While all athletes suffer pain of some sort during their training and competition lives, the sport of dressage is quite commonly associated with back pain, particularly if riders don't carry out the proper ground work! Danish sports' therapist Gitte Soeby attributes this to a lack of core stability and overall lack of fitness.
Primarily caused by a lack of other exercise Gitte stresses that in order to have good back muscles, one really needs to have good abdominal muscles also. "If that is not the case and the rider lacks core strength, the rider will become stiff and will not have the ability to naturally follow the movements of the horse," she explained. "As a result, these riders will often try to get their balance by holding onto the reins or gripping with their legs."
In addition riders tend to have one side that is stronger or more flexible than the other, just like their four-legged partners. "A part of proper fitness is evening up the riders, so that the two sides are the same in strength and movability.
In a range of top dressage riders, young and old, most experience some sort of back pain, whether it be the result of a bad fall, or lifestyle factors and they have all adopted some sort of outside regime to help prevent and alleviate their symptoms.
Danish rider Cathrine Dufour often experiences pain in the lowest part of her back and says her symptoms are most prevalent when she is undertaking hard work on the younger horses.
"The main cause for me is tight muscles, and when I don't get enough help, through massage or osteopathy, the muscles get tighter and tighter, and suddenly I can't avoid the pain."
Massaged and treated by Gitte Søby once every 14 days, Cathrine knows that this is an important aspect of her athletic agenda!
Despite having two prolapsed disks, Laura Bechtolsheimer doesn't really experience any back pain, but spends a lot of time working on her fitness and surrounding muscle groups.
"I do lots of physiotherapy, and I have a 1 hr pilates lesson two times per week," said Laura. "In fact my pilates teacher and I are planning on making a dvd together for riders!"
Estonia's Dina Ellermann is glad to say that she has not yet experienced back pain during her riding career.
"And hopefully will not have to experience that," she said. "But just in cause, twice a year I visit my doctor-chiropractor just to check my spine."
After a bad riding accident two years ago, Guenter Seidel had to recover from a shattered pelvis, broken ribs, and a collapsed lung. He has spent a lot of time making sure he is pain free in the saddle.
"The recovery required plates and screws in my pelvis and no weight bearing for a couple months," Guenter explained. "Then seven months later I had surgery again to take everything out, otherwise I was not going to be able to ride again. All that is the reason for all my rehab and persona training now and because I do a lot of physical therapy since my accident, I have no back pain."
Free from back pain for the last four years, Wayne Channon started taking supplements and no longer needs his once regular physiotherapist.
"The pain I suffered used to be around the lower neck/upper thoracic area. It was naturally caused by getting thrown about on young horses," Wayne explained. "To overcome it I started taking GlucoSANO, a very powerful anti-oxidant and while I used to use physio 2 - 3 times per month, I have not needed to for four years."
Sometimes experiencing back pain, typically when she is away coaching and taking time out of the saddle, Hayley Beresford uses some very well known relaxation techniques, that have become quite popular amongst dressage riders. To overcome her pain she takes regular yoga lessons and also has physiotherapy.
An eventing rider prior to taking up dressage, Italia's Silvia Rizzo says she often has pain in her upper back, particularly on the right side, stemming from a long-term eventing injury to her right shoulder.
"At the time I did normal medical checks and they injected me and I did some physiotherapy and acupuncture, but not in a scheduled way, just on the odd occasion," Rizzo explained. "Then three weeks ago I tried kineseo tape on me and my horses and that worked really well. This improved my situation quickly and the application doesn't cause any pain or trouble."
While the key to improved health and pain free riding is unique to each individual, Gitte knows that balance is one of the key issues to successful riding and that if the rider is in good balance and good body control they achieve a good balance with the horse and become a "combination."
"A combination is created when two individuals work together as one and correct balance is a part of a rider's core stability, which also depends on five key factors," said Gitte.
- 1) Center of gravity.
- 2) stability - the ability to absorb the energy from the horse.
- 3) Power - transmission of the energy that comes from the horse.
- 4) Posture - symmetry -the riders two sides being even.
- 5) Movements - asymmetric - the slight movements of one hip/seat bone, to cue a flying change for example.
Stressing that a lot of riders Gitte treats need to carry out exercises to assist with core strength and back protection, Gitte believes off-the-horse work is the only way to improve postural unevenness and thus eliminate muscle-pain or strain. The most common area for soreness, according to Gitte, is in the rider's shoulder due to them favouring one side over the other. Back problems due to lack of fitness or weak abdominal and back muscles are also most prevalent.
In order to treat these symptoms Gitte uses a combination of physiotherapy, osteopathy and massage. She combines them with a program for core stability training.
Believing that pilates and all types of eccentric training are a good exercise for riders needing to establish or maintain body awareness, these activities will then also lead to stronger core stability and overall fitness.
"The more body-awareness and core stability you have, the more you're able to feel, follow, and be aware of the horse's movements," she explained. "Thus the more able you are to self-correct your seat and be on your way to achieving that harmonious combination."
Here are three simple off-the-horse exercises Gitte has outlined to improve core strength and stability:
1) Circle hop - gives the rider stability, balance and control
Draw a circle on a mat or on the floor, with 7 of 8 pieces of tape approximately 4 feet in diameter.
Stand on one leg on one of the points. Moving - hop from one point to another clockwise and counterclockwise. Concentrate on coming into a complete controlled stop, before you continue to the next point. Change leg and repeat the session.
2) Standing hip extensions - gives the rider hip strength, stability, and balance.
You have to use an elastic band. Place the elastic band around your ankle. The other end of the elastic band should be wrapped around a table or anything like it. Stand erect, with the anchor point in front of you. Take two steps back so that the tape stretches. Remain tall and balancing on your supporting leg, place your hands on your hips. With the working leg you pull the elastic behind you and slightly away from your body. You should not have hip rotation. Hold the finishing position for 1-2 seconds, then return slowly to the starting position. Repeat this several times with both legs.
3) Physioball - Gives the rider abdominal and back muscle strength.
Use a medium to large physioball. Sit on the center of the ball. Legs in front of you. Raise your hands above your head and put your fingertips together. Pull the ball towards your heals and tilt your trunk backwards as far as you can, while maintaining your balance on the ball. Push the ball backward - allowing your trunk to incline forward. Return to starting point. Repeat the session.
by Sarah Warne for Eurodressage
Photos © Astrid Appels