Ride Fit 1-2-3: Making Sure Your Barn Chores Aren't Causing You Postural Problems in the Saddle

Hello and Happy New Year!

I had a great question recently posted to my page about the effect of barn chores on your body, as a rider. Lorel's question about barn choring is actually quite common, so she gave permission for me to post her question here in the blog so that others could benefit.

Lorel's Question:
Hi Heather, I struggle with a problem which I am sure many other riders have. I am employed working with horses then do farmwork when I get home so I have very overdeveloped mucles on my right side. This tends to make me collapse through the right side when I ride as my left side doesn't hold the same muscle tension. Would you have any recommendations for exercises or stretches I could do to try to even things up and also any tips or tricks as to how to build an awareness of when I am collapsing in the saddle. Its fine when there is someone around to point it out but for most of the week I am on my own without mirrors or help.

ANSWER: When people ask me if barn choring is good cross-training for riding, I like to respond with this question: would you take your riding/sport horse, and have him plow fields as cross-training? Of course you would not. The physiology for hard labour in horses is totally different than the physiology required for riding. That's why breeds originally developed as carriage horses, such as the Friesians or Belgians which we see crossed with thoroughbreds, are notorious for being hard to get up off the forehand. It's obvious that the muscle development your horse would experience plowing fields, would not help him carry himself better over fences or in a dressage test.

For some reason, we don't make the same line of logic for ourselves. Yes, barn chores will for sure burn calories and keep you fit and active. However, as Lorel points out, her choring is creating a very strong muscular imbalance which she ends up having to fight while riding in the saddle.

If you don't ever chore because you board your horse out, your fitness cross training would be different from someone who does. For example, riders who do no choring can get away with an exercise program that is mostly Pilates type work or other gentle modes. A rider who chores is creating such demand on their body, that they need to train balance in an equally demanding way and use more strength training modes. They also need to be very disciplined about stretching, in order to avoid what I call body-builder syndrome: inflexible bulk that blocks your body's ability to absorb your horse's motion properly, or even strain injuries due to imbalance within a muscle/ligament system. I regularly see tear injuries in athletes and farm workers that are the result of your own muscle tearing at the ligament end of itself, or at a weaker part of a muscle chain.

Actually, I'm all for all riders using strength training as an aspect of their fitness plan because unlike a dancer for whom Pilates was conceived, a rider is also working with 1000lbs of livestock. How much strength training and what you do depends on the overall demands on your physique.

The sport conditioning principle at work here is the idea that your body will adapt to whatever you ask of it. It will not however, adapt in a perfectly balanced way because your body will always find the easiest route to success. Unless you deliberately train balance, your body will use compensating patterns and create imbalanced muscle development and firing patterns to achieve the tasks you ask of it. In other words, lots and lots of manual labour will hardwire increasing imbalance.

When we train a horse that has an imbalance, we don't make him go twice as long on the weak side. We train him evenly so that his body comes up to speed. When we train ourselves we do the same, with the possible exception of stretching or modes like myofascial release. If you are really tight in an area, it is totally fine to spend much more time stretching or releasing that area than you would other areas. However, be warned that an obvious imbalance like that is the result of muscular and ligament strength imbalance across your skeletal structure. Massage, stretching and other therapies will treat the symptom and help you loosen for a ride, but they will not fix the problem.

Lorel, your right side is way too tight. You know this. The answer isn't to make the left as tight as the right. However, you do need to balance the strength, while creating more flexbility and mobility in the right side. Specifically, the chest, shoulder and other muscles involved in rotational lifting movement (lifting fork up and into wheelbarrow, swinging hay bale, hauling water bucket), tighten up when you are riding because your brain has been hardwired by those movement patterns to create stability in your body by firing those muscles. You need to teach it to turn the switch off, educate it to the fact you have another side too, build strength balance and work on flexibility.

I could work with you via online coaching for a complete program, but to get started here's what I suggest:
1. stretch every day, and use flowing motion and rotational movement stretches before you ride, and before, during and after choring. In the evenings, stretch your shoulders by leaning through doorways, and stretch your sides with side bends. Take 2-3 minutes for each stretch. Quick stretches do not make significant gains in muscle softness.
2. make sure you do everything with choring, ambidextrous (5 scoops to the right, 5 to the left, lift wheelbarrow bending your knees and using your legs like you're supposed to instead of hauling with back and shoulders)
3. think about strengthening your core so that your body is more balanced through the torso, and can handle tasks and chores more from the core, and less from limb imbalance (my core workout for riders is available as a download pdf for just $18.95 bundled with my stretching guide on my website. You'll get hours of core training for next to nothing) A lot of riders are just thinking abs when they think core, but your question above hits right at what's going on with your sides and back, and in rotation- so you need to think more in terms of your whole trunk, and all planes of movement. Core training with resistance tubing would be better bang for your time spent, considering your imbalance comes from training your muscles against load.
4. When you feel your body biasing to the right while riding, stop, walk and re-engage the left side. It may even be beneficial to get off, do something to loosen and balance, then start up again. Continuing on while your brain has flipped the on switch to muscles you don't want engaged the way the are, will just continue to re-inforce the firing patterns you don't want. It's the same idea when you train your horse: going 2 steps good is better training than going 10 wrong hoping something will change.

I hope that helps. If you are interested, I do work with clients through online coaching programs which are more affordable than personal training, and get around the limits of a local trainer who may not be a rider. If you have someone local, they can also take a program design and help you implement it. Otherwise, most of my online coaching clients and clinic participants do their recommended work in their homes/barns.

Please post questions to this blog- it's a great 'free clinic' forum. You can even post pictures or video for analysis.

Until next time,
Happy riding and Happy New Year!

Heather Sansom

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Comment by Jan Jollymour on December 28, 2009 at 2:51pm
Hi, Lorel:

I have had the same difficulty, and Heather's work with me has made an incalulable difference to my balance, strength, and straightness, both in the saddle and out of it. I cannot stress strongly enough what a difference this work has made for me. I am a strong and effective rider, but I'm now a straighter, more balanced, and more flexible rider, and the back pain which has plagued me for the past 2 years is gone.

Heather is a super online trainer, and the system of exercises and stretching she designed for me has done the job admirably.

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