Riders often complain about lower back pain from riding, but gaps remain in our understanding of riding’s impact on the lumbar spine.

Thanks to a grant from the Central Appalachian Regional Education and Research Center, University of Kentucky researchers Kimberly Tumlin, PhD, MS, MPH, assistant professor of Preventive Medicine and Environmental Health, Athletic Training and Clinical Nutrition in the College of Public Health; Karin Pekarchik, senior extension associate for distance learning in the Department of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering; and Michael Sama, PhD, PE, associate professor of biosystems engineering, are using technology designed in-house to quantify physical mechanics of the spine during riding, including force, acceleration, and displacement.

In horse sports, the rider’s interaction with the horse magnifies movements and forces. The horse absorbs forces of approximately 2.5 times its bodyweight at a gallop (35-38 mph), with an average horse weighing more than 1,000 pounds. The rider’s body absorbs that energy, and baseline data on the subsequent effect on body biomechanics is lacking.

Sama, an engineer in the UK Department of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering, prototyped the dynamics sensor system (DSS), which enables the group to capture position, acceleration, and orientation data.

To date, Tumlin and Kiley Power, Sama’s undergraduate research assistant, have both completed test rides using the DSS (Figure 2). These test rides were intentionally different; Tumlin rides in a Western performance style and Power rides in a hunt seat style.

“It was important to ensure that the DSS was wearable, nonintrusive, and captures all sorts of movement in a live test,” Tumlin said. “My horse’s stops and spins provide quick acceleration and deceleration variability to inform our data interpretations.”

The DSS, as designed, successfully captured changes of the horse’s gait, tracking location, and differences in acceleration.

Later this summer, the team will recruit riders of various levels through a partnership with the North American Racing Academy. These riders will complete both simulated and live gallop rides while wearing the portable sensor system. The riding simulation will take place as part of the Jockey Equestrian Initiative (JEI) at the Sports Medicine Research Institute. This technology project complements the JEI’s goals to embrace and validate diversity, conduct community-based participatory research, and promote safe environments for equestrian athletes and is an example of how team science solves practical challenges.

To support the overall health of the horse industry, this project’s larger research objective is to determine strategies for optimizing occupational success, health, and safety in equestrian sports. The researchers will integrate these results with feedback from riders of all types to assess feasibility for use of this and future technologies in equestrian sport.

Kimberly Tumlin, PhD, MS, MPH, assistant professor, University of Kentucky Preventive Medicine and Environmental Health, Athletic Training and Clinical Nutrition, College of Health Sciences; Karin Pekarchik, senior extension associate for distance learning, Department of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering; and Michael Sama, PhD, P.E., associate professor of biosystems engineering, provided this information.