Can you ride horses if you have Osteoporosis?
Written by James Warson, Author of “The Riders Pain Free Back“
A disease in which calcium is lost from the bones, resulting in weakening, and in severe cases, collapse. It is more common in the bones of the spine, and the vertebrae may collapse on each other. Most patients are postmenopausal females, and their osteoporosis is due to estrogen decrease following menopause. Men can contract osteoporosis, but their cases are most often due to myeloma, a malignancy of the bone marrow, or a tumor of the parathyroid glands, which regulate calcium in the body.
Current therapy for osteoporosis consists of two phases. The first phase is chemical, consisting of medications such as Boniva, Calcium citrate, and vitamin D. These medications stop further calcium loss.
The second phase is proper exercise to help restore calcium to the bones. Exercise, specifically in muscles directly attached to the affected bones, stimulates the buildup of calcium. Astronauts in space use specific exercises to maintain sound bone structure. In my spine care career, I noted that horse trainers who rode horses most of the day did not develop osteoporosis. The reason was obvious.
When muscles function, they do so by contraction. A muscle cannot push. It can only pull. Our muscles of our trunk that keep us in the saddle are arranged so that there are two anterior ones, the rectus abdominus (the six pack muscles) and, more importantly, the iliopsoas. The iliopsoas originates on the spine and ends on the femur, the thigh bone. When it contracts, it pulls us forward. In the back of the spine are two muscles, the multifidus and the erector spinae. When they contract, they pull us backward. Feedback to the middle ear produces a sense of balance between the anterior and posterior muscle groups, producing our seat. The iliopsoas, multifidus, and erector spinae all originate on the spine, and their contractions “massage” the vertebrae, resulting in the laying down of bone.
Osteoporotic riders must consider a number of additional things in choosing whether to ride or not. First, the degree of osteoporosis should be considered. For this presentation, I will divide this into mild to moderate, and moderate to severe. A bone density test will categorize you, and this needs to be interpreted by your physician.
First, let’s consider the horse that you ride. A horizontally gaited horse like a Walking Horse or Paso Fino will exert less upward vertical pressure on the base of the spine than a vertically gaited horse like some Saddlebreds or Morgans. A good test here is a sitting trot. If this gait is comfortable for you, there’s hope for you on that horse.
Next is the tack, particularly the saddle pad. I have insisted that riders with osteoporosis use ThinLine pads, because they are the only open cell pads. Open cell technology transfers recoil off the horse’s back laterally rather than directly up into the base of the rider’s spine.
We all fear being thrown with good reason, but this is a real danger in the osteoporotic rider because they may land on weakened vertebrae. Mild to moderately osteoporotic riders should keep that in mind. Regardless of the severity patients should be using a shock absorbing saddle pad or seat saver. Riding quiet horses in a ThinLine pad is successful at stimulating bone growth.
If you do have osteoporosis know that riding can be a great way to increase calcium in your bones, especially the spinal column. So ride, and ride well and safely, the joy you experience will improve your immune system as well as your general overall sense of well being.
I hope everyone with osteoporosis will tell their younger women friends how important is is to ride with a good shock absorber so they may ride all their lives.
Whether the rider is osteoporotic or not, the riskiest part of any ride is still the car ride to the stable.