Core strength is a term riders often refer to when talking about their fitness program. It’s critical for being strong, having good posture on a horse, and transferring forces through your body.
Core strength is just as important in horses. Like in humans, core strength acts to increase intra-abdominal pressure, protect the internal organs, support the spine, and allow forces to be effectively transferred through the body. In this blog post, I want to give you an overview of the equine core. It’s one of the most important things for a rider to understand, since it’s the center of power production.
What is the core and what does it do?
“The Core” are muscles responsible for stiffening the trunk to allow for force transmission. We typically think of these as abdominal muscles, which is true. However, other muscles from the neck and hindquarters work with abdominal muscles to provide stability as needed. What constitutes core muscles changes based on the demands of the activity, but in this blog I’m primarily going to focus on the abdominal and back muscles involved.
Have you ever seen a horse carrying a rider for the first time? Often their back sinks under the weight of the rider. This is a great example of those muscles not engaging to in a timely manner. Training and repetition helps the horse learn how to prepare his/her body for the task at hand.
In my equine physiotherapy practice, I often see horses with poor core engagement (the same as my human practice, LOL!). Did the weak core lead to muscle pain and injury? Or did injury result in poor core activation? Often it’s hard to tell which came first, but the core strength issue must be corrected for long term soundness and performance.
Core muscles function to create an abdominal pressure chamber which supports the back from above and below the spine. I love this illustration from Physical Therapy and Massage for the Horse, by J.M. Denoix and J.P. Pailloux. You can see by all the arrows, going all different directions, that the muscles are working together to provide support
Muscles contract under and above the spine to create a system of “stays to support the intervertebral joints. Then the abdominal muscles contract to counteract the forces the back muscles create, to effectively lift up the viscera and create an abdominal pressure chamber. What’s amazing is that this all happens in synchrony, resulting in an appropriately stiff spine, which is necessary to provide a stable base for the neck, shoulder, and hindquarter muscles to pull from. Often we think of stiffness as being a bad thing, but when it comes to the trunk, horses need some stiffness to move well. Core muscles provide this stability.
Muscles involved include the rectus abdominis, transversus abdominis, internal obliques, external obliques, iliopsoas, psoas minor, multifidus, longissimus, and iliocostalis.
A full discussion of the core would also include the thoracic sling, neck, and hindquarter muscles that provide support, but I’ll save that for another post.
How can you strengthen your horse’s core?
To strengthen a muscle, first you must understand the action that muscle performs.
Abdominal muscles (rectus abdominis, transversus abdominis, internal obliques, external obliques) are recruited to round and laterally flex the back. Examples of exercises to recruit these muscles include carrot stretches between the fetlocks and lateral flexion.
Sublumbar muscles (iliopsoas, psoas minor) help stabilize the lumbar spine and flex the hip, to bring the hindlegs under the body. A great exercise for these muscles is walking over cavaletti, both on the ground and raised to various heights.
Spinal stabilizer muscles (multifidus, longissimus, and iliocostalis) run above the intervertebral joints and act to stabilize and extend the spine. Great exercises to strengthen these muscles include lateral tail pulls. The horse must engage these muscles to resist being pulled off balance. Apply consistent traction to the side and hold for 6-10 seconds. Repeat three times each direction.
There are many more ways to improve your horse’s core strength and spinal stability, both through groundwork and riding exercises. I hope this information was useful to help you understand what is mean by “core strength” and which muscles are involved.
Want to learn more?
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