Whether we are talking about humans or horses a strong and supple core is required to support the spine and reduce wear and tear on the joints. For riders a strong core is essential, as an engaged core holds us in lateral and longitudinal balance and gives our seat stability.
Pilates, yoga and Swiss Ball exercises all increase our core stability, strength and body awareness and help redress imbalances so that our body can become more symmetrical. Core stability and suppleness are as important to our horses as they are to us. Developing our horse’s posture and balance not only improves performance but can also help reduce the risk of injury.
Stimulating and strengthening the core muscles of our horse is possible through groundwork and skillful use of ridden movements such as using arena patterns and targeting muscle groups with certain exercises. By performing specific exercises, the core muscles that make for good posture, a strong back and assist in carrying the weight of the rider can be strengthened. These include the deep internal muscles of the abdomen, pelvis, thoracic sling, and back together with the more superficial muscles of the trunk.
The following ridden exercises, performed at a walk and repeated on a regular basis will help target and strengthen your horse’s shoulders, thoracic sling, abdominals and hips.
- Volte – mark out a 10m circle with so that you can be precise with your line. Riding a small circle has a suppling effect on your horse’s lateral abdominal muscles. Ride around the volte, encouraging your horse to step forward and under with his inside hind leg. Make sure you follow the movement of his back and don’t block him with a ‘driving’ seat. Use your inside hip to create the bend you need and be as precise as you can to maintain the correct line. Notice if your horse falls out or falls in. Repeat the pattern until your horse feels fluid and willingly stretches down and forward into the bend. Change the rein and repeat the exercise on the new rein.
- Leg Yield – Bending against the direction of movement. This stretched leg yield with bend encourages the hips to move freely and stretches the muscles on the outside of the bend. Flex your horse against the direction of travel and use your weight in the direction of travel. Ask for the inside hind leg to step forward and under when it is in the air. This movement can be conducted on the long side of the arena or as an enlargement of the circle at a specific gateway on the volte.
- Turn on the Forehand in Motion – Bending against the direction of travel. This exercise works on many levels and when perfected later on, the horse will work in a very fluid outline. It teaches the horse to move away from a light inside leg which is the basis of straightness control, lateral work and precise cornering later on. It also builds the lateral and rotational pelvic control muscles, as well as engaging the abdominals and simultaneously lifting the spine. This can be a really difficult move to start with so only look for one or two correct steps initially. Start the exercise approximately 5m away from a corner of an arena.The idea behind the exercise is that you will ask your horse to perform an arc through the corner of the arena with his hind legs describing a larger circle than his front legs. The horse must step under his body with the inside hind leg and his quarters must move more than his fore end. Flex your horse against the direction of travel. Take your weight in the direction of travel and gently ask for a slight forward/sideways movement with your inside leg. Back up the inside leg aid with a gentle whip aid, if needed, to get the first steps and watch out for evasions such as stepping backwards and falling out on the outside shoulder.
- Turn on the Haunches in Motion – Bending in the direction of travel. This exercise supples the shoulders, develops range of motion in the thoracic sling and encourages the horse to raise his withers. Start the movement 5m after the corner of an arena. The idea behind the exercise is that the horse performs an arc through the corner with his forelegs describing a larger circle than his hind legs. Flex your horse towards the direction of travel. Take your weight in the direction of travel and gently ask for a slight forward/sideways movement with your outside leg. Your outside rein and outside knee can ask the horse’s shoulders to move across. Your outside calf asks for the outside hind leg to step forward and under. Back up the outside leg aid with a gentle whip aid if needed. Watch out for evasions such as stepping backwards, throwing the haunches out or pivoting on the inside hind leg. This movement is not only a great precursor to the half pass and pirouette, it can be used to improve canter transitions.
It is important that great care is taken when introducing these exercises to your horse. Remember to reward the slightest try and appreciate that a “NO” may mean a “I CAN’T”. If you experience any difficulty try the exercise on-line or in-hand first.