"Back Breakers": 12 Tips to Make Your Barn Chores More Body-Friendly
There’s a saying that if you can still count the number of times you’ve come off a horse, you’re no horseman. Still, most of would gladly forgo the horseman moniker if it meant we could forgo the falls. Unfortunately, the reality is that most of us have been thrown plenty – and our bodies pay for it. Add to this the toll taken by other horse related trauma – getting kicked, stomped, jerked, knocked over, etcetera – and it is not surprising to learn that horse people have one of the highest rates of injury of any sport/hobby participants. But what many of us don’t realize is that the day to day activities we engage in as part of routine horse care can also exact a heavy price on our bodies.
Says Dr. Wendy Coren, of Equaline Chiropractic Systems of Redding, CT, “Falls can and do create neck, shoulder and back injuries, even when bones do not break, but horse people also often sacrifice their bodies to take care of their horses. All barn chores, in fact, can be done in respectful or disrespectful ways to the body.” Part of the problem is that few of us are ever taught how to correctly lift a hay bale, use a manure fork or dump a wheelbarrow, yet there is much that can be learned about ways to do such chores so that we don’t cause or exacerbate injury. Most of the time, it is a matter of small changes that can make a big difference. With that in mind, here are some tips on how you can make your barn chores less of a pain.
1. Align, lock and lunge when scooping manure. Manure collection is one of those chores that is simply unavoidable. Many of us are scooping, sifting, lifting and dumping hundreds of pounds of manure and bedding every day, and the repetitive movements, coupled with our often incorrect position and movement, can put a great deal of strain on our bodies. Watch most people using a manure fork and you will see their upper body twisting around, their arms well away from their body, and the manure fork often being pushed almost sideways while their toes point in another direction. This torqued and stretched position is very hard on the lower back in both the push phase (getting the fork under the manure) and the lift phase. This position can also stress your arms and shoulders, potentially causing soreness or injury.
To avoid these issues, you need to keep your sternum more aligned with your hands, keep your arms closer to your body, and most importantly, use your legs in a “lunge” position. As Chiropractor Dr. Robert Malone of Sechelt, BC, explains, “In the lunge position, where your lead foot is well ahead and almost perpendicular to the back foot, and the lead knee is bent, your upper body is supported over your legs – not hanging out in front of them or to the side. This allows you to use your legs and your weight, not just your arm muscles, to help you push and lift, and this reduces the strain on your back and arms tremendously.”
The lunge is especially effective if you keep your lead elbow (the one closer to the fork head) locked close against your body. This will prevent you from leading with your upper body or arms when you push, as you will have to use your legs to shift yourself forward to push. Then, when you go to lift the fork, you will once again be “forced” to use leverage and a whole body shift to raise the fork, which offers further protection.
The lunge posture also puts you in a more forward-facing position when you are pushing and lifting the fork, which is beneficial to your back and arms. Says Dr. Coren, “I try to get people to use a ‘golf technique’, where you always have your body lined up with what you are doing. The breast bone (sternum) has to stay centered as much as possible over your hands, because if your arms follow your center, it protects your back, just like when you are riding.”
2. Face the wheelbarrow when dumping the manure fork. One of the worst things you can do to your back is lift and twist at the same time – something many of us do repeatedly when we go to dump a forkful of manure into the wheelbarrow. By simply taking an extra moment to turn and face the wheelbarrow before dumping the fork, you maintain your “golf technique” alignment and relieve your body of unnecessary strain. You should also use your lunge position to step close enough to the wheelbarrow so that your elbow can stay close against your side, which keeps the weight of the loaded fork closer to your body. Always remember that the further away from the body any weight is carried, the greater the strain on your back, neck, arms and shoulders.
3. Bend your knees, not your back, when lifting or setting down the wheelbarrow. A fully loaded wheelbarrow can weigh 150 pounds or more, and lifting one can easily put your back out if done incorrectly. The mistake that many people make is keeping their legs straight, bending forward from the hips and/or rounding their spine to reach the handles. Once again, lifting with the upper body ahead of the lower body – especially with a rounded back – is asking for trouble. The healthier options here are to either use a lunge position, or to bend both knees, keeping the back straight and the upper body fairly upright in both positions. These methods allow you to use your legs to do the lifting, rather than the much weaker back muscles. The same principles apply to setting the wheelbarrow down, which can also cause serious strain if done incorrectly.
4. Make more runs with smaller loads. Of course, another way to avoid the dangers of a heavy wheelbarrow is not to load it up so much. Though this may seem like common sense, most of us do just the opposite. Observes Dr. Malone, “Most of us load the wheelbarrow as high as we possibly can, then mash it down and add some more. We only stop when the stuff starts rolling off the sides!” If this sounds like you, you may want to rethink your strategy. “Yes, this will take you a few more minutes each day,” says Malone, “but if you injure your back, you can suffer the effects for months or even years. If you already have back problems, you will be amazed at what a difference this small change can make.”
5. Dump the wheelbarrow slightly to the side. “Dumping the wheelbarrow is another ‘backbreaker’,” says Dr. Coren. Instead of dumping it straight forward, as most of us do, she recommends dumping it slightly to the side. “This allows you to keep your weight further back,” she explains, and it also prevents you from hyperextending (over-hollowing) your back, as you don’t have to raise your arms up so high while you are pushing.
6. Switch activities often. Repetitive strain is a common source of injury and can happen more easily than you might think. Therefore, if you have a task that is going to require going through the same motions or holding the same position for more than about 15 minutes, try switching to another activity after 10 minutes or so, then return to the original activity a bit later. This will allow you to rest one muscle group while using another. “I like to have two or three things going at the same time,” says Dr. Malone. “It not only saves my back, but I also end up getting a lot more done.”
7. Lunge or bend at the knees to lift water buckets and other items. As with lifting a wheelbarrow, you can protect your body when lifting water buckets or other heavy items by dropping into a lunge position or bending both knees while keeping your back straight. This allows you to use your legs, not your back and other vulnerable parts, to get weighty items off the ground.
8. Balance your loads whenever possible. Dr. Coren sees many clients who have injured themselves carrying something around the barn. As she says, “Horse people frequently carry heavy things such as hay bales, saddles, fencing, and grooming supplies, often in very unbalanced ways. When things are carried all on one side, the muscles are used unevenly. This causes stress which can lead to serious damage to muscles, ligaments and discs.” Coren therefore recommends that whenever possible, you carry loads in a centered and balanced manner:
· “With hay bales,” she says, “depending on the size and weight of the bale, carry it with the back straight, not leaning to the opposite side, which is a very common cause of serious back injury. This often means both hands on the bale and keeping the knees bent.
· “Water buckets can create rotator cuff injuries in the arm, cause neck strain, and aggravate a weak lower back, so always lift them correctly, carry them close to the body, and balance the load by carrying one in each hand, if possible.
· “When it comes to saddles, it is critical for the benefit of both horse and rider to carry the saddle close to the rider’s center, rather than slung over the hip. This will reduce strain and stop overcompensation of the back muscles. From this position you can also correctly lift the saddle from the chest, which protects your back and allows you to lower the saddle gently onto the horse’s back.” For those who insist on carrying the saddle to one side, Coren suggests at least switching sides regularly to assist in the balancing effect.
9. Bend at the knees and hip when picking feet. No one knows how to prevent back injury better than a farrier, especially when it comes to handling a horse’s feet. Chris Erikson, a farrier in Aldergrove, BC, says that too many horse owners hurt themselves unnecessarily by holding the horse’s feet incorrectly when picking them out. “I see people using their back alone to hold up the foot, which they are often holding in mid-air. Instead of standing with the legs straight and the back rounded, you need to bend your knees and fold at the hip, kind of in a half crouch. Then you can rest the hoof on your knee so that you are not holding up the weight of it with your neck and arms.” Dr. Coren adds that the lunge stance can also be used when picking feet.
10. Use a stool for “high” chores. Tasks that require your arms to be raised up higher than your waist, especially for an extended period of time, can be a literal pain in the neck, so a sturdy stool can be a great help in such situations. Says Dr. Coren, “Standing on a stool for activities such as braiding or trimming is a valuable preventative step, as it reduces pressure on the nerves and muscles in the neck/shoulder region.”
11. Use a mounting block whenever possible. Many studies have shown that mounting from the ground puts a significant amount of torque on the horse’s back, often leading to muscle imbalances and soreness, not to mention twisted saddles. What many of us don’t realize, however, is that mounting from the ground also puts strain on our own pelvic girdle and lower back. “Pelvic malalignment syndrome is rampant among riders,” states Dr. Malone, “and one of the reasons is the repeated and very uneven motions involved in mounting from the ground.” For this reason, Malone recommends using a mounting block whenever possible, or learning to mount from the off side and doing so 50% of the time. As he says, “It will feel weird at first, to both you and your horse, but really, all of us should learn to do that.”
12. Get a headset for your cell phone. When we’re out there doing our barn chores, many of “multi-task” by talking on the cell phone at the same time. If you are doing so without a headset, however, you may be setting yourself up for injury. Says Dr. Coren, “The amount of cell phone use while doing barn chores causes as much if not more pain than falls where people land on their heads!” This is because many of us try to grasp the phone between our shoulder and our ear, which leads to pinched nerves, muscle strain, and tremendous imbalance in how we use our arms and body overall. “Simply using a headset would cut the neck and shoulder pain down tremendously.” Even so, Coren is not a fan of talking on the phone when working around horses in general. “Awareness is key to preventing a lot of barn injuries,” she asserts, “and part of barn ergonomics is keeping your mind in the present. When you don’t, you are more likely to be stepped on, kicked, head butted or pulled off your feet.”
Keep in mind that changing long-standing habits of movement and posture can feel awkward or difficult, but if you incorporate even a few of these tips into your daily routine and stick with them, you will soon wonder how you did it any other way.
SIDEBAR: Ergonomic tools
The science of ergonomics is concerned with making it easier for us to work in ways that relieve physical strain associated with the tasks we must perform. A few companies have taken this concept and applied it to the needs of horse people, creating products that are designed to make our chores less physically stressful. Keep in mind, however, that everyone is built differently, so something that does wonders for one person may not be comfortable for someone else.
· The EasyLift ™ Ergonomic DuraFork, from Miller Manufacturing, is a light-weight, aluminum handled manure fork that has a strategically placed bend designed to make scooping and lifting manure easier. Many people love this product and feel it does help with scooping and lifting, but others have reported wrist pain as a result of what they perceive as increased difficulty in turning the fork to dump it into the wheelbarrow. Therefore, if you have carpal tunnel syndrome or other wrist-related pain, this may not be the product for you. Available at many farm supply stores, or see online at www.miller-mfg.com .
· The Nubarro is an unusual looking wheelbarrow designed to make hauling and dumping easier on your back and shoulders. It has a specially balanced frame and a large, rigid plastic ball instead of a wheel, making it easier to lift, turn and dump. The ball also rides more easily over sand and mud than a conventional wheel, without bogging down. Check it out at www.nubarro.com .
A Rolling saddle cart (different models available from different manufacturers) can save you from having to tote a heavy saddle to and from the barn. Some can also be used to haul square bales and other items.