Sometimes the little girl who always wanted a horse isn’t fortunate to have one until she’s older. The passion for horses never left and she’s finally able to ride, but she’s finding that her body isn’t quite what it was. Or perhaps someone who rode frequently as a youngster had to stop for an extended period of time. Now that they’re back in the saddle as a middle-aged adult, stiff joints make it obvious that years have passed. And some people who rode as youngsters and continued throughout adulthood may notice that movements that once came easily are more restricted and perhaps even painful.
In any case, part of the normal aging process includes deteriorated joints. That can become worse depending on what that person has done throughout their life. The most common issue is osteoarthritis — it’s what happens after years of wear and tear on joints. Osteoarthritis most often affects joints that bear weight, including knees, hips and ankles.
“It isn’t necessarily a consequence of aging, but more a degeneration of cartilage,” said Amber Wolfe, AgrAbility coordinator at the Arthritis Foundation. “It affects joints that have been overused or injured, and normally starts out on one side (the dominant side) of the body. It can affect multiple joints at once, and can become progressive to the point where a person can have several areas of osteoarthritis pain.”
Rather than having to give up an activity that may be the reward of waiting for many years, those who have arthritis have options to help mitigate some of the pain, and those measures may also help slow additional joint damage.
“Horseback riding uses more muscles at one time than any other sport,” said Wolfe. “One of our taglines at the Arthritis Foundation is ‘movement is medicine.’ When you don’t use your joints, it’s worse. The more movement you can do, the better, as long as it’s within limitations.”
Arthritis often first shows up in the hands. Depending on where the pain is, a simple wrist or hand brace may help. If pain is specifically in the fingers, tactile riding gloves help the rider grip the reins better without having to squeeze tightly with the fingers. “Most people with arthritic joints have limited grip strength,” said Wolfe. “It hurts to grab and squeeze.” Wolfe points out that posture is important in any exercise, but especially important for riders to help maintaining a correct riding position and reduce joint stress.
Using reins that have a rubber coating helps with grip, or use a covering of co-flex bandage over slick leather reins. “I suggest one-piece reins for western riders,” said Wolfe. “If your hands hurt and you have to put them down, you don’t have to worry about the reins slipping and falling. Any sudden movements that you have to make to grab the reins will hurt as well.” Wolfe also suggests anti-vibration gloves for riders who ride with close contact.
“Mounting blocks are always a good idea,” said Wolfe. “If you’re on a trail ride and don’t have one, there are mounting aids that you can take along and attach to the stirrups when needed.” The advantage of such aids is that if a rider is out on the trail and needs to dismount, it’s easier to remount without having to find a log.
During riding, it helps to maintain a relaxed back, shoulders and legs. This helps keep your body in a position that allows more effective communication with the horse, but also helps absorb shock. Wolfe suggests that wearing a small back brace can help remove some of the pressure on the lower back. Even with good posture, a back brace will support the back and take some of the shock.
Grooming isn’t usually problematic, and can be relaxing. “Repetitive tasks in grooming can help lubricate your own joints, and isn’t ‘heavy’ because there isn’t a lot of pressure or forceful movement,” said Wolfe. If the horse is especially tall or the rider is short, a sturdy step stool or mounting block can help take some pressure off the shoulders when grooming and tacking up.
Chores around the barn can be adapted to reduce joint stress and pain. “Carrying feed bags over the shoulder can be very stressful to joints, and usually results in weight being distributed unevenly,” said Wolfe. “The best way to carry 50-pound bags is to pick up the bag and bear-hug it — hold it close to your body. That way you’re using the largest, strongest joints in your back and shoulders equally. If you throw the feed over your shoulder, all of the weight is on that joint and hip on that side and you’re unbalanced.” Wearing gloves while handling feed bags also improves grip, which reduces strain on fingers and hands.
In carrying items such as water buckets or grabbing at the strings to lift a bale, Wolfe says that if the thumb and forefinger overlap, the grip is too narrow and can damage the hand. “The rule of thumb is when you’re holding something in your hand, the thumbnail should barely cover the forefinger nail,” she said. “That’s an adequate diameter for the hand.” Metal handles on water buckets are small, but the simple addition of pipe insulation on the handle takes away significant pressure from the hand. “Alternate hands, and be careful not to use your fingers as a hook with a bucket dangling from that hook,” she said. “That position causes a lot of strain to the joints which can lead to degeneration as they start to rub together. Any time you carry, have a firm grip with your whole hand, not just your fingers.”
For carrying hay bales, Wolfe suggests cutting a dowel rod to the width of the bale and notching the dowel where the strings would be. “Slide the dowel and place the notches under the strings,” she said. “Now there’s an entire handle under the strings.”
It can be difficult to convince young riders to take preventative measures that ease joint pressure. Stretching before doing chores or before riding can go a long way in preventing damage to joints. Adults can provide a good example and encourage young people to take steps now to protect joints and preserve muscle and joint integrity. “Prevention is important for a lot of forms of arthritis whether you’re young or old,” said Wolfe. “If you do things properly early on, there’s a lower chance of injuring a joint that leads to arthritis.”