Timing is everything when it comes to rider back comfort, findings show

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The numbers show the location of the inertial measuring units and the letters the position of the surface electromyographical sensors used in the study. Image: https://doi.org/10.3390/app11052304

Better timing in the saddle by professional riders appears to be an important element in reducing their likelihood of lower back pain, the findings of fresh research suggest.

Lower back pain is common among recreational and professional horse riders, lowering performance and hindering development.

Researchers Marc Elmeua González and Nejc Šarabon noted that a reduced incidence of lower back pain has been observed in the professional riding population despite higher training volumes.

The pair, writing in the journal Applied Sciences, set out to describe the neuromuscular mechanisms through which advanced and novice riders reduce the shockwave generated between the horse and rider.

“It is known that the pelvis of a horse rider acts as a communication channel, physically interacting with the horse’s behaviour, and great differences can be observed between advanced and novice riders,” the researchers noted.

Six novice riders and nine advanced riders were recruited for the study from the Spanish Classical School of Riding in the village of Lipica, Slovenia.

Four horses assessed as having a calm and steady gait were used for the study.

Sensors were fitted to the trunk of each rider to detect surface electromyographic activity — the electrical activity produced by the skeletal muscles.

Each rider was also fitted with several inertial measurement units, one was fitted to the cantle of the saddle, and another to the right front leg of each horse.

Readings were collected at the walk, posting trot, and canter in an indoor arena.

The data, when viewed collectively, painted a picture of the surface muscle activity of the rider’s trunk and its coordination with the movement of the horse and saddle.

González and Šarabon, both with the University of Primorska in Slovenia, found that the advanced riders had a superior shock-reducing ability, as well as a higher overall muscle tone.

The results of the study suggest that both recreational and professional horse riders are actively using their muscles to attenuate the shock produced by the horse in motion.
The results of the study suggest that both recreational and professional horse riders are actively using their muscles to attenuate the shock produced by the horse in motion. © FEI/Christophe Taniere

However, it was mostly the timing of the muscle activation in the better riders, rather than its intensity, that gave them their superior shock-absorbing abilities.

“This finding is of great interest for equestrian athletes and coaches, as it points to a greater importance of training muscular anticipation within the trunk stabilizers rather than overall muscle activation,” they wrote.

The pair said they initially hypothesised that advanced riders would show better shock-reducing capacities by activating their muscles earlier and to a higher degree.

“While this hypothesis was generally met, some exceptions were found.

“Overall,” they said, “the results suggest that both groups are actively using their muscles to attenuate the shock produced by the horse in motion.

“This study suggests that advanced riders do have a greater ability to absorb shockwaves when compared to novice riders, yet the mechanisms through which they attenuate (reduce) such forces are more strongly related to the timing of muscle activation rather than the level of activation.”

In effect, the advanced riders were able to reduce shockwaves by activating their muscles earlier than novice riders.

The latter is particularly relevant since anticipation plays a major role in the management of impact forces, they said.

However, muscle activity levels were not as high as seen in other athletic activities such as cycling or running, nor did the trials create substantial neuromuscular fatigue.

González and Šarabon noted that several publications have shown that modifying saddle characteristics and fit can effectively reduce spinal loading of the rider.

“Yet this paper demonstrates that not only saddle configuration, but physical fitness and level of expertise can considerably reduce shock propagation through the spine.”

The pair suggest that their findings have great practical implications.

“We now know that working on early reaction and pre-activation of the core muscles not only potentially increases riding performance, but also decreases the spinal loading of the rider.

“Future research is needed to identify the most effective exercises that will be able to teach horse riders the ability to anticipate horse-related impacts.”

Elmeua González, M.; Šarabon, N. Shock Attenuation and Electromyographic Activity of Advanced and Novice Equestrian Riders’ Trunk. Appl. Sci. 2021, 11, 2304. https://doi.org/10.3390/app11052304

The study, published under a Creative Commons License, can be read here

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