Most riders will have heard trainers talking about the importance of core strength, but what do they really mean by this. Very often the expression core strength is taken to mean our rectus abdominal muscles (commonly known as a six pack) but this isn’t really right, just having a good 6 pack is not going to help our riding. The core, often referred to in Pilates as “the powerhouse” is much more than just these muscles – it is our entire central unit, including all the muscles that affect the stabilization of the spine, pelvis and ribcage, and as such plays a major role in how we ride.
An unstable pelvis creates an unstable ribcage and shoulder girdle. This lack of stability doesn’t just affect the rider it influences the horse as well. So it makes sense that we “school” our own bodies as well as that of our horse.
There are basically 8 key muscles involved in creating good core stability. These are:
Both the internal and external obliques are situated to the side and front of the abdomen, with the internal obliques running in the opposite direction to our external obliques. These are the muscles that are responsible for turning our torso or hips and are vitally important for keeping us evenly stacked when riding our horse. Think of the obliques as stiff guide ropes that are responsible for holding the sides of our body up evenly and allowing us to turn without collapsing to one side.
These muscles are situated under the obliques and form a brace that wraps around our centre and helps protect the spine. It is these muscle that engages when you cough.
The quadratus lumborum or QL is a muscle of the posterior abdominal wall. It is the deepest abdominal muscle and commonly referred to as a back muscle. It is irregular and quadrilateral in shape and broader below than above. It attaches to the bottom rib and to the lumbar vertebrae as well as the back of the pelvis (iliac crest). This muscle has a major influence on how we move, stand and ride our horse. It is a lateral flexor which means it has the control of whether we tip or rock to one side in the saddle.
This muscle runs from the front of the sacrum, through the pelvis to join the thigh bone (femur) at the greater trochanter on each side of our body. The piriformis laterally rotates the femur with hip extension and abducts the femur with hip flexion. Abduction of the flexed thigh is important in the action of riding as it allows us to open our hips. The action of the lateral rotators can be understood by crossing the legs to rest an ankle on the knee of the other leg. This causes the femur to rotate and point the knee laterally. Running right next to the sciatic nerve tightness in the piriformis can cause sharp sciatica-like pain.
The psoas (there are two, one on the left and one on the right) originate along the sides of the vertebral bodies of the 12th thoracic vertebrae and extend down to the 5th lumbar vertebrae, and along the sides of the intervertebral spinal discs. They then travel down deep in the abdomen to attach below the lesser trochanter of the femur which is located towards the inner thigh region. The psoas is joined at the hip (literally), by the iliacus, which travels from the hip to the thigh. Together, the psoas and iliacus make up the iliopsoas–the body’s most powerful hip flexor.
The psoas is an extremely important muscle for riders. It is the psoas that enables you to move your legs and hips independently. Every time you lift your knee, the psoas contracts. When your leg swings back, the psoas lengthens. You use your psoas to tuck your pelvis under. The psoas also promotes good posture. In conjunction with the other muscles, the psoas helps stabilize your midsection and pelvis. Every time you stand, walk, or ride, you’re engaging the psoas. If the muscle is compromised, either by injury or tightness, your riding inevitably suffers.
Is the largest and most superficial of the three gluteal (glutes) muscles and makes up a large portion of the shape and appearance of each side of the hips. Along with the psoas it helps control the front to back balance of the hips. When tight it can inhibit the movement of the horse’s back and when weak can affect the riders balance in the saddle.
Gluteus Medius and Gluteus Minimus
The gluteus medius and gluteus minimus function together to rotate the hip inward as well as outwards. They are crucial for helping the rider stay balanced in the centre of the saddle.
This is a just a small selection of the muscles that make up your core and are involved in stabilizing the lower half of your body. By understanding the role that these muscles play you will be able to become more aware of the areas that you may need to work on to improve your riding.
These are a variety of exercises that you can do to strengthen this muscle group, these include, but are not limited to, the following:
- Plank (core, thighs, glutes, shoulders)
- Side plank (core, obliques)
- Plank Shoulder Taps (core, arms, glutes, shoulders)
- Bridge (core, psoas, glutes, hamstrings)
- Side Plank – Thread the Needle (obliques, quadratus lumborum, glutes)
- Boat – (abdominals, core, psoas, lower back)
- Criss Cross (abdominals, obliques)
- Bird Dog (abdominals, core, lower back, glutes)
Plus Plank on a gym ball, Bird Dog on a gym ball, Lying side oblique raise on a gym ball and swimming on a gym ball!