Riding Through Life With Greater Comfort

Karin Pekarchik, the senior extension associate for distance learning within University of Kentucky’s (UK) Department of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering, recently conducted a study on bra use and health outcomes in female equestrians. Here, she shares what she learned.

Equestrianism, a significant part of the horse industry, is important to the existing social fabric and continued economic success of Central Kentucky, yet little research exists on equestrian health and wellness. Most research is conducted on the horse, and when it focuses on the rider, it is usually something major—concussions, fractures, falls, or death. But what about day-to-day issues that impact riding, such as aching backs, a lack of time to ride, and, for female riders, poorly fitting bras and breast pain? A deeper understanding and improved awareness of female equestrian health and wellness issues, motivations, and perceptions are important because they legitimize the mental, physical, and social challenges faced by equestrians.

To address this gap, I conducted a research survey as part of my master’s thesis in UK’s Community and Leadership and Development Department in the spring of 2017 to gauge female equestrians’ attitudes toward health and wellness, with a focus on breast pain and discomfort.

The survey, “Riding through Life: A Lifespan Study of the Attitudes, Behaviors, and Areas of Educational Opportunity for Female Equestrians Toward Bra Use and Health Outcomes When Engaged In Equestrian Sports,” was distributed through seven news outlets that were approved by the UK Institutional Review Board. It consisted of seven sections: equestrian demographics; equestrian health and exercise; riding and physical activity; bras and bra fit; equestrian breast discomfort/pain; breast history; and health information and knowledge. Data analysis for manuscripts and publication in peer-reviewed journals are ongoing.

Overall, more than 1,000 biological females over the age of 18 completed the online survey. Of the participants, more than 70% resided in the United States. The five states with the highest number of participants were Kentucky, California, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and Florida. More than 70% of the sample reported being between 18 and 50 years old.

Generally, the survey showed that women experienced pain (at different levels) both while riding and from riding. While not all women experienced pain, significant numbers did, with particular identification of back pain. Another common theme when women were asked about negative health consequences as a result of their riding was breast discomfort/pain. Women did not always indicate breast discomfort/pain when asked directly, but reported breast discomfort/pain in subsequent questions that used different phrasing. Women also freely offered their perceptions and complaints about bra fit and offered suggestions as to how bra design could be improved to specifically accommodate the needs of riders. These findings suggest that women may not directly identify that there are health-related impacts of riding which require further attention, and to promote wellness associated with both a recreational and professional choice.

To more fully explore health and wellness of equestrians, exercise riders, and jockeys, Kimberly I. Tumlin, PhD, of UK College of Public Health, and I have started the Equestrian Wellness Initiative (EWI), a branch of UK’s existing female health registry, Women’s Health and You (WHY). The mission of WHY is to improve women’s health through research, and it provides women the opportunity to help reduce the gap for women in medical research by responding to surveys about their health. Participants also receive information on health issues and research opportunities of interest to them. Since 2006, more than 17,000 women across Kentucky have joined.

The mission of the interdisciplinary EWI is to improve wellness of the equestrian community, including riders and nonriders, professionals and recreational participants alike. We hope to draw together resources that are specific to the equestrian community and aid in health and wellness of this unique group who share a common bond: the horse. Initially, EWI will focus on increasing the understanding of motivations and perceptions of why riding is a professional and recreational choice and focus on factors that encourage, limit, or prevent engagement in the industry, regardless of discipline.

The overall program goal is to inform and guide interventions, education, and policy to promote wellness and population health outcomes in the performance-based occupations of the equine sector in the agricultural industry.

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More information on Gluck Equine Research Center and UK Ag Equine Programs.