Back Pain and Yard Work: They don’t have to go hand in hand!
by Seonaidh Jamieson
Physical work and heavy lifting is an inevitable part of a life with horses, whether you’re a Home Groom, Competition Groom, or a leisure horse owner. Seonaidh Jamieson is a level 3 personal trainer and level 3 manual handling trainer. She has worked with riders across the world to improve their fitness for riding through her business, Cherry Tree Training. Here, Seonaidh gives invaluable advice on keeping ourselves pain-free when lifting and lugging in our daily lives on the yard.
“I work with horses, of course my back hurts!”
Yard work is heavy on your body, there is no doubt about that. Twisting, turning, lifting, on-your-feet, come-hell-or-high-water hard work. I remember getting home from my first day on the job, laying down on top of my duvet… and waking up to my alarm the next day. I ached all over. I got up and went to my second day at the yard. Over the coming months, I got fitter and the 12hrs sleeps and day after aching stopped. This made my colleague’s back pain (and acceptance of it) all the more puzzling.
Over time I’ve come across more and more people who think pain is an unavoidable part of life with horses. It will always be physically demanding but it doesn’t have to be physically damaging.
Our bodies are clever. They work to find the easiest option in the short term. To avoid effort our bodies will choose to place pressure on ligaments and joints instead of load-bearing with muscles. It will follow its ingrained habits and pick muscles that are easy to use, instead of ones that move joints effectively. It does this to reduce the mental and physical effort in the moment, at the expense of our long-term comfort. Bad habits creep in and risky movement patterns become ingrained.
At the yard, these ingrained habits can place excess strain on our vulnerable lower back. By moving with care and consideration we can protect our back, and wake up the muscles we need to keep us moving smoothly in the longer term. This might sound like a big ask, but there are two main principles that will help you protect your back at the yard:
- Core Engagement
- Hip Hinges
Let’s take a look at each of these in turn, and how we can use them to protect our back at the yard.
A note on shoulders:
If you have a strong core and are familiar with good lifting techniques then your lower back may not be an issue, but your shoulders may cause you pain or discomfort. I won’t go into too much detail just now (I could write a book on shoulders!) but as a general rule, you will want to use the muscles in your back and shoulders to do most of the work. Instead of pulling with your arms, you will want to pull with your back, not your biceps and rotator cuff muscles.
- Bags of shavings
- Soaked hay nets
- Water buckets
When we pick items up without thinking about it our body defaults to our habits. Habits often mean the path of least resistance, but not necessarily the path of least risk. When it comes to bending and lifting heavy items many of us will round our backs and “hang” off the large vertebrae in our lower back. This pulls our back muscles long and tight, and leaves them prone to twinges or being pulled… Enter the posterior pelvic tilt.
While the vertebrae in our back are the largest and best able to cope with stress, it doesn’t mean they should bear the brunt of our yard duties. Our torso is supported by amazing muscles. They are strong, built with endurance in mind and they create the perfect support system to protect our lower back. These muscles make up our core, and the posterior pelvic tilt is a great way of waking them up, giving our back a break and helping to keep us free of back pain.
How to use the posterior pelvic tilt
Before lifting or moving heavy items take a moment to think about engaging your core. Maintain the pressure throughout your lift and as you place the item down. It can take time and effort to bring this into your day to day movement, but here are some quick tips to help:
1. Set yourself up before each lift.
Take a moment to position your core before moving an object. Eventually, your core will engage automatically, but until you have that new habit it pays to be very deliberate with your movements.
2. Core conditioning at home.
If you feel like your core needs some extra help why not add some conditioning exercises into your routine? Exercises like planks and hollow holds are great for training these muscles.
3. If you lapse – start again!
There is no shame in a blip when creating a new habit or movement pattern. What matters is that you start working on it again. Progress, not perfection!
Hip hinges apply any time we bend over or down to reach something. Working in conjunction with our posterior pelvic tilt, we are going to stabilise and protect our spine, and make better use of the big muscles in our legs and bum. Hip hinges are important parts of both squatting and deadlifting, two lifts which should not be confined to the gym!
In practical terms, you are unlikely to adopt a pure squat or pure deadlift at the yard, but with any lift from the ground, there are a few things to keep in mind.
1. Check your footing
Will the load take you off balance or make you slip?
2. Get the item as close to your core as possible
The closer it is the less strain on your shoulders and the easier it is to move safely.
3. Get a secure grip
Nothing worse than emptying a bucket down your boots and the start of the day… plus a sudden movement of the load may aggravate any niggles or weak spots as you try to get control again.
4. Establish your posterior pelvic tilt
Engage your core and protect your lower back!
5. Before you lift set your shoulders
Keep your shoulders set and stable. Try not to let them hang, brace them in a neutral position and let your legs do the lifting.
6. As you lift draw your knees out
If your knees fall in towards each other it places pressure on your ankle, knee and hip joints. To keep them working well for riding, think about your knees tracking out and facing the same way as your toes.
7. Repeat these steps as you place the item down
Maintaining good form throughout movements will help ensure your body can cope with the pressures placed on it at the yard.
Some of these may be difficult if you have tight hips and hamstrings (most horse riders have tight hamstrings, no matter which level you ride at). There are two simple exercises which can help you work on your hip hinge.
You can even try these two exercises before you ride to loosen off and warm up your hips!
Hip Hinge Hamstring Stretch
Using core engagement and hip hinges together we can reduce the strain we place on our bodies, turning yard work from a physical burden to an exercise in good form and body control. You will feel better, have a better awareness of your core and reduce your risk of back pain and injury at work!
These techniques are a blend of personal training and manual handling.
Seonaidh Jamieson is a level 3 personal trainer and level 3 manual handling trainer. She has worked with riders across the world to improve their fitness for riding through her business, Cherry Tree Training.