Equestrians love their sport, but occasionally, riders of all ages experience joint pain. That pain is most commonly felt in the knees, hips and lower back but can be experienced in any joint that is acting as a shock absorber for the horse’s movement. Rider tension is the primary reason why joints get sore, and there are both physical and psychological causes for tension.
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Understanding Joint Pain
Different equestrian disciplines can impact a rider's joints differently. Cross country, hunt seat and jumping require the rider to stay balanced in a two-point position, delivering the greatest impact to the knees and lower back. Dressage, western and endurance riding require the rider to sit up straight in the saddle, which can impact the hip joints. Joint pain can be either acute or chronic and is often associated with swelling or tenderness to a specific area. Joint pain related to sprains or strains occurs when their is a tearing to the muscle or tendon surrounding it. Joints are more stable when the muscles surrounding them are strong.
The abdominals, back muscles, shoulder muscles, quads, glutes, hamstrings and calves are the most common muscle groups used in riding. Weakness and lack of flexibility in any of these muscle groups can lead to a rider having trouble staying balanced in the saddle. This can create a cycle of tension, meaning that when the rider doesn't feel balanced, he or she tenses up muscles, which can have a negative impact on the horse, causing the horse to respond back with tension. All of this tension does not allow the tendons, ligaments and muscles surrounding the joints to remain supple enough to move with the rhythm and cadence of the horse.
When it comes to riding, the mental attitude of the rider is equally as important as his or her overall physical fitness. When a rider is fearful, a cascade of events is triggered. This negative mental/emotional response creates a sense of doubt and lack of trust, which leads to the body being rigid, tense and stiff. This sequence of events, impairs the skills needed to ride effectively and the tension generated from the fear can cause the riders joints to get stiff and rigid and lead to pain.
Preventing Joint Pain
Riders should focus on increasing strength and flexibility both in and out of the saddle. To help protect the knee joint, strengthen your quads and hamstrings with exercises like squats and leg raises. Abduction and adduction exercises are good hip strengtheners and sits-ups can do wonders for the abdominals. Pilates and yoga will increase your overall flexibility and help you keep that nice balanced, supple position every rider strives for. When riding, keep your thoughts focused, don’t let worrisome thoughts get in the way of a good ride and remember to breathe. By breathing, you release tension in a positive way as opposed to transmitting it back to your horse and your joints.