The complicated nature of pain – Is ‘no pain no gain’ your riding motto?

This is a blog post I had planned for Monday and which got delayed to today due to life taking over! But here it is. I am sure many of you have heard the “no pain no gain” so called motivational mantra and I wonder how many of you believe in it and find it helpful in your own training/riding? Do you hear it from your instructors? Do you apply it to your horse(s)?


Addicted to pain

It so happens that my very tall and lanky brother became slightly obsessed with body building in his mid and late teens. He’d always been a very brainy child doing very own maths formulas and yet coming up with correct answers but one day he decided looking like daddy long legs wasn’t his idea of fun. That’s when I got to learn a lot about building muscles mass whether I wanted to or not!

The reason I am starting this post from body builders is that their obsession with getting bigger and stronger is quite comparable with general horsey person craze about horses.

For a bodybuilder, everything is about your muscles getting bigger. In most gyms you will find ‘no pain no gain’ written somewhere and if not on the wall it will be there as a tattoo on someone’s arm.

Most body builders love DOMS (Delayed Onset of Muscular Soreness) – they rejoice in it because that’s when their muscles get bigger, stronger, faster…They also love the slow, increasing muscular effort that hits the hard to bear level – that’s when animal like sounds coming from your brother’s room (that you can no longer enter in a normal fashion because it is filled up with gym equipment and looks like Go Ape/Tarzan movie set) will annoyingly disturb you from watching replays of show-jumping shows…

Another thing about growing your body is that you become addicted to that muscular soreness and effort. Apparently, you crave it with every cell of your body and mind…

Good Pain and Bad Pain

In all his madness my brother had some moments of wisdom…I learned that you have two kinds of pain in body building: the good pain (slow, increasing exercise pain and the DOMS for days after training) and bad pain (joint pain, back pain, sharp pain, acute pain).

If you keep lifting weights overriding the bad pain (apparently done by some) you lose because your body breaks down pretty fast to the point when an effort is no longer possible. This means no muscle build up is being achieved and that. ladies and gentlemen, equals the end of the world for a mass obsessed 17 year old.

To avoid bad, destructive pain, one needs to be very aware of how much pain leads to gain…

Feeling of Achievement

Overriding pain can feel exhilarating and many elite athletes do just that: they can push their bodies over the pain barrier and keep going. The victory of mind over matter. Pain is like an amber light. Some stop, some keep running and keep running and keep running despite being repeatedly hit by oncoming traffic. Some survive to fight another day, some retire but huge majority agrees that the fight with pain is their own best personal achievement.

Have you ever done something where you kept going despite your body telling you to stop? From the age of 10 to 14 I belonged to an athletics club and trained four-five times a week. I remember running on the beach to an absolute metronome like beat feeling my lungs bursting and yet running and running and running. I absolutely loved it :-/ There comes a moment when every breath is so hard to take you think you are going to suffocate but somehow you are still going, absorbed in intricate sensation of the feel of sand moving under your bare feet, an abstract awareness of every single contraction and de-contraction of muscles in your legs, gone to the music of blood drumming in your ears.  It was an incredible feeling.

By the way – my knees are so damaged now that I am lucky to be able to run at all.

Horse Riding

Should you be in pain when learning to ride in order to progress? Ideally, no. Pain makes you introvert. It makes you focused on an area of your body which is hurting and discover how incredibly interconnected your body is. It makes you tense and employ protective mechanisms that, as far as I can see, switch you off to the feel for your horse. Pain brings quicker annoyance, faster frustration.

I read an interesting article yesterday which explores someone’s claim that “if your back doesn’t hurt then you are not really riding” (I recommend the read of the full article here, especially if you are a dressage rider: It made me think…In 2006 I met Marion Hollands, a very well respected dressage judge (had superb lessons with her on dressage judging by the way, one of the best ever) who no longer rides due to serious back problems. At one of the workshops she said, ride well now or you will have the same issues as me at my age…I don’t think I truly appreciated what she said until I come across books by Suzanne Von Dietze…if you have a chance do get her recent book: “Rider and Horse Back To Back”.

So what do I do when I’m in pain and my instructor tells me ‘no pain no gain, keep on it, kick on’?

In my view, there are milliard types of pain. There is a pain from badly fitted saddle, pain from using your legs while they are aligned incorrectly, pain in your pelvis when you sit crooked, pain in your spine when you sit in bad posture…The best thing is to be specific as to what is it that is hurting when you ride and when exactly it is hurting. There are easy methods to try to make sure training is pain free. If your instructor insist that you ignore it, ask them why? Why exactly should you ignore your body from trying to protect itself from further damage…

I have seen some rare occasions where very experienced or elite riders were able to perform well and without a significant detrimental effects on the horse despite an acute injury. I know it is also possible to ride through decent amount of discomfort having personally ridden with dislocated knee and legs rubbed raw. I do not, however, believe this was of any benefit to the horses and very questionable benefit to the rider.

If you are a relative novice, you should not be in pain when learning, ever. Your horse, whether a green horse or an advanced horse should not be worked through pain either.

No effort, no gain

What I learned from my brother those years ago was that the best pain was the after-workout pain, the DOMS. That meant he had torn enough muscles fibres in his training, drank enough of his protein drinks for his body to have entered the recovery stage. The odd pleasure of a discussion the lactic acid had with his synthetic protein. He himself learnt that sometimes, when your body is one of a long distance runner, there is only as much you can do to turn yourself into a Hulk Hogan. It’s the effort and drive that brings most endorphins…

As riders, we also have our DOMS and as long as they allow us to remain functional and enjoy movement, I don’t see much wrong with them. I do also believe there is another kind of pain…there are riders who think no effort is required in order to improve. These riders want the horse to do all the work. They perceive effort – mental or physical – as a somewhat “painful” exercise. There is definitely a direct correlation here: no effort, no gain. When you learn something new or work on improving current skill there is always a level of discomfort: mental discomfort of not being where you want to be, physical discomfort from muscles finding its new ways.

My rule is, as long as it’s not in your spine or your joints, as long as it is not causing you to change your position to avoid being hurt further, as long as your horse still moves freely with relaxed back, then well, you might need to push on!!


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4 thoughts on “The complicated nature of pain – Is ‘no pain no gain’ your riding motto?”

  1. Well I’m out of luck because I have general joint soreness in my shoulders, neck, knees and hands. I’ve been tested for RA and lupus and other things and nothing ever came up positive, so I just have to kind of live with it. It will flare up and I will have days where I can barely buckle the girth and bridle! But honestly, when I’m on, focusing on the riding tends to distract me from that joint pain- although it might make it worse when I get off!

    However, when I’m feeling well, I agree that the best is when you have a productive work out that you know is pushing you but isn’t over-intense to where it breaks you, but then you get off and can’t walk 🙂 You didn’t feel that pain while on, but you sure as heck feel it after! And for the next three days… the delayed muscle tiredness or what not. That’s when I know I pushed myself and am building the correct muscle.

    1. Oh dear, I’m sorry to hear about your joints soreness :-/ Doesn’t sound good. Have you looked into some serious immune system upgrade by having quality joint friendly diet? I know that looking into my nutrition really helped with my knees. I am against taking pills/drugs in principle and prefer healthy methods which work a treat…

      Glad to know you don’t feel that damn soreness all the time! I do like the DOMS too 🙂

      1. One day when I can afford it, I plan to go to a good nutritionist and get my diet analyzed and have all of my vitamins etc. tested! I think it would make a difference too 🙂

        I did find out I had low vitamin d, and so I take supplements for that and try to get out in the sun as much as possible. that helps but there’s still some joint pain even though my vitamin d is higher!

      2. Ah you have just given me an idea for a blog post! My Mum is a nutritionist and although she doesn’t actually work as one I am going to tap into her knowledge for a write up. Good food is expensive I agree :-/

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