What is the lumbar spine and why does it matter?

The spine in humans is comprised of 4 sections: the Cervical spine is the neck, the Thoracic spine is the mid back, the Lumbar spine is the low back, and the sacrum forms part of the pelvis. All these different areas have different roles to play in terms of function, all equally important overall and totally interlinked, but possibly the most important area when it comes to riding is the lumbar spine.

Why is this you may ask?

The part of the skeleton that makes contact with the saddle, and therefore closest to the horse, is the pelvis. This is a very immobile part of the body, and movement through here is guided by and comes from the lumbar spine. Therefore the lumbar spine is the key to linking movement between horse and rider.

What does this mean for you as a rider?

You have a huge responsibility to ensure that your lumbar spine is moving in the correct way to allow the horse to move freely underneath you, whilst maintaining stability so that you control that movement and therefore your balance. Essentially, this means being supple so you can move with the horse, but stable enough that you don’t wobble about.

Problems with the lumbar spine can arise when there is weakness in the supporting core muscles, if the lumbar spine becomes fixed, or if it becomes asymmetric.

The lumbar spine does not become ‘weak’ itself, rather the core muscles that support it can be weak. If these core muscles are not functioning effectively, the joints in that area are subject to extra load – and are more likely to become sore – but also there will be a lack of refinement when it comes to controlling the movement here. If you think about your movement in the saddle, ideally you want it to be smooth, but if there is a lack of control, the movement can become jerky or restricted. Not surprisingly, this transfers directly to the horse.

If there is stiffness or postural habituation, the lumbar spine can become ‘stuck’ in what can be described as end range positions of flexion or extension; flexion is when you are in a rounded posture, and extension is when you are in an overly upright and rigid posture.

img_20190721_104716723A fixed rounded (flexed) posture – see above (and Lizzie clearly does not enjoy me playing around with my posture!!) – through the lumbar spine places the pelvis in a tilted back position, and the seat bones tucked forwards and under. The upper back and shoulders become rounded forwards, the shoulder blades become restricted and the arms drop. In short, the rider’s body becomes very immobile.

img_20190721_104731486An upright (extended) posture – see above – tips the pelvis forward and the seat bones back. The ribs flare forwards and upwards and the shoulders blades get stuck back and down which in turn locks the arms. In short, once again the rider’s body becomes immobile.

Centaur symmetry
Photo courtesy of Centaur Biomechanics

Asymmetry – as above – either in terms of leaning to one side, or through twisting, will also impact on mobility. This can be upwards and so into the arms and therefore the contact, or down into the hips and legs. Of course this then has a knock on effect on how symmetrical your aids will be.

So, how do you ensure your lumbar spine is behaving as you want?

First and foremost is, as per my recent post, to have good eyes on the ground. That way you get feedback that ensures you train in the correct posture. Whist you are riding you want to try the following things, especially if you are on your own :

  • Imagine you have headlights on the bony bits on the front of your headlights. Keep them level.
  • Make sure your headlights move gently up/down as your pelvis and lumbar spine move with the movement of your horse.
  • Check you have equal weight through your seat bones
  • Allow your weight to move gently forward and backwards with the movement of your horse.
  • Feel for equal pressure through your feet into the stirrups.

A few exercises off the horse that can help are:

  • Sitting/standing with your hands on your pelvic headlights, and practising tilting them up and down, evenly and smoothly.
  • If you have a gym ball, repeat the above on your ball, and then progress on to tilting from side to side.
  • Practise squats and lunges whilst keeping your headlights still, and equal weight through your feet.
  • Pelvic floor – the most fundamental core strength exericise.
  • The shoulder bridge exercise¬†img_20190531_194448639.jpg

This is a tricky version because I have included the Ova balls, but you can still see the effort required to keep the pelvic headlights level. The other great part of this exercise is that it focusses so much on segmental movement of the spine – in particular the lumbar spine – so it is pretty much the perfect movement for perfecting lumbar movement and control on the saddle! So much so in fact that I have recorded a whole tutorial on this for the YouTube channel….

So now you have no excuse for not having excellent posture and control through you lumbar spine. Keep working on it though, because any back pain that comes from off the horse will impact on your posture and control on the horse.

Louise

PS – I will endeavour to get some better photos with a tighter fitting top that highlights the lumbar spine better.

 

Published by Louise Towl Physio

I am a Chartered Physiotherapist with Pilates training, and I am an ACPAT (the Association of Chartered Physiotherapists in Animal Therapy) and RAMP (Register of Animal Musculoskeletal Practitioners) registered Veterinary Physiotherapist. Away from work I have ridden all my life, competing in various disciplines and now focussing on dressage. With my retired horse, Baz, I competed at Advanced level, and I now have a younger horse, Lizzie, who is currently competing at Elementary.

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