Less Pain, More Gain

Less Pain, More Gain

As I sit down to write this, my mid-back is still burning from my ride this morning, despite a thorough foam roll, hot shower, and ibuprofen. My bad knees aren’t bothering me as much as usual, maybe thanks to a recent tweak in stirrup length, though my left ankle, which is mostly metal after I fractured it foxhunting a few years ago, is achy and stiff as always. The cumulative pain is like a low-level buzzing noise that I’ve learned to tune out, and this is a common enough experience among riders that I recently saw a meme about it making the rounds, in which a doctor asks their patient how much pain they are in, and the patient says, “You know, the normal amount.” The doctor then says, “The normal amount is none.” Ha ha, we say, imagine being in no pain. Do you think these old muscle relaxers are still good? My back hurts.

Every rider knows our sport is dangerous and that injuries, especially from falls, can be catastrophic. A 2020 sports medicine study found that “equestrians sustain more accidents per hour of sport compared with motorcycle riding, skiing, and football,” and that one in five equestrians will sustain a serious injury during their time in the sport. Broken bones, spinal injuries, and head trauma are all common riding injuries that require extensive healing time and expert medical oversight. Equestrians also contend with overuse injuries, with back pain, knee problems, and ankle issues as top areas of complaint. Plus, we navigate the little accidents of life with horses: we get kicked and bitten and stepped on, we crack our kneecaps on jump standards, we get lead rope burns on the one day we didn’t put on gloves. 

The overall attitude in barns across the country is to brush yourself off and get back to it. In my last bad fall, I injured my knee, hand and shoulder, and the initial pain in my hand was severe enough that I thought I’d broken it. Despite this, I went back to the barn, held my horse while my trainer swapped my saddle for hers, hiked down to the arena to watch her school him over the jump I’d fallen at, hiked back up to the barn, untacked, and put my horse and tack away before I finally headed to my car with a handful of over-the-counter painkillers in hand. It didn’t occur to me to stop, or to rest, and it didn’t occur to anyone else present, either. I could have gone home immediately, or gone to urgent care, or just sat in the tack room. But I didn’t. I pushed the pain aside and went on autopilot to get the horse schooled, and the tack put away, both of which seemed more important in the moment than my injuries.

After that experience, I decided to try something new: I was, simply, not going to ride until I was better. I hadn’t broken or torn anything, but I’d sustained a bone bruise in my shoulder which I was told might take a month or more to heal. I’d been barn-hunting after a move, and didn’t have a horse boarded or leased, which made it easier to take time off. But the decision felt strange and radical and somehow brave. Equestrians love sharing war stories of riding while injured, or ignoring our doctor’s orders after an accident to get back in the saddle as soon as we can. What if we celebrated putting our bodies first, rather than putting them last? Why, in such a physical and dangerous sport, do so many riders neglect their bodies?

Part of the problem is entrenched, old-fashioned beliefs: “hospital or get back on,” as an instructor of mine used to say. Even if you disagree with this, as I do, it’s easy to revert back to habit in moments of pain or crisis — for me, that meant ignoring my obvious injury to finish out the day’s schooling. Culturally, too, we celebrate riders who ride and compete through pain. How many articles on top eventers list their many broken bones, as if that is part of their resume? We also tend to forget that while horse care is a nonstop endeavor, riding and training isn’t. Your horse needs clean water, plenty of hay, and turnout every day, but likely won’t be harmed — and might even benefit — if he gets some downtime while you rehab an injury. 

"The decision felt strange and radical and somehow brave."

Many of us struggle to take time off to heal because riding isn’t a hobby or an activity: it’s our lifestyle, and a core part of our identities. (For professionals, it’s also their livelihood.) Taking a break to benefit our bodies can feel psychologically harrowing. Who are we without the barn? How will we fill our days? But when we rush to ride again, seeking the short-term comfort of maintaining our routines and enjoying our horses, we do so at the expense of our future selves, who may have to nurse along that poorly-rehabbed injury for decades. If you want to ride into your golden years, as I do, it’s worth sacrificing a bit of saddle time now to ensure you’re as pain-free as possible when you tack up again.

The riding community also tends to ignore that riding while compromised is unsafe, and unfair to our horses. Simone Biles made waves for bowing out of the Olympics due to a case of the “twisties” — suddenly unable to know where she was in the air while tumbling, she was at great risk of making a miscalculation and injuring herself. Olympian Dominique Moceanu, reflecting on her own Olympic experience in support of Biles, likened gymnastics to diving into a pool with no water, which sounds pretty similar to the experience of flying off a 17h horse at speed and hitting the ground because you miscommunicated about a distance. Even a minor injury can change your balance, force you to compensate with other parts of your body, or distract you from the ride, all of which puts you in danger if something goes wrong. Riding is rarely a sport of brute strength, and the difference between staying on your horse and eating arena dirt is usually a combination of balance, core stability, and sheer muscle memory. If that foundation is weakened, your likelihood of coming off is inevitably increased. It taxes your horse, too — I cringe at an old video of myself jumping a course with a painful knee problem I was putting off treating. It looks fine in the video, but I know how uneven I was in the saddle, and how much harder my horse had to work as a result.

It does feel like a shift is coming, however. Cross-training is growing in popularity — many equestrians have found lifting weights, Pilates, and spinning to be complementary pursuits that strengthen them in the saddle, and riding-specific strength training and physiotherapy offerings are on the rise. Professionals are modeling healthy behaviors: Boyd Martin’s team does ice therapy in the barn aisle, and Kent Farrington posts his terrifyingly intense workouts on social media. My own longtime trainer tells her students to improve their core strength so often it’s become a running joke among clients — but she practices what she preaches, with a rigorous schedule of workout classes and physical therapy to keep herself in top shape, and she emphasizes her own rest days and need for time away from the barn. 

Still, the riding world lags behind the rest of the athletic community. I ride six days a week, and I had to Google basic best practices for injury prevention: warm up properly, cool down properly, cross train as much as possible, and rehab injuries thoroughly. I see very few riders incorporating their own warm-ups and cool-downs into their routines; most of us simply focus on our horses, though I have been known to do a pre-ride pigeon pose in the barn aisle to stretch out a tight hip. And I would love to see riders take rehabbing more seriously, as frustrating as it can be. The running, marathon and triathlon communities have even embraced “pre-hab” — strength, stability and mobility exercises meant to ward off injuries before they occur.  

My own New Year’s resolution this year was to take care of myself the same way I take care of my horse. I fret over his fitness, soundness and nutrition, and I don’t think twice about getting the vet, bodyworker or saddle fitter out to look into an issue, but I admittedly forget that my body is a huge part of the equation, too. It’s great to have a happy, fit horse, but I want us to be a happy, fit team, and I undermine that when I put effort into his wellness but neglect my own. So I’m back in physical therapy for my back and knees, doing tragic little one-legged squats in front of a doctor who politely described my physical state as “interesting.” I’m still not sure my horse particularly cares about the strength of my posterior chain. But I know my liver will thank me when I finally lay off the ibuprofen.

Written by Jessie Lochrie

Jessie Lochrie is a writer based in Los Angeles whose work has been featured in Longreads, The Outline, The Awl, and more. She spent her formative years galloping ponies through the woods of Massachusetts before receiving a B.A. in Literary Studies from New School University. You can find her in the jumper ring or at jessielochrie.com.