Vehicle Ergonomics for Equine Professionals

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Equine professionals spend a lot of time behind the wheel. Whether it’s driving a short distance to run errands or to a local horse show or event, or whether it’s a long haul to the competitions on a regular basis. And you also probably are multi-tasking while you drive (hopefully not texting!). There is no doubt that you fall into bad postural habits while driving that can take a toll on your body short- and long-term.

We asked licensed physical therapy assistant Michelle Friend to give us some tips on how you can stay healthier with better posture when sitting and driving. Not only does Friend work with two McKenzie spine therapists at Drayer Physical Therapy Institute in Lexington, Kentucky, she is married to an equine practitioner who is an ambulatory vet. So she has personally and professionally seen what bad posture can do to the body.

The good thing about these tips is that by following them, you can reap rich benefits with very little effort on your part. Fixing your posture is easy and doesn’t take much time, but it might prevent loss of time later when there is an injury from repetitive bad posture.

The first signs of faulty posture while driving may show up when you stop and try to get out of your vehicle. If you find yourself with sacroiliac (SI) joint area or low back stiffness or pain, or a “crampy” feeling in the buttocks or thighs, then your body is telling you that you have been sitting with bad posture.

Be honest: How often are you driving or sitting at a stoplight, slouched in the seat or leaning to the side, sometimes while talking on the phone or taking notes?

Tip #1: Buy and use a hands-free kit for your mobile phone.

Friend gave these guidelines for good vehicle posture:

  • The seat back should be erect.
  • Don’t recline or lean on the center console.
  • Your head should be touching the headrest.
  • Your head should be level (don’t let your chin jut out).
  • Your ears should be over your shoulders.
  • Your shoulders should be over your hips.
  • Your spine should be a natural ‘S’ curve (not in a ‘C’ curve; see photos).
  • Your hips should be at a 90° angle to your trunk.
  • Your legs should be level from hip to knee; make sure your hips are not lower than your knees.
  • You should be close enough to the pedals that you are not pulling your spine into a C curve.
  • When your hands are at 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock on the steering wheel, there should be a 15° angle in your elbows.

Tip #2: At stop signs or stoplights, check your posture and correct it.

One of the problems with using correct posture is that not all vehicle seats are made to allow you to sit properly, noted Friend. So it might be necessary to crank up the lumbar support of the vehicle, add a lumbar roll behind your lower back just above your belt, or place a wedge between you and your seat to keep your hips and legs level and prevent your spine from slouching into the unwanted ‘C’ curve.

Friend said that horse professionals should keep in mind that a work vehicle is an important piece of equipment, and you should consider more than the size and color at purchase.

Tip #3: Having good lumbar support built into the vehicle seat and having a seat that is adjustable to help you sit properly are considerations when shopping for a work vehicle.

How much time do you spend driving? Friend said that one of the saving points for ambulatory veterinarians is that they are in and out of their vehicles often and aren’t driving for hours without standing up and moving around. She noted that it is easier to keep good posture for 20 minutes than for two hours while driving. Unfortunately, when trailering to horse shows, we often drive for more than two hours at a time.

Friend said that women who drive a lot have a couple of specific vehicle postural problems. One is that because most women have less upper body muscle, they might be more susceptible to postural or stretch injuries. This might present first in the form of tightness, spasms, headaches or tingling across the cervicothoracic junction or interscapular (shoulder blade) areas. Therefore good posture is doubly important for women who drive a lot.

She also noted that women working around horses often pull their hair back to keep it out of their faces while driving. Unfortunately, that clip or ponytail can cause your head to be pushed forward and away from the headrest, causing stress on the neck and shoulders. If the you recline the seat back to move the headrest away from the back of your head, then you have to work harder at maintaining that ideal ‘S’ curve in your spine.

Something for both males and females to remember is that if your legs are outstretched to reach the pedals and your hamstrings are tight, the pelvis will be reclined, pulling your back into the faulty ‘C’ curve.

If you are a farm or stable owner or manager, you need to attend to your clients and farm in order to make money. If the you are painful or sore because of stress caused by improper posture while driving, then your attitude and efficiency will be affected. Over time, these stresses can cause real injury to the body, resulting in time away from work while recuperating a body that can no longer compensate for awkward positioning.