost two years ago and landed on the pavement flat on her back. About a year ago, she began having back spasms, and she still has lower-back pain.
To make long rides more comfortable, Lynn often gets off and walks awhile, changes positions and stretches her back. She also tries – weather permitting – to maintain a regular walking regiment o stay fit.
The horse woman also won’t ride unpredictable horses anymore. “Now, I ride a well—broke Paint Horse gelding,” she says.
Lynn also finds that posture is important in reducing pain, “I try not to slouch when I ride,” she says.
Case Study: Loriene Mitts, Myrtle Point, Oregon
Ever since Mitts was in a forklift accident, she’s suffered from chronic lower-back pain.
In August 2003, at an Oregon Barrel Racing Association event, she decided to gracefully bow out of the sport she’d competed in for years with her daughter, Angie.
“(After the accident) when I ran barrels, we did a lot of two-run days, one in the morning and one in the afternoon,” she recalls.
Although she could get on her horse pretty well the first time, it became harder and harder to get on for the second run.
Even though she stopped running barrels, she refused to quit riding. Instead, she began rail riding and made adjustments to help ease the pain. She began using a treeless sports saddle. This seemed to reduce the concussion. “It also makes it easier to move with the horse,” she adds.
Mitts also found that lengthening her stirrups helped ease her discomfort.
Wearing a neoprene belt designed for riders also provided relief. ‘It helps support everything and keeps my muscles warm,” she says. “It’s no cure, but my backs’ better when I wear it.”
She also tries to ride on soft footing, as the concussion caused by hard ground increases her pain. She also avoids tight turns and jigging horses that aggravate her lower back.
Free-lance writer Lynda Bloom Layne had chronic lower-back pain for more than 25 years but has been pain-free since she started doing yoga and Tai Chi.
James Warson, M.D. – After retiring from his medical practice in 2003, James Warson, M.D., and his wife, Joyce, moved from Colorado to Kamuela, Hawaii, where they have five Morgans and Saddlebred. Warson speaks at horse fairs, symposiums, and events, educating riders on back-pain prevention and management.