Muscle Activation and Postural Control in Riders

Postural control is “the ability to control the body in space and ensure its stability and orientation” -Brodal 2008. Having better postural control means that you have an independent seat and can ride in balance; it does not mean that you activate all your muscles at once and sit in a rigid ‘granny on a Zimmer-frame’ type position. This rigidity limits movement and increases spinal compression due to the contraction of the surrounding muscles. Spinal issues are common in horse riders and so increased compression is definitely something we want to avoid. Rigidity also reduces your ability to be flexible and absorb forces, which can lead to impact injuries. It also doesn’t look very nice or is very comfortable on your horse. If you have a strong seat, which pushes into the horse and you clamp your body into a fixed position, how on earth are you going to develop lightness and highly refined aids?

Similarly, in the presence of rider lower back pain, the ability to control the spine at every segment is lost. This causes the multifidus muscle, which also acts to stabilise the spine, to atrophy. The spine then becomes even less stable and the rider is less able to control their posture. Pelvic instability is a common condition and is due to poor muscle recruitment, which in turn causes unwanted movement of the lower trunk (Reid, 1996). A stable trunk is necessary to riding and so increasing riding ability and muscular endurance is indicated in order to maintain a balanced position without discomfort. Nevison and Timmis (2013) also identified that pelvic asymmetry was present in all the riders they studied and reduced after exercises and soft tissue treatment (as shown in the image below). They concluded that gluteal and core strengthening exercises could play a significant role in enhancing horse and rider health, by reducing asymmetric loading on the horse’s back from a crooked rider.

The highly esteemed Maria Teresa Engell stated that riders need to improve their stability and control off the horse before they can hope to ride correctly and in balance. This is in line with the Strength and Conditioning theory that your sport specific skill (in this case riding) is the top of the pyramid of skills which you, as an athlete, need to develop. The 5 Phases of learning which Engell (referencing Hodges et al, 2002 – ‘Coexistence of Stability and mobility in postural control’) suggests are

1)      Skill Learning

2)      Precise Training

3)      Controlled Activity in different positions

4)      Combined segmental and superficial stability tasks

5)      Specific retraining in sport specific context

Once a rider is proficient in all these skills, their ability to rider symmetrically will improve. This in turn enables the rider to be much more effective with the aids and to reduce the risk of inducing lameness or asymmetry in their horse. Proprioception is key to riders – the ability to know where your body is in space is vital in order to control it effectively.

Realising how you as a rider influence your horse – for better or for worse – is crucial. If you missed them, have a look at my blogs on Rider Self Assessments ( to see where you are most weak, tight or unstable and have a think about whether this correlates with the movements which your horse is good or bad at too. 


Back pain in horse riders - why is it so common?

73% of horse riders, and 88% of elite riders, have significantly higher incidences of back pain compared to the general population. The riding position and forces translated to the rider from the horse’s movement are predisposing factors.

Lots of studies investigating the cause of low back pain have considered lumbar spine mobility, axial rotation, saddle type, duration and intensity of riding, leg length inequality and pelvic tilt angle; unfortunately, they found no agreement on the cause of such high rates of back pain in riders. 

My dissertation assessed many studies and highlighted muscle weakness and rider asymmetry as key contributing factors to rider LBP. This is supported by several more recent studies which have shown how differently all riders move on a horse (even between professional riders) and that this individual variation and asymmetry is the key cause of human and equine back pain.

In the presence of rider lower back pain, the ability to control the spine at every segment is lost. This causes the multifidus muscle, which also acts to stabilise the spine, to atrophy. The spine then becomes even less stable and the rider is less able to control their posture.

I commonly see this in patients who have lower back pain. They often sit or drive all day and have a very stiff thoracic spine (mid back) and stiff hips. As a result, the lower back moves more so that you can still reach forward or twist round to put your seat belt on. Unfortunately, the lumbar spine is not meant to move a lot so as a protection mechanism the lower back muscles become really tight to try and protect the hypermobile spine. The patient (or rider) experiences lower back pain and assumes that they need to have a back massage to get the tension out of the lower back muscles.

In reality, correcting the mid back and hip stiffness, as well as increasing the rider’s postural control is the best way to solve the problem. It is so important to not just rub what hurts. Like vets, farriers, dentists and riding instructors, we should all strive to understand why a particular problem has occurred rather than just fixing the immediate problem. This will provide a more holistic and thorough care of the horse and rider and prevent injuries from occurring. It is better to be proactive than reactive in the management of you and your horse’s health and wellbeing.

If you would like to read my dissertation, please do email me for a copy.

Horses Inside Out Research Awards 2nd Place!

The Horses Inside Out Annual Conference was this weekend and what a fantastic event! Titled "Backs, Balance and Biomechanics" I knew it would be right up my street. It was so good to hear lots of highly intelligent vets and researchers confirming the need for horse and rider asymmetry in order to prevent injuries and improve performance. I was thrilled to received 2nd place for the Research Award from my dissertation in Lower Back Pain in Horse Riders, it was particularly noted for being an innovated study, which well extremely well researched and provided riders with a very practical take-home message. It was very encouraging to hear that everything I believe and am trying to encourage with riders, is already a known truth among leading researchers and professional riders.

Some of the topics covered during the weekend and listed below, I will be writing them in more detailed blog articles over the coming weeks.

  • Dentistry - the horrors of poorly qualified equine dentists
  • Kissing Spines - are they always bad?
  • Surfaces - what is the best thing to ride on? 
  • Equine Locomotion Analysis - how 3D analysis and force plates are aiding diagnosis.
  • Are bone scans, x rays, and expensive examinations really worth it?
  • Equine Behaviour - how breeders will select genes for human husbandry in the future
  • Importance of Rider Balance
  • Equine Nutrition - how wetting your hay is so dangerous.
  • Why your horse needs Strength and Conditioning

Please let me know if there are any other topics which you would like me to find out about, or if you have any questions. Thank you. 

Rider Self Assessment Part 3

Flexibility is crucial in reducing injuries and maintaining a healthy body. The yoga mantra of "I bend so I don't break" certainly has some merit. When your joints and muscles are more supple and flexible you have a greater range of motion available to you. This increases your body's "buffer zone".  For example, if putting a saddle on your 16.2hh horse requires 80% shoulder mobility and 20% back extension (100% total movement), you can easily see how if you had poor shoulder mobility, say 60%, your back would have to extend to 40% (i.e. twice as much) in order for you to complete the task of tacking up. 

These compensations happen in our bodies all the time, without us noticing. Sometimes they don't cause a problem, but more often than not, they do. In the example, the rider's back would fatigue more quickly because its working twice as much as it should. There may not be a problem at the time, but weeks or months later a simple task like reaching the top of the bridle may cause there back to spasm very painfully. 

Having an awareness of your body's limitations and working on specific areas of stiffness and tension will help to reduce pain and injury in the future. There are only so many compensations that the body can make, and once it reaches a threshold, pain occurs. People often are confused at this point and wonder why they are in pain..... "I haven't done anything, I don't understand why it hurts" is a phrase I commonly here. The body has simply be overloaded.

So, for the next exercises

1) Downward facing dog - yoga pose where your hands and toes are on the floor and you push your bum up to the ceiling. There should be a straight line from your hands, through your arms, shoulder and spine to the top of your bum, and then from your bum straight to your heels. If this is too painful on your hamstrings and calves, bend the knees slightly.

2) Shoulder mobility - try to interlink your fingers behind your back, one reaching up your back and the other reaching down from your shoulder. Switch sides and see if your hands can meet this way..... is your writing hand worse? Can you do it at all? Is there a pulling in the front of your shoulder?

3) Seated Twist - sit on the floor, bend your left knee and put your left foot on the outside of your right knee. Twist to the left, keeping your back straight, using your arms to hold onto the left knee if necessary. Swap arms and legs and twist to the right. Is one way easier? Did you feel a block between your shoulder blades? Did you lean backwards in order to move further round?

Practicing these flexibility exercises or at least doing them as a stretch in the evening after you ride, is a great way of reducing stiffness and making sure you are equally supple on the left as on the right.

Rider Self Assessment Part 2

Following from part 1, this series of exercises are to challenge your core stability and gluteal (bum) strength. As riders, we know how important it is to remain strong in the core so that we don't hang onto the horses mouth and keep that tall, dressage posture. But desk jobs, babies and life often causes our hips to become too tight and our core to be less active. 

Try these simple exercises to see how your core strength is:

1) Plank position - hold for 30 seconds. You should do it with your arms straight and on your tip toes (straight line between feet and shoulders, keep your bum in line) and also on your elbows. Repeat, if you can, with a side plank. This is the same position, but leaning on one elbow and the edge of one foot. Do you shake? Is there pain in your hips or back? Is one side stronger than the other?

2) Glute Bridge - lie on the floor with your knees bent and feet hip width apart. Keep your feet on the floor and push your pelvis up to the ceiling, making a straight line from your shoulders to your knees. Does one side of pelvis drop? Does your hamstring or calf cramp? How about if you try it with one leg?

3) Resisted Lunge - Lunge forward with your left leg (both knees bent to 90 degrees) with your arms straight out in front of you, palms together. Try to keep this position whilst someone pushes your hands to the left and then to the right for 5 seconds each. Swap legs and try again. Which way was more difficult? Did you feel your core engage as you were pushed to the side?

Poor core strength causes the lower back (lumbar spine) to move too much. This causes instability and muscle tightness in this area, as the muscles try to protect the lower back by limiting its movement and flexibility. This is felt in the body as pain and stiffness.

My master's thesis explored the prevalence and causes of low back pain in horse riders. 78% of riders suffer with back pain and the main causes are muscle weakness and asymmetry. 

Look out for part 2 and for other factors which cause horse riders' pain.

If you have any questions, as usual, please feel free to contact me


Rider Self Assessment

A Quick Self Assessment for Rider Strength & Conditioning:

Can you....
(1) Stand on one leg in balance for 30 seconds.. Can you do it? Which side is harder?
(2) Lunge forward, both knees to 90 degrees... Does your knee cave in? Do you wobble? Does your opposite hip shoot to the side?
(3) Squat as low as you can....Is your bum close to the floor? Have your knees come together? Have you lost your balance? Did your back round?

Riders lack some of the most basic levels of flexibility and balance. This increases their risk of injury and limits performance.

To Find out more about how to fix some of these problems then do get in contact, read more in Horse & Hound this Thursday or like PB Equestrian - Rider Strength & Conditioning, Horse & Rider Osteopathy!