Why You and Your Horse need a Core Conditioning Program
Part 1: Why you and your horse need a core conditioning programme
Horse riding is a partnership. While horses are big animals, you have a massive impact on them while in the saddle. Horse-rider interactions have been studied at all levels and the results are in – both members of your horse-rider partnership need a strong core.
What happens when the rider has a weak core?
When you are stronger through your core (and more experienced – but this comes through time in the saddle over anything else) you are better at staying central in the saddle and maintaining a symmetrical riding position [1,4-6]. This means you place even pressure on your horse’s back and can apply clearer aids (win-win!).
If you have a weak core, you are likely to sit asymmetrically. Think how quickly you get tired of sitting up straight at your desk and it’s no wonder we struggle to stay straight on a moving animal. Your horse will struggle to move through their full range of motion in their back, and as a result you may see poor performance, a poor topline and the onset of back pain or lameness [1-5,7].
Think about the last time you filled up water buckets. It’s much easier to carry one on each side even if they are heavier in total because they are balanced. When you are only carrying one bucket your body gets pulled to one side, your stride changes to compensate and it’s seriously hard work!
Horses are prey animals, so they’ve evolved to be really good at hiding when they are in pain. This makes it really easy to miss back pain. Key things to look for are…
· Lack of impulsion
· Shortened stride
· Changes in behaviour
· Poor performance
If you notice any of these symptoms in your horse (particularly in sitting trot or with heavier riders) it’s important to rule out any pain. Your physiotherapist or vet can provide treatment and get your horse feeling themselves again.
How can I help my horse with back pain?
There are a few things that might be prescribed to help your horse recover from back pain…
· Rest from ridden work – This can allow your horse to balance out again and prevent any further damage.
· Improving rider symmetry – Working your core can help prevent any issues resurfacing (more on this shortly). 
· Laser – Works to block pain signals and restore normal movement.
· Massage – Reduces tension and increases blood flow, promotes healing, flushes out toxins and releases happy hormones like oxytocin.
· TENS – Acts to reduce pain by sending signals up the spinal cord.
· Pulsed electromagnetic field therapy – Helps remove toxins by balancing the contents of the cells, and reduces pain signals.
If you’d like a good place to start then why not treat you and your horse to a massage? You’ll both feel more balanced and pain free!
We look forward to seeing you soon!
Part 2: Horse Core Exercises
How do I know if my horse has a weak core?
Horse's with a weak core have what we call poor dorso-ventral balance. This means that your horse's back and core are not working together and are instead weak. These horse's have little or no topline muscle with a large looking belly despite them being the correct weight. However horse's who are overweight are more prone to having a weak core and topline.
Hence the first step in your horse's journey to a strong core is being the correct weight and being out of pain. Then you can begin looking at core strengthening exercises.
Horse core exercises
Just like ourselves it's important that horse's maintain a strong core to prevent back pain and to increase their sporting performance.
If our horse’s have a weak core their ability to carry us effectively without developing back pain is compromised. Luckily for us there are many exercises which can help improve our horse's core strength and prevent the development of back pain.
It’s a great idea to start these exercises before ridden work when backing a young horse to ensure they’re strong enough for ridden work.
If your horse is already in ridden work and doesn’t suffer from back pain and you’d like to keep it that way then implementing an effective core conditioning program is perfect for you and your horse.
If your horse is new to a core fitness program or unfortunate enough to suffer with a injury or back pain ensure you speak with your vet and vet physio before implementing a core exercise program.
So what core exercises can my horse do?
Tail pulls to increase balance
Ab lifts to increase ab strength
Pelvic rounding to improve back motion
Wither rocks to improve balance
Pole work of any type
Working in the correct outline with hindlimb engagement
Routine changes such as feeding form the floor and increased turn out
Baited stretches or carrot stretches to improve balance
We suggest starting with ab lifts, tail pulls and wither rocks as these are the easiest exercises for your horse to perform before moving on to ridden and pole work, baited stretches and pelvic rounding which require more strength and flexibility of your horse's back and core.
To find out more check out our equine core conditioning guide.
Part 3: Human Core Exercises
We need our core to keep us stable in the saddle, helping us to absorb our horses’ movement; allowing our legs to move independently; and responding to any sudden or unexpected movements. Seated marches are a great way to improve your core stability off the horse!
Start sitting at the edge of your chair, shoulders back and chest stacked over your hips. Keeping your posture consistent, begin slowly lifting one foot then the other.
Once you are confident at the edge of your seat you can move onto a wall sit with a march. You'll be working towards your thighs being horizontal but start at the point you can control. Gradually you can work your way down.
Optional Coordination Exercise
If you want an extra challenge you can throw a ball (or three if you're a juggler in your spare time!).
Things to watch!
Keep your weight balanced evenly on your seat bones.
Activate your core prior to this exercise.
Do it facing a mirror and look for any shoulder movement.
Your core helps to keep your upper body over your lower body. Standing balance work is a great way of working those stabilising muscles!
The images below show three progressions of your standing balance work:
Standing with your supporting leg straight (to encourage glute activation) raise one leg out in front. This doesn't need to be high, and you can use a light touch on a wall for support.
From your balanced position in step one, lift the same arm as your supporting leg overhead. Keep the arm straight and aim to keep your ribcage in the same position.
This will lengthen your torso from your hip flexor into your shoulder which is great if you sometimes lean forwards when riding!
Once you are comfortable with step two, you can circle your arm back in a big open arc. Aim to keep your ribs stable, and resist any twisting to the side - this will really light your core up!
Posterior Pelvic Tilts
Your core muscles play a key role in controlling the position of your pelvis. We can activate and strengthen our core by tilting and un-tilting our pelvis. "Tucking your tailbone" is how we usually describe a posterior pelvic tilt.
Lift the front of your pelvis, engaging your core and 'lifting' your belly button as you do so.
Engage your glutes to ensure you stay upright through your hips. You may feel a stretch in the front of your thighs if you are tight here.
Hold for 10s, relax for 10 - repeat 3-5 times.
Working Towards Planks
Once you are comfortable with your posterior pelvic tilt you can begin to increase the diffulty by working at an angle.
Starting with your hands on a wall, window ledge, sturdy chair or other secure surface - start to maintain your posterior pelvic tilt (and the straight line from heel, hip to shoulder) for 10s at a time.
Gradually increase the duration and decrease the height of your hands to progress.
You can do this in a side plank too - really great for your core strength!
Need more help with your core fitness? Check out Seonaidh’s full Core Essentials course here. I can highly recommend it I’ve found no other course so easy to follow but effective!
Horse & Rider Fitness Intensives
As part of our "Why you and your horse need a core conditioning program" series, you have the opportunity to join Zoe from Fit-Pet Physio and Seonaidh from Cherry Tree Training for a Horse-Rider Fitness intensive.
Fitness intensives include a private equine physiotherapy session (including tack check, manual therapies, electrotherapies, a full musculoskeletal health check and a take-home exercise program), personal training session, as well as group personal training and ridden sessions.
If you're interested in a Horse & Rider Fitness Intensive at your yard or riding school or would like some more information, please complete the form to the right giving your location and number of people interested.