Core Exercises For The Horseback Rider

Rider core strength is essential to develop a better riding position, skills will develop faster you will gain a better response from the horse and more value from your instruction. Correct riding posture requires strength in the core muscles – the deep abdominal and back muscles that support, engage and protect the spine. Instruction is vital for every serious rider, even the best rider’s benefit from knowledgeable ‘eyes on the ground’. 

MOvement pattern Hands compressedEvery rider’s position needs improvement and or adjustments to be able to get the best from their horse. Often, though, the instruction can seem like an ongoing expense that goes nowhere; lessons are repetitive, and the rider – and instructor - may feel frustrated that the same issues keep arising, with little or no improvement. Constant calls of “shoulders back”, “sit still” and “sit up” seem ineffectual. In most cases, the rider can’t maintain these postures and slump back to what they are capable of.  The calls are repeated. Riders become frustrated with themselves and the instructor is limited and unable to progress. Some riders blame their horse and buy a new one.

A new horse to blame or a new instructor to try. I believe that in all reality, the problem usually lies with the rider. Instruction fails because the rider simply can’t do what is being asked of them. But why? “The rider is often the neglected element of the horse-and-rider team,”   Is one of my quotes, another is  “So many riders have difficulty with their posture in the saddle because they have poor posture out of the saddle”. The other point being riders do not truly understand the muscular skills involved to be able to ride well. Riders are told to strengthen their core for riding; every Instructor now knows this is important, but very few know where to direct their pupils. Many horse riders have no idea where to start, or how and why it’s so important. Riders need to look at training themselves as well as training their horse.

DSC 0137We want and train our horse to be correct, supple, flexible, strong, and obedient. We choose an expert (professional) to instruct us and we pay a lot of money for this. We must do the same as a rider. Choosing an expert (not an amateur) to teach us out of the saddle is just as important. Heading to the gym, attending Pilate’s classes is not enough. These exercises are general and not specific to the horse riding posture. Core exercises must be specific.

A strong core is the starting point to address all posture problems.

Weak core muscles result in poor balance and control of the body. Riding skills will never improve, the seat will never be strong and secure and pain and injury are likely to occur. Mothers after childbirth and for those having suffered a back injury, weak core muscles are inevitable. The good news is that whether the weakness is due to childbirth, injury or a simple lack of tone, the strength, and function of these vital postural muscles can be restored.

The importance of the core muscles

Just as a horse’s back and belly muscles must be toned in order to give a comfortable ride and engaged paces, so too must the rider’s trunk muscles. The rider’s body is as much a part of the riding equation as the horse; if the rider isn’t fit, toned and strong in the back and abdominal muscles, their seat will not be strong enough to engage the horse or follow its movement sufficiently and correctly. The Dutch, UK and USA riders are emphatic in seeking information to train their own riding posture and skill. The dressage horses they ride have enormous, expansive movement and these riders understand that they need to train themselves to ride this huge movement. They know they need better flexibility and the strongest core to balance and control their riding posture on these brilliant-moving horses.

An overseas rider at Equitana was heard saying that his horse was ready for one time changes, but he wasn’t...he was learning to control his posture so he could stay with his horse. The alternative is that the horse won’t go to the next level, or will be sold to a better rider. Humans are very one sided; we develop that way, we work that way, we rest that way and we accept we are right or left handed. Horse riding is NOT one-sided; we want our horses to be great on both reins, we train it, we practice it, and we expect it. We want the horse to be symmetrical, and the rider must be the same.

The Core is the absolute key to strength, symmetry, and skillful riding

How does the rider train the core muscles?

PFM with diaphram 

In this image, you can see the structure of the Transverse Abdominal Muscle, the Multifidus Muscle, and the Pelvic Floor Muscles. These are the core muscles.

Well, it isn’t just a matter of start core exercises...this is where many fail to get it right. It is important to understand the workings of the muscles and HOW to engage them, HOW to Test and How to train for functional use.

The transverse abdominal muscle is the primary core muscle. The multifidus muscle is primarily the muscle to support the lower back and tilt the pelvis forward. The pelvic tilt is essential for higher class riding. The functional use of these two muscles controls back pain by stabilizing the joints and controlling movement.

How to Test the Transverse Abdominal Muscle.

This has been documented a number of times, but it is very important to learn to isolate these individual muscles and test them and train them. This is one of many muscle tests in my Applied Posture Riding program. To feel this core exercise properly, some people find it easier to close their eyes. Most just need to slow it down and feel the movement. When doing it, think of the phrase used by instructors - to feel the movement of the horse. If you can’t feel when your hips are moving, how can you control the movement when in the saddle? This test movement is not so much about strength, it is more a recruitment of fibers and a practiced movement pattern - the first of many a horse rider can do out of the saddle, to train their riding posture. Movement patterns exercises and unique ball movement patterns will gain better core strength and flexibility specific to the

DSC 0029Movement patterns exercises and unique ball movement patterns will gain better core strength and flexibility specific to the horse rider. By adding in thera-band – a length of rubber tubing used in physiotherapy –the weakest muscles to train can be isolated. But don’t forget it is also important to test the strength of all the major horse riding muscles as well as the core. The core is the key but a rider must also identify their other areas of weakness and overuse. Testing for flexibility and range of movement is another area neglected. A rider will not have strength if they are stiff. A rider will not be able to move with their horse if their back is not flexible.  These are very generic and easy tests to self-apply.

Testing for flexibility and range of movement is another area neglected. A rider will not have strength if they are stiff. A rider will not be able to move with their horse if their back is not flexible.  These are very generic and easy tests to self-apply. If you want more information then look at the Applied Posture Riding Program.

The next part of training is strengthening the core When teaching core training, I start with simple floor exercises and progress to the ball. The  ‘Swiss’ ball is an excellent tool for the horse rider because it can simulate the horse riding posture (to an extent). The movement patterns for riding can be trained and learned with symmetry and precision before getting back in the saddle. The ball will teach balance and control...if used regularly.  I teach a core crunch with a posture crunch. This can be repeated with closed eyes! This is the first movement pattern of many I teach.

 Riders need to be able to apply aids with the hands and legs and keep the seat deep and strong at the same time. This skill ability is the single most important skill to develop as a rider. So many riders lose their seat or upright position as soon as they use their hands or legs. Or alternatively, they use their hands the balance because their seat is not stable. Ball exercises for riding posture.These are good exercises to fix an unstable lower leg (and there are much more). The control of the transfer of weight from the seat to the stirrups is a problem many riders have in the rise-trot; there is a simple exercise to train the balance and movement for a stable rise trot. It can be done with the arms out to the side as well. Holding the core tight while doing the movement patterns is the key, though. Learning to do it on the ball and repeating it in the saddle is the aim.

 There are many ways to stretch the lower back and the chest area. Stretching the front of the shoulders at the same time as stretching the lower back is time-saving, and feels so good afterward.

There are a number of movement patterns to train the seat to be strong and independent of limb movements. Riders need to be able to apply aids with the hands and legs and keep the seat deep and strong at the same time. This skill ability is the single most important skill to develop as a rider. So many riders lose their seat or upright position as soon as they use their hands or legs. Or alternatively, they use their hands the balance because their seat is not stable. These are good exercises to fix an unstable lower leg (and there are much more).

The control of the transfer of weight from the seat to the stirrups is a problem many riders have in the rise-trot; there is a simple exercise to train the balance and movement for a stable rise trot.  Holding the core tight while doing these exercises is the key, though. Learning to do it on the ball and repeating it in the saddle is the aim.

There are many ways to stretch the lower back and the chest area. Stretching the front of the shoulders at the same time as stretching the lower back is time-saving, and feels so good afterward.   The simple principles are to stretch what is tight, strengthen what is weak and move what is stiff, and you will improve.

To train the sitting trot is more complicated but can be started the ball and controlling the breathing pattern. I teach riders to breathe correctly as they tighten the core at the same time do a simple exercise on the ball. This is a complicated movement pattern but a good one for sit-trot training. The ability to move the pelvis with the horse and remain still with your trunk and legs in the sitting trot can be trained on the ball.To control the movement and move with the horse is one of the key principles of being able to sit the trot.

Releasing stiffness

A stiff rider will block the horse in many ways. “Soften Your Back... Soften your Hands....these are familiar terms to all riders. The answer is to STRETCH STRETCH AND STRETCH - there is no other way! I have not talked about back pain or headaches here. Many riders suffer back pain. The exercises I teach are all good for back pain but I do recommend riders see a physiotherapist know they are doing the right thing for themselves. There are many causes of headaches, but horse riding and bad posture are certainly one cause. Again I advise riders to see a physiotherapist for the right management. There are much more exercises that can help riders to tone, strengthen and stabilize their core to make riding more comfortable, effective and successful. I would like to encourage all riders to look at their own posture, symmetry, flexibility, and strength, and to absolutely know how to test, train strengthen and USE their core, not only for riding but for daily work and play.

Spend time self-testing and then stretching what is tight and strengthening what is weak. Spend time training your core to work for you every step and every time you change your posture. Learn how to use your core out of the saddle and then in the saddle. Repeat the movement patterns and train your brain to train your body – these are all things riders systematically do to train their horse, every day. The same principles apply to good posture to good riding in the human component. Riding lessons will then progress much faster, one’s instructor can teach what they know, and the rider is not held back by not be held back by a lack of knowledge about fitness.” With the ongoing expense of keeping and feeding a horse and the cost of equipment, lessons, vehicle, competition, etc - not to mention the comfort and well-being of both horse and rider - it is worth doing everything one can to be a strong, flexible and efficient riding partner before getting on the horse.

A well-toned rider is also lighter and easier to carry, reducing the need for equine massage, chiropractic treatments, and veterinary bills. There is little need for whips and ancillary gear to help ‘train’ a ‘stubborn’ horse when a well-toned rider can do the job with far more ease and sympathy.

Written By Annette Willson Author “Applied Posture Riding” Annette Willson.

Please LIKE and follow my Applied Posture Riding Facebook page for tips and advice on rider training.