By Dr Rachel Ballantyne, Founding Partner of Knocker Locker Sports Support
Sitting trot? Collected canter? Cross country? Which is it that gets you? I’m talking about breast pain. The vast majority (90%) of horse riders are female with around 304,000 women in England taking part in equestrian activities at least once a week (Sport England 2011). Horse riding is known to be one of the highest breast impact activities a woman can do, and yet do we all take care to wear a sports bra for riding that is up to task? Or do we just shrug and bear the bounce.
If you thought you were alone in this, guess what, this is not the case. In a survey conducted in 2018 by the University of Portsmouth of 1265 female horse riders, breast pain was experienced by 40% of all participants and this was significantly related to cup size- increasing linearly . Breast pain was experienced most frequently during sitting trot, and 21% of those reporting pain said it affected their riding performance. Painful shoulder straps and other bra-related issues were reported by 59% of participants in the study.
What are breasts made of?
Breasts are made of glandular tissue and fat with some strands of connective tissue (known as Cooper’s ligaments) running through. They are held up by nothing more than skin. Many believe the Cooper’s ligaments to be tough fibrous bands- like the kind of ligaments that hold your joints together, that literally strap your breasts onto your chest wall. But no, according to the University of Portsmouth Breast Health Research Group, this is not the case. Understanding this key feature of the anatomy helps you immediately realise why your breasts need significant support.
Big breast boom
It is now recognised that more than 35% of women have what are deemed large or hypertrophic breasts. Large breasts are defined as breasts where each is over 700ml in volume. Hypertrophic breasts are greater than 1200ml each in volume. Just to put this in context- a pair of 700ml breasts would total up to be the equivalent of two loaves of white bread, 16 satsumas or a pair of 8-week-old kittens. A rack of 1200ml breasts equates to 2 pineapples, a standard sized brick or 2 toasters.
It is difficult to relate these volumes exactly to bra sizes. Owing to differing back and cup sizes and breast shapes it is hard to be accurate. But hopefully the examples above give you a good idea. Whatever way you look at it, it’s a lot of weight to be held up by nothing more than skin. Unfortunately, larger breasts do have negative health implications: they are associated with postural difficulties and musculoskeletal pain in shoulders, neck and back . They are also more commonly associated with breast pain than smaller sizes.
Large or poorly supported breasts not only cause musculoskeletal pain and postural difficulties. In fact, this MS pain and poor posture can affect the subtle physical cues given to the horse by the rider which can impact performance in disciplines such as dressage . It has also been found that excessive breast movement from poor bra support results in pectoral and deltoid (chest and shoulder) muscle tensing and breath holding to try and reduce it . This inevitably will impact riding performance.
80% of women still wear the wrong bra size
Breast anatomy explains why breast size changes so readily- whether through hormonal cycles or weight change, the glands and fat content change accordingly and with that, your bra size. Just because you got measured 4 years ago- before you had a child, lost 2 stone and took up powerlifting, doesn’t mean that same fit still applies. Regardless of how good the design of the bra, if the size is wrong, then it is likely that it will not provide effective support.
80% of women or more do still wear the wrong bra size  and the most common fit error found is wearing a band size that is too big. This is probably owing to the old school ‘add 4 inches’ measuring method (from when bras were made of satin and lace and had no stretch in them).
We are moving away from the tradition approach of using a tape measure to calculate bra size and encouraging women to check their best fitting regular everyday (not sports) bra for size. To begin, make sure you are wearing the correct band size- it should be super snug feeling around your ribs, but still allow breathing (!) If you can pull the band out at the back more than a couple of inches, or it rides up at the back, it is too big. 80% of a bra’s support comes from the band, so it needs to be a firm fit. Check the underwires are sitting in the natural curve of the breast (never on breast tissue). The centre front should be flat against the breastbone (if there is a gap you need to go up a size) and no breast should be spilling out under the armpit or over the top of the cup- again you need to go up a size. Conversely, there shouldn’t be baggy or empty fabric on the cups- a sign the cups are too big.
Why is horse riding a challenge for your chest?
Riding and equestrian activities are uniquely placed in terms of demands placed on a sports bra. The nature of the sport means that breast movement is not always a regular gentle 2-dimensional bounce, it can be a very erratic and 3 dimensional movement: the ultimate challenge in terms of support. So your sports bra for horse riding needs to give high impact support. Your bra also needs to be comfortable enough to wear for long periods- we are often in them all day.
Which is the best type of sports bra for horse riding?
There are three major categories of sports bra- compression, encapsulation and hybrid.
- Compression types squeeze the breasts as single unit against the chest wall, essentially supporting both breasts as one unit (ie double the weight).
- Encapsulating styles hold each breast in an individual cup (either wired and/ or moulded) so the bra supports each individually.
- Hybrid styles are a combination of the 2- the best of both worlds!
There is no definitive formula for the ultimate sports bra to best reduce in breast movement. However, there are a few key features that are consistently found in the best performing bras studied . A good sports bra should have wide, elastic, adjustable shoulder straps and an adjustable underband (no crop tops!) It should be nylon (not polyester), encapsulating style or hybrid. It had also been found that the higher the neckline, the greater the bounce reduction. Beyond these features, wired or not, racerback or regular, padded or not… it is down to individual comfort or preference.
A great high impact sports bra should be thought of as an essential part of your riding kit. Hopefully this article has helped give some more understanding as to why- not just from a breast pain or comfort perspective, but also performance in the arena.
For a special MEMBERS ONLY OFFER head over the offers page for 15% off all the items at the Knocker Locker, and 5% of the price you pay for every bra at KnockerLocker goes straight to Pink Ribbon Foundation, supporting those whose lives are affected by breast cancer.
About the author
Dr Rachel Ballantyne is an equine vet, Les Mills group exercise instructor and founder of sports bra specialist webstore KnockerLocker.
Rachel has a great interest in breast support and sports bras, still seeing this as a major barrier to women participating in their sport of choice. Rachel is extensively read on the subject and has attended several courses by University of Portsmouth Research Group in Breast Health.
This interest lead her to set up KnockerLocker in 2022, to help increase education and information around buying sports bras, helping to guide women to the right bra for their breasts and their sport; and in so doing, making more sports accessible to more women.
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