Taking Care of Yourself

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Most riders and trainers agree that one of the best parts of their job is the reward they get from that horse well started, the student moving up or the facility that blooms. Each of these milestones is a product of an individual trainer’s hard work. But, one of the downsides to the business, riders say, is the associated wear and tear on their bodies. How many experienced trainers can say they work free of pain?

As a trainer, you depend on your body and need it to perform at its best, while causing the least amount of damage. Trainers in the horse industry may not be taking advantage of some of the techniques available today to maximize their performance and look after their bread-and-butter—their bodies.

As a coach, I have noticed a number of physical problems over the years that seem to plague riders. Of course, each rider has his or her own personal list of injuries, some more extreme than others, but many suffer from lower back and neck pain. The rider’s position on horseback is partially responsible for this. Riders using a shorter stirrup length for jumper or event riding spend a lot of time with both the knee and hip joints in a closed or bent position. The upper body comes closer to horizontal, while the head remains up; this compresses the vertebrae of the neck. Held for long periods, this position is highly stressful on the neck and fatiguing on the lower back area, because the muscles of the lumbar region are essentially always in play. It is no wonder that, after your sixth horse of the day, your back is aching and your neck is stiff.

Most trainers have also suffered some falls and, in a fall from a horse, there is almost certainly trauma inflicted on the spine, even if there was no immediate discomfort. Such injuries can be cumulative, not affecting the rider until they all add up. The end result is often the nagging ache that many riders just accept and learn to deal with on a daily basis.

But there may be ways to alleviate some of this discomfort. The first step is to determine in general terms what the cause of the pain is. If you are dealing with an acute injury—a fall, strain or blow—the key is never to underestimate the damage. Simple problems that are not dealt with at the time of the accident take much longer to heal and may cause nagging pain for weeks or even months. I bent a finger in a fall some years ago, and because the damaged part was “far from my heart,” as my old instructor used to say, I never treated it. That finger bothers me to this day.

Any injuries that cause concern should be seen by a doctor. Lesser bumps and twists should be treated using the standard RICE method: Rest, Ice, Compress and Elevate. Rest is a tough one for most trainers. When your livelihood depends on your work, not going down to the barn for a couple of days just might not be an option. But you can still effectively lower the amount of stress on your body by having a staff member longe a couple of your horses, by sitting instead of standing while you teach, by rescheduling some physically stressful jobs that were on the daily agenda. The effectiveness of ice on injuries is widely underrated. We use cold therapy for horses all the time, but tend to forget about it for ourselves. By immediately applying cold, you limit swelling and the ensuing stretching of associated tissues. You will also reduce the pain from the injury and will help retain better range of motion in the involved joint. Flexible ice packs come with handy Velcro wraps that can be strapped on while you continue to teach, talk on the phone or meet with clients. Remember, ice should be applied in 20-minute spells every two to three hours for the first 48 hours after the injury.

The compress part of the RICE acronym refers to wrapping or taping the injury site. Taping is widely used for competitive athletes, and can greatly reduce the trauma to a newly injured area. Taping and wrapping the injury also reduces the swelling. More importantly for riders who stay active, taping limits the range of motion of the injured joint and allows it to get down to the business of healing more quickly and effectively.

Finally, elevation— a technique of injury management unfortunately not available to us for use in equine injuries—reduces circulation, thereby limiting swelling and curbing pain.

“How many experienced trainers can say they work free of pain?”

Pain is frequently not caused by a specific incident. A lot of the discomfort I hear about is chronic in nature and moderate in intensity. This causes a problem in itself because many riders feel that this kind of ache is not serious enough to bother with. This physical state will affect performance negatively, and may develop into a more serious problem. Some mild pain is caused by old injuries and may respond to forms of therapy like massage, heat, chiropractic, magnetics or a combination of similar treatments.

Simple fatigue may also be responsible for some of the pain riders deal with. Training horses tends to be an eight-day-a-week job, and for many riders the word vacation may as well not exist. Without sufficient time to recover from the stress muscles undergo during work, riders may develop micro tears in the muscle fibers that can evolve into more serious injuries in the event of a fall. Rest should be planned into the athlete’s schedule on a daily basis in terms of sleep time, on a weekly basis in the form of a day off and annually by taking holidays. Many riders don’t really have an off season as other athletes do, so they should try to schedule a couple of weeks each year of no riding to allow their bodies to recover from the repetitive muscle use involved in their sport.

All sports involve using specific muscles that dominate the movements of the activity and any serious athlete who spends a lot of time participating in one sport will develop muscle imbalances associated with that activity. These imbalances can pull the body out of alignment and cause pain. Riders need to consider that, by spending hours every day in the saddle, they are developing short hamstrings (the muscles on the back of the thigh and knee), and short hip flexors (the muscles on the front of the hips).

“When your live­lihood depends on your work, not going down to the barn for a couple of days just might not be an option.”

They also tend to have shortened chest muscles and stretched mid-back muscles. These imbalances may cause discomfort in the lower and upper back region. The simplest way to deal with such muscle imbalance is to strengthen the stretched or weakened muscles and stretch the shortened ones. For many riders, a gym membership, along with a well-designed strength program and stretch routine, will both help them feel better and become stronger and more effective.

Part of any athlete’s career is dealing with injuries and discomfort. Professional equestrians have a responsibility to themselves to deal with their bodies as prudently as possible. To achieve long-term results as a trainer or a rider, we need to protect our own health in the same way we protect the health of our animals.

Mel Gromoff is a Level 2 coach in Combined Training and has run Fallowfield Farm in Trenton, Ontario, since 1992. Educated in Personal Training at Mount Royal College in Calgary, Alberta, she now divides her time between her farm and RideFit, her fitness business for equestrian athletes.