Since a young age, horses have been my passion. I have ridden for many years, and currently train my ex-racehorse for Dressage, which has given me an extremely useful insight into the way the body works while we work with these beautiful animals…and what can happen when it all goes wrong.
To say I love horses and horse riding is something of an understatement. I actually became a chiropractor because I wanted to be an equine chiropractor, and found you have to train with people first. As so often happens, my ideals changed over the years, and I became more and more fascinated with the working of the human body so that I decided to keep horses in my personal life and maintain my work with people professionally. However, this does give me a very useful knowledge base for helping my horse-riding patients reach their full equitation potential.
It seems to be a near-universal truth that as riders we put the horse first and cater to their every need without any thought to our own. This can actually be extremely counter-productive. I know many horse riders who will have the physiotherapist, osteopath or chiropractor out to their horse on a regular basis, yet when it comes to getting their own aches and pains looked to they are strangely reluctant. But if you are unable to sit correctly on your horse due to pain or muscle tension, then you are going to be constantly stressing your horse’s back which will only cause them to have problems as well. Besides which, how can you possibly concentrate on getting your horse working well when you are being distracted by that twinge from your lower back.
Of course, when you mention the use of Chiropractic when it comes to horse riding to non-riders, their mind immediately goes to the many tumbles and spills we all expect to take in the name of better riding. And without a doubt, Chiropractic can be extremely helpful in releasing the muscle and joint tension that so often occurs when you have hit the ground from a height at speed. But that is by no means the whole story.
Let’s start at the top, and your neck. Now, in some of my other pages I discuss the fact your neck is a very slender and flexible structure, which is expected to carry around about 9lbs (4.5kg) of your head on it. Add to this the weight of your riding hat, and the occasional whipping around your head gets when your horse decides that the branch it has gone past without incident one hundred times is suddenly flippin’ terrifying, and you can see how your neck can very easily get injured just in the normal course of riding. In so many cases like this, we riders don’t bother to get anything done about it. It’s just a bit sore, it will settle down in a bit. Well, yes, it might, but in the mean time how are you supposed to follow the riding instructor’s eternal order to “look up and around at where you are going”? Ninety percent of a good dressage rider’s instructions come not from definite aids, but from having their weight in just the right place at just the right time, and then the leg and reins only come in to support that weight shift. But you’re neck is the place that weight movement starts, so if you can’t look around at where you want to go, how is your poor horse supposed to understand the instruction? And the significance doesn’t stop with dressage – it is vital in all forms of jumping as well that you are able to look at where the next fence is, if nothing else so that you can tell your horse which leg he needs to be on to meet the next jump. Even if you are just a “happy hacker”, then looking for cars and tractors can be just as important. So you need to have full, free and painless movement of your neck before anything can start to go right.
Coming down then, we hit your shoulders and upper back. Again, all riding requires a good upright posture, with shoulders back and no slouching through the upper back. You need to maintain nice soft arms to feed that lovely soft contact we are looking for. And if you have a mega-load of tension through your shoulders, this is simply not going to happen! Think of the times you have had a really stressful day at work, and you go home hoping for a really nice ride to make something good out of an otherwise terrible day, and your horse picks that time to really mess you about. It has nothing to do with horses being vindictive – he doesn’t know that so-and-so at work said such-and-such to the boss and now you’re whole department is in uproar. He is simply reacting to the fact that instead of giving a springy, light touch on the reins you are set like concrete around him and somehow expect him to be able to bend and flex the same as always.
The lower back is my favourite area for pointing out that men are actually better built for riding than women. Their lower backs are naturally flatter, whereas a woman will always have slightly more of a curve and their pelvis is set tilting slightly more forward to accommodate child-bearing; so when us girls try and really sit deep in the saddle on our tailbones, it’s a whole load harder than when men try to do it! But anyway – stiffness and pain in this region is clearly going to cause a massive problem with your riding. This is the first area of direct contact between you and the horse, through your saddle, and any tension you have in your lower back or hips is going to be transmitted straight to them. Also, we tend to develop one side that is tighter than the other during the natural course of our lives, and this can cause real problems with balance – and saddle slipping. If you are tight through one side, your brain will automatically try to keep your upper body straight by tilting your pelvis off to one side meaning you ended up tilted off to one side.
By trying to make sure tension like this isn’t present, we can minimise the effect it has on your horse. If you are constantly leaning off to one side, then the most obvious occurrence is that your saddle is prone to sliding round to one side. You will also be placing more strain on one side of your horse’s back, causing an uneven strain in both the topline muscles, shoulders and pelvis of the horse, not to mention on your own spine.
Some riders report that they have difficulty persuading their horse to strike off on the correct leg in canter. Of course, this might just be something your horse has difficulty with – horses are left and right handed, just the same as their riders, and they can also have physical characteristics which mean they struggle with one lead. But once these have been ruled out, it is definitely time to start looking at our rider. The most straight forward reason behind this difficulty could be a tightness of the muscles around the hip joint on one side. If the muscles are too tight down the front of your leg, you are not going to be able to extend through your hip joint and therefore bring your leg into place behind the girth. So your horse is only getting half the message – you are clearly telling him to go faster, but in effect you are leaving it entirely up to him as to how he does this.
So while it is extremely important to take care of all aspects of your horse – his muscular and skeletal needs, his saddle fitting, his feet and his teeth – it is every bit as important to take care of your own fitness to ride by making sure you are not being affected by any day-to-day build up of tension or the effect of recent injuries. Even if you are indifferent to your own pain, you owe it to your horse. And you’ll be amazed at the difference a little bit of Chiropractic care can make to your overall riding performance!