Recently I read an article on dressage position and riding on a major dressage website which stated that if you did not have back pain, then you were not really riding. I was appalled. To set the record straight, that is completely wrong and any instructor or information resource that says back pain is a part of the riding experience, or that you are not really riding without pain should be dismissed. Back slowly away from them and run for the hills.
While back pain should not be a part of your riding repertoire that does not mean discomfort will not rear its head from time to time, especially if you are learning a new skill or tweaking your position. There is a reason muscular soreness within riding has its own name – ‘saddle sore’. There are muscles that are seldom used to the extent they are needed in saddle, and so after a few rides those muscles will make your life miserable with their protests. That is a part of learning any athletic skill. But we all know the ache of muscle soreness, certainly my students do, but never mistake the ache of your joints, your spine or your bones as being a good thing. My goal as your instructor should be to make the muscles around your bones work. That tells me that they are building a better support system for the sensitive vertebrae in your spine and joints in your hips. As your instructor I also have a responsibility to recognize your initial fitness and work you up to the point of progress without overextended your musculature. A pulled back muscle does no one any good. You as a student have a responsibility to speak up when something is hurting and to NOT DO THAT ANYMORE! You must find a different way, even if the path is longer.
Now let’s get into the meat of it. Women’s pelvises are wider and more bowl shaped than men’s, who have narrower pelvises. That is, of course, an evolutionary adaptation to accommodate those giant headed babies we must birth. We also have more flexible lower spines to allow us to lean back against the huge baby belly we have sticking out in front of our pelvis, thus maintaining a stable center of gravity. As a baby gestates in our wombs, the musculature of our abdomen stretches to allow for its growth. Many of you have had children, but those of you who have not aren’t immune. Those adaptations are still in place, waiting for that magical moment when you get knocked up. For a great article on women’s spinal adaptations click here.
The shape of our pelvis is not just limited to its wideness. It is also balanced naturally forward, toward the pubic bone and less toward the seat bones, whereas a male pelvis is the opposite. What this means is that we are anatomically predisposed to put a tremendous amount of pressure on our lower backs. Then add the social aspect that we as women are thought to be more attractive when we arch our backs and lift our chests, a position we have placed ourselves for most of our lives and boom! We are in our current predicament. For a great article on the differences between men and women in riding click here.
Our final goal after all of this is not to turn ourselves into something we are not (aka men). We have the pelvises and bodies that we were born with, now we must make sure we support and build as much muscle as possible so we can use our positions with precision and strength. The most basic first step is to support your spine – and the only way to do that is to increase the strength of your lower and upper abdominals. The lower abs are more important initially, because they are the bulwarks to that hyper arched lower spine of ours. In fact, initially it might be hard to even access those muscles. Here is a link to a great pilates abdominal workout with spinal support built in. On horse, we must constantly be checking in that they are, in fact, toned and working.
Because the fact is, we do use the musculature of our entire core, including our lower backs, to ride well. It is when we use one side without the support of the other that pain will begin to creep into the equation. I have learned to recognize those holes in my students and nip the process in the bud, and you can do the same with yourself. The bottom line is: if something is causing you pain, stop! We must find a different way.
I have seen too many professional careers limited and sometimes ended because of back pain. I know professional riders of all disciplines who rely on steroid injections, have slipped discs and massive amounts of pain because of that mentality that riding with pain is okay. It is never the standard and do not let anyone convince you otherwise.