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For the Rider: Exercises for Back Health

by Dr. James Warson | Jun 16, 2020, 3:11 PM EST

Neurosurgeon and horseman Dr. James Warson, whose classic book “The Rider’s Pain-Free Back” has recently been revised and updated in a new printing by Trafalgar Press, is keenly aware of the  equestrian’s need for a strong, supple, healthy back to do everything from tacking up and mucking out to competing successfully on horseback. Warson’s book describes the physics of movement and discusses how combining the human and equine backs during riding can create additional strain. It also provides practical information and step-by-step examples of exercises and more to help those who are experiencing back pain and those wishing to maintain back health. We asked him to give us a taste of his knowledge, including some exercises for equestrians to try at home or the barn.

The Rider’s Back

The world seems full of equestrians with back pain who have been misinformed that they should stop riding. This edict has generally been handed down from physicians who have never ridden and have no knowledge about riding. They just think it’s a good idea. I believe that equestrians are born, not made, and this advice is generally useless and upsetting to a rider. Most riders can overcome their back pain and return to riding. Because I spent countless hours watching horses and riders, I was inspired to think about what I observed in a manner that a physician would. Testing the ideas that I developed was also a lot of fun.  After about 50 years of this, I condensed my thoughts on rider back pain into three groupings: the horse, the tack, and the rider. Space requirements have forced me only to touch on these. For more in-depth information, consult the book titled “The Rider’s Pain Free Back.”

The Horse  

The rider should consider the type of gait of their horse has as a starting point in evaluating their own back pain. Horizontally gaited horses like plantation Tennessee walkers and Paso Finos have a smooth gait with little impact upward against the rider’s spine. In progressive order, we find Arabians, thoroughbreds, quarter horses, and warmbloods with slightly more animation. Finally, there are the vertically animated horses, like some Morgans, Saddlebreds, and the Hackney. Any given horse within these groups can show variability. When in doubt, try the horse at a sitting trot or jog at varying speeds. If the ride is comfortable, the harmonics of your back motion coincide with those of the horse, and you’ve got something.

The Tack

To discuss tack, first we have to discuss open- versus closed-cell saddle pad technology. In a closed-cell pad, there are an infinite number of air cells that are isolated and not in contact with other cells. To sit down on these is to compress the cells that, having no outlet for their compressed air, become harder and develop heat. Thus you can “bottom out” on a closed-cell pad that builds up pressure as compression is applied. Thus, Newton’s third law of motion is impacting the spine. An open-cell pad has interconnections among varying sized air cells. As your seat pushes down on the pad, air escapes among the cells laterally, transforming a vertical force into a horizontal response. This takes the recoil off the base of the spine. Because of this technology, open-cell pads can be made the thinnest of all saddle pads. This gives the rider closer contact with the horse and avoids fighting the motions of roll, pitch, and yaw that are inherent in thicker pads. Roll, pitch, and yaw are easy to understand and are important in saddle pad selection. If you take a whip by the handle and shake it, the part at the base moves very little. As you move out toward the tip, there is increasingly more motion. Roll, where the saddle rolls around the horse’s barrel; pitch, where there is a rocking-horse motion; and yaw, when the horse suddenly turns at speed but you and the saddle tend to go straight, are all accentuated the farther the saddle is above the horse’s back. These motions must be counteracted by back motions, hence some back pain.

The Rider

Recently, I looked through a well-known and respected horse industry magazine. There were 111 advertisements for things related to horse health. There were only nine remotely related to rider health. USEF is aware that rider health and safety have not received the attention they deserve. If we are to proceed further we must recognize three things: 1) the rider and horse should be approached as a single entity, with the good health of each supporting the other, 2) horses don’t have checking accounts or credit cards, and 3) horses can’t read articles like this. This part is up to you.   

Dr. James Warson and his horse Trigger
Photo: Charles Hilton

In my medical practice, I am continually confronted by a scenario that reads something like this: the lady was crazy about horses as a child and rode through high school. College first took riding away, then marriage, childbirth, and child-rearing finished riding off. Then there was a day when everyone else was off at school or work, it was a beautiful day, and she said, “It’s time to get back to riding.”

Unfortunately, a number of years have passed, and the effects of aging have silently taken hold. Some preparation is needed. To counteract the weakening of muscles and tightening of ligaments, you need to consider the muscles that are required to keep a rider in the saddle successfully.

Ninety percent of riding is accomplished by using two groups of muscles. Muscles can only pull, not push. Toward the front of the body, the iliopsoas (tenderloin) and the rectus abdominus (six pack) contract to pull us forward in the saddle. Toward the back of the body, the loin muscles (multifidus and erector spinae) contract to hold us posteriorly. Staying upright in the saddle involves a coordinated balance between these two muscle groups. This has to be done by well-stretched and strengthened muscles working together in an isometric manner—in which one holds a position over a period time, rather than changing position through reps—or else there will be fatigue and subsequent pain.

Riders ride isometrically. Except for posting, riding is done using muscles that contract slowly in a prolonged manner and hold a position over a long period of time. Exercising using a series of quick repetitions (isokinetic exercise) is not a suitable activity for riders. You may look good if you do enough of them over time, but they won’t prevent fatigue when riding in a saddle. Personal trainers prevent boredom by having you do reps and counting them. You will accomplish more by holding a weight steady for several minutes than by doing several lifting reps with the weight.

The following are exercises that I have taught for many years as ones that are specific for riders with back problems. Their purpose is stretching and toning; they should be done slowly for stretching and in the order below.

Standing Stretches

Stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart and knees straight. Bend over and touch your right toe with your left hand and come all the way up. Now do the same thing with the right hand to the left great toe and come all the way up. Then bend forward and touch an imaginary line between the feet with both hands and come all the way up. Do this exercise for about five reps slowly, stretching with each.

Exercises on Hands and Knees

These strengthen the posterior muscles while stretching the anterior ones. They are done while you are on your hands and knees.

  • Dog and fire hydrant. This one consists of raising the knee laterally and lowering it much as a dog would at a hydrant. Repeat with the other leg. Do five reps slowly for each side, stretching each time.

  • Foot on the ceiling. Raise a foot up as if you were trying to plant the flat of the foot on the ceiling. Hold the foot up for a few seconds, lower it, and repeat with the other foot. About five reps will suffice, emphasizing stretching.

Leg Lifts

These strengthen the anterior muscles. Simply lie supine on the floor, raise the feet about a foot off the floor, hold it longer than you did the last time, and let them down.

A final tip: when you have finished riding, do the standing stretching exercises after dismounting. This will allow you to reset your muscles for whatever your next activity may be.

These are ideas that I developed from over 50 years of riding, watching riders, and thinking about what I saw as a rider and physician. I hope they will be useful in your further development as a rider. As we say in the Comanche language, “Psa makaruru” – keep riding.