The importance of core strength cannot be underestimated no matter what riding discipline you practice. Whether you participate in dressage, jumping, eventing, or trail riding, possessing a strong core is crucial, not only to your own performance, but to your horse’s performance as well.
Your core consists of the trunk muscles surrounding the spinal column and abdomen. The abdominal cavity is entirely supported by muscles since there are no bones to provide support for this region. There are three layers of abdominal muscles, each running in different directions, supporting and stabilizing your pelvis. Your back (erector spinae) and abdominal muscles (opposing muscle groups) are the cornerstones of good balance and act as your center of gravity.
Your core’s primary role is to stabilize your upper body and act as a foundation of weight distribution. It contributes to a strong, well-aligned pelvis and allows your hips, low back muscles, and hamstrings to work in conjunction with one another. The abdominals also flex and rotate your spine, as well as, provide support for your lower back.
The muscles that comprise your core include the erector spinae ( a group of three muscles that connect from your neck to lower back) that are responsible for movement of the vertebral column (extend, hyperextend and laterally flex the spine), the external oblique, outer most layer (lumbar flexion and rotation), the internal oblique, second layer (lumbar flexion and rotation), the transverse abdominis, the deepest layer (pulls the abdominal wall inward), and lastly the rectus abdominis, the narrow, flat muscle (lumbar flexion both sides, lateral flexion to the right/left). These muscles work together allowing you to bend over, rotate your trunk, control the tilt of your pelvis and curvature of your lower spine, and even help your hip flexors be more effective in raising your legs.
Riders must specifically target, and train, their core muscles to improve their balance, and ultimately their performance. Balance, a motor skill, is the ability of the body to maintain equilibrium when standing, walking or performing daily activities. It also plays a role in maintaining one’s center of gravity while riding. Without good balance, proper execution of seat/leg aids will be impossible, as well as, maintaining steady hands and basic control of the horse. This can be quite challenging to an unfit individual, with weak torso muscles. These individuals are easily recognizable because they cannot sit the trot, often grip the saddle with their knees/thighs, bounce on their horse’s back, thus impeding forward movement, lean too far forward, too far back, or from side to side. They frequently disturb their horse’s natural rhythm because they never develop an independent seat. A horse’s movement often acts as a reflection of its rider’s strengths and weaknesses. For example, if the rider is unbalanced, stiff and/or inflexible, their horse becomes a mirror image, lacking suppleness, rhythm, and relaxation in its own body. The better balanced the rider, the more comfortable it is for the horse. A fit rider, with a strong core, good body control, and an independent seat permits the horse to balance itself laterally, from front to back, as well as, allowing the rider to move naturally with their horse.
Importantly, these same principles apply to your horse, as well. No matter what discipline you participate in, your horse requires a strong mid-section/core to stabilize and lift its back/ribcage. Strong abdominals also allow your horse to bend and perform lateral movements. With poor abdominal development, your horse will be unable to maintain self-carriage or be collected. Strong abdominal muscles, combined with a well-developed top-line, work together as opposing muscle groups to create a stabilized core. Keep this in mind when training/riding your horse, so your equine partner is equally fit!
Strengthening your Core Muscles
There are three components to an abdominal workout. Alternating between the following three exercises will achieve the best results. The basic curl up has been shown to activate the greatest number of muscle fibers, and, when executed correctly, prevents the hip flexors from pulling oneself up. Bringing your heels together and dropping your knees to the side, will also eliminate the use of the hip flexors. The abdominal muscles can be worked every day for 10 minutes. You can think of them as elastic bands. It is best to rotate through all three exercises during the ten minutes, alternating periodically. Beginners can take breaks as often as they like until they develop the strength to perform the exercises for a full 10 minutes. Remember that “quality is more important than quantity!”
There is no need to count how many curl-ups you perform. Aim for proper form and execution!
Spot Reducing: No amount of abdominal training will spot reduce your mid-section. Restrict calorie intake in combination with aerobic exercise to burn overall body fat.
Figure 2 Basic Curl Up
Knees bent, feet shoulder width apart, flat back, hands gently held behind head, space between chin and chest, lift head, neck, and shoulders until shoulder blades are off the ground, look where the ceiling meets the wall, lift and lower, don’t forget to breathe!
Oblique Curl up – pinpoints waist – internal/external obliques
Figure 3 Oblique Curl Up
Start in basic curl up position, rest one leg over the other, hands gently behind head, lift head, neck, and shoulders until shoulder blades are off the ground while bringing shoulder/elbow towards opposite leg, then return to starting position, alternating sides.
Reverse Curl up – pinpoints lower portion of the rectus abdominus
Flat back, hands placed gently behind head, bring both feet up in the air, legs parallel to the ground, gently bring knees to chest, rocking your bottom up and off the floor, then return to starting position
While lying on your back extend your arms over your head, while extending your legs, point your toes…and stretch! Imagine being pulled by your feet/hands. Hold the stretch for 30-60 seconds then release. Repeat as often as you like, and don’t forget to breathe!
Strengthening the Erector spinae
Back extension – lay on your stomach, place hands behind head, lift upper body off the ground, while lifting both legs off the ground simultaneously, hold 2-3 seconds, then lower, repeat. If you feel any discomfort STOP and see your doctor.
Remember optimal fitness includes cardiovascular exercise, strength training & flexibility. Try to exercise every day!