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Horse Riding Injuries – Treatment & Prevention
This Article is a on general horse riding injuries, prevention strategies and types of treatment that I have researched to support my sports massage practice. Although not addressing specifics, it covers the general type of injuries that can be found in horse riders.
I must admit that before I became a Sports Massage Therapist I did not realise how demanding horse riding was to the body!
Common Horse Riding Injuries
Horse riding I have found out is a dangerous sport! Being thrown from a horse can lead to serious spinal cord injuries and fractures needing medical attention. Other fall injuries I have seen in my practice are bruising, back and neck pain – shoulder injuries are very common with soft tissue damage ie tendons, ligaments, muscles strains (common to the abductors) etc.
As with all sports, horse riding can cause pain and trauma to the body. The joints in the hips, ankles and knees can take a serious battering while riding due to the continued and repetitive forceful vibration with pressure placed on them. This can generate an overload on the intervertebral disk causing degeneration etc.
The tendons that connect the bones to surrounding muscles can also suffer in much the same way. Over time, this can lead to a repetitive strain injury. Exercising proper body mechanics, stretching and allowing the body regular rest intervals can also help to avoid repetitive injuries.
Aside from the injuries which can occur as the result of a fall from a horse and the RSI’s mentioned above, the most common injuries suffered by equestrians are pulled or strained muscles. The equestrian adductors suffer the most.
A muscle tear or rupture in the adductors is typically referred to as a groin strain. There are five muscles in the adductor group. A groin strain can affect one or more of these five muscles and are graded 1, 2 or 3 depending on their severity.
With a grade 1 strain, the athlete will experience some discomfort but the pain is generally tolerable and regular daily activities such as walking and bending can typically be managed. There will usually be a feeling of tightness in the muscle and the area may be slightly tender to the touch. Riding on a cold day without sufficient warm up makes pulled muscles more common.
Grade 2 strains result in much more discomfort than a grade 1, as there is typically a tear in the fibres of the tendons. There is often some swelling or bruising in the area. The muscle(s) will feel weak when contracting, and walking may be uncomfortable. There is a sudden sharp pain in the groin area or adductor muscles during exercise, and tightening of the groin muscles that may not be present until the next day. There will be discomfort or pain on stretching the muscle. Walking may be affected and running is painful.
A grade 3 strain is the least common and most painful as it involves a complete rupture of the tendon with severe pain during exercise and inability to adduct the groin muscles. A grade 3 will require medical attention whereas a sports therapist can normally deal with a grade 1 & 2.
Other Injuries – heavy lifting of saddles and heavy and repetitive yard duties eg mucking out, can produce lower back pain. Other foot and arm/forearm/hand/shoulder injuries are common – often resulting from handling boisterous or young horses that pull away from the equestrian (needing holding back or being jerked) or the horse standing on feet or kicking.
Muscles Groups Affected
Horse riding actively engages many of the body’s muscle groups. The hip flexors (Psoas and iliacus) allow the body to bend in to the hips, and the hips to be pulled in towards the torso. These are used when riding to hold the trunk of the body in a vertical position and prevent the rider from shifting back. The hip flexors work in conjunction with the rectus abdominis as well as the muscles in the lower back to keep the torso properly aligned, keeping the rider firmly positioned and anchored in the saddle.
The psoas and iliacus attach to the lesser trochanter of the femur which is why it’s possible that a strain to the psoas can be felt as pain in the thigh area. The other muscles that are engaged while riding are the quadriceps, sartorius, gracilis, adductors, and pectineus, making the thigh the area with the highest concentration of active muscles while riding. This group serves to not only grip the saddle, but also to flex and extend the leg allowing the rider to rise up and down as the horse is trotting.
The gastrocnemius and the soleus (calf muscles) are also engaged while riding as the calf muscles are used to provide directions that prompt the horse to turn or speed up simply by applying pressure to its side with the calf. These are also flexed while the rider is up on their toes in the stirrups. The tibialis anterior is also heavily used and often tender keeping the foot dorsi flexed in the stirrups.
Injury Prevention Strategies
As there are so many muscle groups used in horseback riding, the following is after-care advice recommended for injury avoidance:
- Warm up before a ride or mucking out etc: It is a proven fact that warming up helps prevent injuries, as it works to increase blood flow to the muscles which can reduce the potential for pulled muscles and decrease the severity of muscle soreness after exercise.
- Stretching: take a few minutes to carry out stretches before as well as after a ride. Stiff muscles and joints are susceptible to injuries so flexibility plays an important role in their prevention. It is for this reason that one of the key components of an effective warm up is stretching.
- Strength & Conditioning: Training and exercise will keep the body in optimum form thereby minimizing the risk of injury. Strength training helps to build increased strength in the muscles and tendons and over time can improve the overall function of the body’s joints. The most common forms are weight and resistance training. Pilates is great for horse riding giving a good strong core that will impact on balance and riding performance.
- Regular Massage Treatments: As a therapist I would recommend regular sports massage. It is an ideal way to keep a regular check on the body to prevent some of the repetitive injuries that you may not notice developing and this can pay dividends to prevent muscle damage. I use a range of advanced massage techniques to stretch muscles and provide advice for home stretches etc.
As a groin strain is very common, listed below are things a horse rider can do if they suffer a strain:
- Apply R.I.C.E. (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation) immediately.
- Gently stretch the groin muscles provided this is comfortable to do so.
- See a sports injury massage professional
- If a suspected grade 3 strain seek professional help immediately.
As horse riding puts the whole body under strain many of my equestrian clients almost need a whole body check over and treatment. Falls to shoulders are very common and can be complex to treat as many other muscles in this area can also be affected. Traumas to the gluteal and adductor muscles are also common. An experienced sports massage therapist can advise on an injury and treat many common problems often before they become apparent to the client.
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