We look at how to build good habits in strengthening our core strength… If, like me, it takes you a while to loosen up in the morning, you won’t be surprised to learn that there is a higher prevalence of lower back pain in riders than in the non-equestrian population.
Perhaps more surprising is a study of elite Dressage riders that suggests the majority are competing whilst experiencing pain and that this pain is considered chronic due to the repetitive nature of training rather than as the result of a one off injury like a fall.
Other studies found that riding in a GP (general purpose) saddle compared to a western saddle is more likely to exacerbate lower back pain as is riding with shorter stirrups.
Does this mean back pain is something we just have to learn to live with if we want to ride? Actually, no we don’t. The main contributing factors to lower back pain include muscle tightness, asymmetry and a weak core – all things that can be improved.
Flexibility and core strength are the key to protecting your back
In riding, it’s the abdominal muscles which require high levels of muscular endurance to provide good posture.
This is often referred to as core stability or core strength. The main muscles involved in core stability are the transversus abdominus, multifidus, diaphragm and pelvic floor muscles.
All these muscles work together to produce postural stability in the abdominal and lower back region as well as co-ordinate movement of the arms, legs and spine. That’s why core strength is so important for riders.
Weak abdominal muscles encourage a forward leaning posture which can cause or exacerbate lower back pain. Research shows that, in general, professional riders have higher overall muscle tone and are using their core muscles to a greater extent than novice riders.
They also have a greater ability to move each side of their body independently and adjust their centre of gravity to better adapt to and influence the movement of the horse.
Implementing a core strengthening programme with a focus on using both sides of the body independently and increasing awareness of your centre of gravity is likely to have a significant impact on your riding performance as well as the comfort of your back.
Slow, deliberate exercise is best to ensure the long-term health of the back which is why yoga, pilates and tai chi are so effective.
The other benefit of these types of exercise is that they involve whole body movement and coordination which helps improve asymmetry (commonly known as crookedness) farmbrazil.com.br. Several studies have confirmed what we probably all know, that crookedness reduces our ability to follow the horse’s movement and often results in miscommunications because our aids are likely to be less precise or consistent.
Riders also require flexibility in their hip, knee and ankle joints and this involves stretching the calf muscles, hamstrings (back of thigh and buttocks), quadriceps (front of thigh) and hip adductors (inner thigh) ed-italia.com.
Lack of flexibility in the hips can contribute to lower back pain so pay particular attention to the hamstrings, hip flexors and gluteus muscles in your stretching programme.
The trick to building good habits
Even with the best of intentions and armed with the knowledge that working on flexibility and core strength will without doubt improve your riding, it can be difficult to embed new habits into daily life.
Here are a couple of useful approaches to increase the odds you’ll stick with your good habits and help you ditch the bad ones!
In an ideal world aim to do core strengthening exercises three to four times per week and flexibility exercises five times per week but, as with most things, something is better than nothing.
1. Identity re-enforcement
Observe your habits and decide if they are effective in helping you become the person you want to be. Often, the best place to start with these big questions is to decide what outcome you want.
For example, if the outcome you want is to be able to ride as effectively as possible and without any soreness in your back, the type of person who could achieve this might be someone who does daily flexibility exercises and a weekly yoga class.
Now you’ve moved from being outcome based to being identity based – ‘I’m the kind of person who chooses to get changed and attend a class rather than sit on the sofa.’
2. Implementation intentions
In simple terms these are cues that trigger a habit. They are a type of planning that take the format of ‘I intend to do x when I encounter situation y’. This approach is most effective if you pick something that you do automatically on a daily / regular basis.
For instance, in my case, I intend to do my flexibility exercises just before I go to bed. Every time I go to bed I am reminded to do these exercises. Of course, it is then up to me to choose to do them or head straight under the duvet!