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- Activate Your Horse's Core
If you enjoyed dressage rider and trainer Jess Dunn’s last blog on improving poll flexibility, then this one is for you! The horse’s core is a complex area of the anatomy, consisting of the back, spine and ribs. Good flexibility of your horse’s core is key to improving performance but also helping to reduce the risk of injury as well as maintaining general wellbeing. In this blog, Jess shows us two simple exercises that can be effective to help strengthen your horse’s core.
Your horse’s core can become ‘locked’ so learning how to keep this area supple is the foundation of good posture suppleness and agility. Let's get going!
It is very easy when riding alone in an empty arena to become distracted by outside influences, or the horse not being on the bit/resistant/not forward/unreactive. This usually then starts a chain reaction of the rider using as many tools as they know to try to rectify this. I try to explain to my clients that I believe the ribcage accounts for most problems whilst riding. I’ve found that in most instances all the horse requires is a softer ribcage. Without a soft, pliable ribcage, there can’t be a free-flowing line of energy equally down both sides of the horse, thus then resulting in crookedness/fussy contact/uneven feel down the reins as well as lack of forward impulsion.
How to strengthen your horse’s core - ridden exercise:
This is one of the simplest exercises to practice and super effective! If I don’t have time to drag too many poles out or don’t have access to many poles whilst teaching, I have this as my go to. It’s a great way to work your horse’s core muscles and encourage the rider to keep using their legs to achieve/maintain it. To engage a horse’s core the rider has to work hard at maintaining the inside leg to outside rein connection and really focus on its consistency, this exercise is really helpful in achieving this especially if it’s something you struggle with. You will be able to notice the difference too, the picture to the right shows how the horse is trotting with its core disengaged without the aid of the pole.
Position one pole in each corner of the arena at a 45-degree angle across the track. Start off by walking your horse large on the outside track on a longer rein, halfway between medium walk and free walk. The aim is to maintain a good active continuous rhythm both over and in-between the poles. You should find that the more consistent you are able to keep the walk you will be able to meet your pole spot on each time, likewise, the poles will help the horse to engage around the corner and maintain its ‘push’ so, therefore, aids rhythm too.
Once ridden in walk, it’s time to try in working trot. Again, trotting large, no need to try to make it any fancier! Focusing mostly on the consistent rhythm between and over the poles. The important thing to remember in trot is to work hard with your inside leg to really encourage the ribcage to flex into the outside rein, especially when coming through your corners.
The rider must think of ‘nudging’ with the inside leg on the approach to each pole and through the corner.
With the clear use of the inside leg to outside rein through your corner, you should find that the horse starts to become lighter in the contact and less likely to have to chip in an extra stride or be too far away from the pole. The picture to the left shows the horse is now much more engaged and using their core properly.
Once you have mastered this exercise in the trot you can then start to bring in the canter. Although canter is always an easier pace to keep a good rhythm, I tend to see clients not using their legs quite as much in the canter as the trot as they are likely to be worried about achieving too much speed instead of focusing on the lateral flexion. Again, keeping it simple by riding large and focusing on the rhythm but remembering to nudge the inside leg through the corners. One tip here is to count how many strides you can comfortably fit between each pole and then try to keep that the same each time around, harder than it sounds!
The aim of this core exercise:
The rider’s inside leg and inside bend is crucial to this exercise. The pole makes better use of your corners and because you are focusing on impulsion to keep the striding equal between poles, suddenly the rider finds that the half halt and softening within the horse’s body becomes less mechanical. This allows the horse’s core to lift up towards the rider’s seat and promote a softer way of going. Although such a simple exercise it is hard work for the horse, it’s essentially a 20-minute ‘ab blast!’ and is a brilliant way to work on strengthening your horse’s core.
One thing to look out for:
Using the poles in each corner enables the rider to see how easy it is for the horse to try and push against the inside leg through their corners resulting in the weight of the horse transferring into the inside rein and inside hind leg. This would then cause a lack of forward impulsion and ultimately the horse not using its body correctly.
A core strength exercise to try on the ground:
Position your horse against a wall so it can’t swing its bum out and cheat.
Ideally, this exercise is better to be done in the stable, so the horse has less chance of slipping. Using one of your horse’s favourite treats, encourage them to stretch down towards their fetlock and hold the position for a few seconds. If they find that quite easy you can take the stretch slightly further back. Ensuring the neck stretches down and to the side. The horse will have to lift its ribcage and core muscles to be able to stretch down and balance.
So simple yet so effective!
This exercise can be done at any time, I find it most effective before and after riding. Repeat the stretch two or three times on each side and try to hold for ten seconds (if you can keep the attention on the carrot for that long!)
Thanks for reading, Jess xx