The Equestrian “Core”- How to Level Up Your Seat
“Core” strength is an extremely hot topic in the fitness and exercise world and for good reason. Core strength can be extremely important for developing athleticism, increasing performance and keeping your joints healthy and happy.
However, most people think of the core muscles as being your abdominal muscle, especially the ones that gives someone “6-pack abs”.
Many people try to develop their core muscles by doing endless crunches, russian twists and planks. Not to say that these aren’t good exercises, but they primarily develop superficial abdominal muscles and neglects training the core muscles in a functional way, especially for riders.
The “core” encompasses a complex system of muscle groups which contribute to “lumbopelvic stability” meaning the stability and control of the lower back and the pelvis. Good core control is the base of the pyramid for good quality extremity movement. They provide our extremities a stable base to move from to allow efficient transfer of energy from the trunk to the lower extremities.
These muscle systems include:
Deep stabilizers are a group of muscles that act like a corset. They act to stabilize the spine in anticipation of movement.
Global mobilizers are the muscles that allow for movement, or in the case of equestrians, resist external forces put on the trunk.
Pelvic stabilizers control and stabilize movement at the hip joint and help transfer movement from the trunk to the lower extremities.
Now…. Why is this important for riders?
Equestrians are constantly either allowing for movement or resisting forces generated by their horse. Without adequate strength and control of the “core” muscles we would be unable to maintain a strong and stable seat. Furthermore, if we cannot maintain a strong and stable seat, we would be unable to effectively develop independence of our aids as our arms and legs do not have a stable base to move off of. For these reasons, they can help a rider deliver aids effectively, without losing our balance in the saddle. They also prevent excessive movement and therefore have a role in injury prevention.
Inadequate core strength and control can contribute to common equitation problems including:
Being pulled forward or unable to keep the horse off the forehand
Difficulty maintaining leg position
Difficulty balancing the horse around a corner
Difficulty developing soft and allowing hands
Lower back, hip and SI joint pain when riding
So needless to say, training these muscle groups can help a rider develop a more independent seat, deliver aids effectively, maintain balance after unexpected movements (bucking, spooking, tripping), improve postural endurance and reduce risk of injury.
Here are some things you can try to help build a strong functional core to level up your riding.
For many sports like weight lifting, people are trained to brace through their abdominal muscles to stiffen the trunk and spinal column. For riders, this would not be very effective as stiffening the core would not allow us to absorb our horse’s movement. Therefore, we must focus on developing coordination and control over brute strength.
You can start by learning how to contract your deepest core muscle, the Transverse abdominis (TA). This muscle wraps around the trunk like a corset and is important in the coordination of breathing, pelvic floor control and stabilizing the spine.
1. To do this, start by lying on the ground with your knees slightly bent and place your fingers gently on your abdomen slightly inward from your pelvis.
2. Don’t hold your breath!! Think about pulling your belly button inward as if someone were to poke you in the stomach. If you are contracting the TA you should feel a slight contracting under your fingers.
3. Try this in this position until you can maintain 10 reps of 10 sec holds *while breathing!!!*
4. Once you have adequate endurance and voluntary control of this muscle, you can start practicing this in a seated position which will result in more challenge. Try it sitting on a stability ball or in the saddle on a saddle stand.
5. Once this have become second nature you can start trying this while sitting on your horse. Initially you might want to start riding on the lunge line, so you can feel the muscle contracting. Start at the walk and see if you can voluntarily contract the muscle.
6. Once you get good at this, try and voluntarily contract the muscle when resisting external movement such as in the halt or half-halt.
7. Finally you can try this in the trot and canter when balancing your horse around corners. The more you practice this, the more automatic it will become.
If you are having problems maintain a strong seat or you just want to improve your endurance, these are the exercises to try! However, if you feel like you are having trouble contracting the muscle, difficulty maintain your position or are still having pain while riding, please come in for an assessment. We would love to get down to the root cause of any issues in the tack and help you level up your riding!
Written by: Erin Swinton, PT Intern