#RiderProblems: Sciatica and Piriformis Syndrome

Generally speaking, humans are not anatomically perfect. This is kind of a bummer when it comes to horseback riding–and specifically when it comes to the discipline of Dressage, which has been described as the art of taking an asymmetrical person and an asymmetrical horse and making them both straight.

But straitening a naturally asymmetrical body is not an easy task considering the sport that aims to do so can cause a lot of physical issues in the process, in addition to the ones we may have just inherited. The fact is that riding is demanding on the body, and when you don't counter-balance your rides with cross-training, stretching, and other supportive and restorative therapies, problems arise. Many riders ignore these problems their whole lives, and end up nearly crippled by age 70. We all know an old trainer who can barely walk. But it is extremely common to see even young riders suffering from lower back pain, hip pain, numbness in their legs, etc.

Hopefully our horses are being maintained in a way so that they do not feel pain after a life of demanding work...But how to properly support your equine-athlete is a whole other topic for a whole other post. Today I want to talk about some of the physical issues that arise for riders, how to identify them, and how to work towards reversing or minimizing their impact with proper support. I'm going to focus on sciatica, which is extremely common, and piriformis syndrome, which is related. 

Obviously, I am not a doctor or physical therapist, so please don't let your research on these issues end here. This is meant to be an introduction to this topic and a discussion of these issues as they relate specifically to horseback riders, since we are a group in which these issues are common and yet I rarely hear these things talked about in our community. 

So what are we talking about when we talk about sciatica and the piriformis? Well, one is a muscle and the other is a nerve, and they are next-door neighbors in our bodies. Paraphrasing from an article on piriformis pain on the Health Post website:

The piriformis allows us to move the hip, upper leg, and foot outward from the body. This muscle covers the sciatic nerve, that runs from the lower back down into the legs. The piriformis is not only important for hip and leg movement but it is a key part of our overall balance while upright.
One end of the piriformis is attached to the front part of the sacrum, the triangular bone at the base of the spine. It’s the only pelvic muscle that attaches to the front of the sacrum, providing balance between the pelvis and legs. Its counteraction with the psoas muscle at the front of the pelvis and the gluteus maximus at the back maintains stability.
An impeded piriformis limits both mobility and balance. Sciatica is a condition in which the sciatic nerve is pinched in some way, causing pain.

If you want to determine whether or not a pinched sciatic nerve or tight piriformis might be the culprits of any back, hip or leg pain you might be experiencing, I found a couple great Youtube video that demonstrate a few positions to try. The doctors are pretty hilarious. They're worth watching just to hear their intro-music...

By now you might be able to tell if you fall into the camp of having some or all of these common rider problems. Or you're simply interested in preventing these problems from arriving. So, what can you do? 

1. Get serious about a yoga practice. From body awareness to relaxation, from breath-control to increased strength, flexibility and alignment, the list of benefits that yoga offers us is long. Regular yoga can reverse the issues we're talking about in this article, as well as prevent future issues like slipped disks that could otherwise require surgery to fix.

Ideally, find an instructor with a therapeutic-yoga license or at least a detailed knowledge of anatomy. Steer clear of instructors who focus purely on flexibility or the flashy, athletic poses. Acrobatics will do very little to fix your pain or improve your riding, and it's likely to cause additional problems and injuries. 

If videos/online is your only or best option, the same cautions apply. I personally really like the website of Certified Yoga Therapist Olga Kabel. Here is a list of her videos and practices that apply to the issues discussed here:

Three Types of Butt Pain and What to do About it
Yoga Practice for the Hip Flexors
–And conversely, Stretching the Hip Flexors is Not Always a Good Idea
Yoga Practice to Release Piriformis Tension

2. See a chiropractor and/or acupuncturist regularly. Muscles can actually pull our skeletal structure out of whack, so getting adjustments from time to time helps ensure we're not going around with one leg an inch longer than the other. Acupuncture is extremely helpful for healing injuries and calming nerve and muscle pain. 

3. Stop ignoring pain. Pain is a signal from our body that something is wrong, and we should use it as a tool to inform our decisions and actions. 

Let's continue the conversation: Do you struggle with pain while riding? What therapies have you tried, and what have you found helpful? 

2016 Gift Guide: Charitable Giving

I think we all hit a point in the pre-Christmas scrambling, shopping, decorating, cooking and traveling where the excitement and joy of the season starts to wear off a bit. We're tired and stressed and we think to ourselves, "What is this all about again???" It's a good thing when we hit this point–it helps bring us back to what really matters (hint: it's not the tree and the trimmings). Personally, I am at that point now. I really enjoy myself when I'm shopping for and making gifts for my friends and family, but I also get pretty disgusted by the materialism and greed that surrounds the holidays.

So, to wrap up my Horsetastic Holiday Gift Guide this year I thought I'd talk a little about charitable giving, both because a donation in someone's name to a great organization makes a super gift, but also because we can all appreciate a teeny bit less materialism and a teeny bit more love, compassion and generosity.

Here's a short list of organizations doing important work out there in the horse world, and they could really use our help:

1. The Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation: giving ex-racehorses a second chance at life after their racing career is over. Adopt a horse, sponsor a horse, or simply donate money. 

2. PATH Internationalstarted in 1969 as the North American Riding for the Handicapped Assoc., they support and promote equine-assisted therapy programs all over Canada and the US. You can donate to PATH or find a local PATH-certified program in your area. Here at Sioux River we have the Reins of Inspiration program, and it's always in need of volunteers and donations to keep it running.

3. The Horse Fund: dedicated to ending horse slaughter for human consumption. Donations go to lobbying for equine protection laws at both state and federal levels and working with government and law enforcement to ensure neglect and abuse laws are upheld. Similarly, there is the Animal Legal Defense Fund, which was founded in 1979 by attorneys fighting on behalf of animals everywhere (not horse specific), and the ASPCA Equine Program which works to protect horses from slaughter and auctions, and prevent equine cruelty.

4. Return to Freedom: caring for over 400 formerly wild horses removed from their home ranges, and dedicated to preserving the freedom, diversity, and habitat of America’s wild horses and burros through sanctuary, education, advocacy and conservation. Similarly, there is the Equestrian Land Conservation Resource, which is devoted to preserving open land for horses and horse-related activities. 

There are so many more, both on a local/state level and on the national/international level, so do your research and find one that speak to you. Wishing you and your horses a wonderful holiday! 

2016 Gift Guide: Your Horse-Lady Friend/Wife/Sister Who Kind of Already Has Everything

She's been riding her whole life, and over the years has stacked up a small mountain of tack and gear. It's actually kind of a problem...like, border-line hoarder-status. What to get for the horse-lady who has it all?

1. A custom browband or stock pin in her horse's colors (or her birthstone colors).

2. A gorgeous leather belt to make her feel extra fancy at shows and clinics.

3. A custom stall-guard with her barn logo on it.

4. A saddle mattress, to protect her saddle.

5. Organic shine spray for her horse (it smells SO good!)

6. A batch of homemade horse treats for her to spoil her baby with.

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7. A fun shirt for her to immediately get dirty at the barn. ;) This one is great too.

8. A custom ornament for her tree with a photo of her horse on it.

2016 Gift Guide: That One Guy Who Rides

For whatever reason, most equestrians around here are female. If we lived in the south where cowboys are an actual thing, or in England where scores of men fox hunt and play polo, then things would be different. But we live in Wisconsin. Male riders aren't super common in these parts, but there's usually that One Guy Who Rides at every barn, and he deserves a Christmas gift just for putting up with all us crazy horse ladies.

1. Heritage leather trail riding gloves. Equal parts work glove and riding glove, long-wearing and practical. 

2. Bluetooth speaker for his saddle, because he has broken two cell-phone already by dropping them while riding.

3. Helmet/headlamp for doing chores in the dark or night-time trail rides.

4. Custom leather saddle bags, to pack a trail lunch in.

5. Books about hunting and fishing on horseback, to inspire his inner outdoorsman (or maybe even an experience like this). 

2016 Gift Guide: Your Horse-Crazy Daughter Who Has Read ALL the Horse Books, Seen ALL the Horse Movies, and Wears Matching Purple Helmet and Breeches to her Riding Lessons

You might think to yourself, "Maybe she wants some new clothes this year for Christmas?" Or "Maybe she would like that new computer game all the kids are playing," or "Is there ANYTHING I could get her that she would like more than horse stuff?" But the answer to all of those questions is no. 

  1. Hand-dyed lead rope. Purple of course. 

2. A sparkly crop for "getting after" her pony, or her brother.

3. Horse paint and stencils, to delight her and humiliate her pony (payback for that time he bucked her off).

4. A custom ribbon browband for her pony's bridle, in her favorite colors.

5. A matching saddle pad and polo set in, you guessed it, purple.

6. Cozy fleece boot liners to keep her feet warm and dry during barn chores.

8. A sparkly gold unicorn horn, for wearing during lessons to make her trainer smile.

Trying to Catch Clay: An Update

I started having trouble catching Clay a few months ago. He thought it was a fun game to run around as fast as he could in the pasture, traumatizing his poor pasture-mate, whenever I would approach with halter in hand. It was not amusing AT ALL.

I thought about paying for him to be on indoor board, so that he would get into the routine of coming into the barn every day. But that would have been stressful for him because there are currently no other horses on indoor board at our barn, and we all know how horses feel about being the only one in the barn...

So I decided that I would start feeding him his nighttime meal every day, rather than relying on the barn owner to do it. Since I'm usually at the barn M-F to give lessons, it was fairly easy for me to execute this plan. I started out by just going into his paddock with the bucket of grain and standing there with it until he approached (veeeeery suspiciously at first).

I let him eat while I annoyed him by petting his neck. Once he tolerated that, I started bringing the halter in with me when I would feed him. He did not like that at all.

And once he stopped giving the halter the evil eye and flinching every time I would move my hands, I started putting the halter on him while he ate and would take it off once he was done. The first time I did this I actually had to put the nose band of the halter in the bucket so that when he went down in the bucket to eat, he put his nose into the halter. In one quick movement I pushed the halter up onto his face and had him.

After a week and a half of this song and dance, he is much easier to catch, thank god. 

Here's the thing: I used to make sure to balance out our hard training rides with "fun" activities (trail rides, grooming, grazing, and liberty play) all the time, but since having a baby I just haven't had time to do that "extra" stuff. Whenever I get the opportunity to ride (not often enough), I feel the need to work our dressage stuff. Clay likes to work, but clearly he was expressing his opinion about the fact that lately our time together has been all work and no play. Sorry, Clay...I will be better about this going forward. 

The not-so-unexpected perk of all this? I like being the one to feed my horse every day. I like that he waits at the gate for me now, and looks at me eagerly. Yes, I am aware I am buying his love, but love is love.

Moral of the story: Riding your horse isn't enough. A positive, trusting, balanced relationship between horse and human requires time, patience, food, play, rides, and time. I said time twice on purpose. ;)

Trying to Catch Clay: A Play-by-Play

My pony likes to play this superfun game every time I go to catch him in the pasture. It's my favorite. It goes like this:

  1. Clay sees Tonia coming up to the gate. He immediately notices that she is holding a halter and lead rope, and no treat. 

2. Tonia realizes her mistake, and knows she's not going to get anywhere without a treat. Goes back home and raids the refrigerator for old carrots, apples, etc. Goes back to the barn with the goods.

3. Clay sees Tonia coming up to the gate with a halter and lead rope, and a big bucket of treats.

4. Clay runs around for 20 mins, pretending he doesn't want the treats. Then he gives in and lets Tonia get close enough to give him a treat. And another one...and another one...we're on the last one now and Tonia is slowly reaching out with the lead rope to try and get it around Clay's neck...

5. Clay runs away. Tonia says a bad word.