When it comes to fitness, are you an equal partner for your horse?

Amy Skinner

Editor’s Note: Amy Skinner is a regular guest columnist and has been a horse gal since age six. She works with owner/operator Jim Thomas as a trainer at Bar T Horsemanship where she rides and teaches English and Western. She also maintains Essence Horsemanship. Skinner has studied at the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art in Spain, with Buck Brannaman, Leslie Desmond, Brent Graef, and many others.

Skinner attended the Rider Strength & Balance elective conducted by trainer David Stickler at the Best Horse Practices Summit. Stay tuned for the video next month!

Skinner writes:

People tend to get hung up on the horses’ fitness and forget about their own, so it’s a topic I

David Stickler emphasizes core strength and balance

feel like I’m constantly emphasizing to riders as I teach. At the Best Horse Practices Summit in Durango, Colorado, there were many presenters passing along pertinent and interesting information.  Everything from the horse’s feet to his brain was covered. But what stuck with me the most was David Stickler’s Rider Fitness Class.

This class was music to my ears.

Stickler majored in Exercise Science at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, and has taught strength and yoga classes for years. The 33-year old began his early morning class in the Strater Hotel surrounded by exercise balls and a group of twenty eager women in yoga pants.

“Your horse responds and adjusts to every imbalance that you carry,” he said, as he stressed the importance of a balanced and fit rider.  “You as a rider become an extension of your horse’s nervous system.  His proprioception now includes you.”

He encouraged riders to begin an exercise program that promotes functional strength and flexibility.  That means not just doing exercises that tone or lengthen muscles, but working muscles in a functional and healthy way.

“Just being strong or flexible isn’t gonna help if it doesn’t relate to your riding,” said Stickler. Don’t wait until you’re already experiencing stiffness or pain in the saddle, but be proactive by establishing a preventative wellness program to develop longevity in the saddle, he said.

Stickler stressed the importance of maintaining flexibility in the hamstrings, hip flexors, and groin.  These the muscles are the most shortened from riding and keeping them limber will help keep the rider’s seat deep and connected to the horse.  Any tightening raises the rider’s center or gravity and inhibits good communication with the horse.

He walked the class through a series of stretches for the lower back, hip flexors, groin, and hamstrings, including a simple Sun Salutation. He stressed the importance of working and stretching muscles in groups that work together as a more holistic approach to flexibility and strength.

“Muscles that fire together wire together,” said Stickler.

Maintaining a strong core is paramount for a balanced seat.  It helps the rider follow the horse’s movement without getting left behind, and also helps prevent injury. Stickler showed participants how to work their cores and practice finding their balance with exercise balls (which simulated their horses).  Students learned to adjust their center of balance and work their muscle groups to stay balanced without tensing.

“Understand where your center is and your horse can make adjustments without you interfering,” David said.

Horseback, your center of balance is constantly changing. Being able to adjust is paramount.  Squats on the Bosu Ball instead of the ground emphasized functional strength and balance. He also demonstrated jump squats – (squat down, jump up, and land in a squat position) which teach your body to land in precarious spots, lets your hips work to support you, and keeps your joints soft.

When riders are stiff and lacking strength, they may mount in a way that makes the horse uncomfortable, Stickler explained. Rider fitness is essential, he said, to the horse’s health.

“You owe it to your horse to develop strength and stability so you can mount without having to sacrifice his balance and stability and his overall long term health.”

The exercise prescribed for better mounting involved a simple step-up onto a chair, alternating sides. If you want to take it further, David showed students how to step up and add a twist through the core for a more advanced strengthening and balancing challenge.

From strengthening to stretching

After a ride, stretching increases your recovery time.  Tight riders create tight horses.  “Horses respond pressure to pressure.  Where you’re tight, he has to compensate and it creates imbalance in his body,” he said, adding that equine chiropractors sometimes treating animals for issues caused by rider imbalance.

By the end of David’s class, riders walked away with a clear picture of how their fitness and flexibility affects their horse.  They left with specific exercises to develop this functional strength and inspiration to become their best selves for their horses.

Horses Nurture Body and Soul

Editor’s Note:

Dr. Sheryl King is professor emeritus of Southern Illinois University, a Fellow of the Equine Science Society, a Best Horse Practices Summit board member, and lifelong horsewoman. In this guest column, she writes about the range of benefits from working and owning horses.

By Dr. Sheryl King:

“There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man”  Winston Churchill

It seems Churchill had it right in more ways than he imagined. Horses are indeed good for people. Not only do they labor on our behalf, horses stimulate our body and souls.

How does owning a horse make us healthier? Many of us are overweight and don’t get enough exercise. National guidelines call for thirty minutes of moderate aerobic exercise, five days a week. Riding a horse carries the equivalent calorie expenditure as a moderately brisk walk; trotting and galloping can increase that exercise level to the equivalent of jogging or swimming. Add to those pleasant activities, the effort of catching your horse at pasture, grooming, tacking, and hotwalking and you have yourself a workout.

Activity guidelines also include muscle-strengthening exercise on two or more days a week that works all major muscle groups. Horse barns are the equivalent of weight-training gyms! If you care for your horse yourself, you are likely indulging in weight training as well as aerobic exercise. Horses produce about fifty pounds of manure a day, add sodden bedding to the equation and you have a regular mini weightlifting session in the form of stall cleaning.

Lifting, hauling, dumping, raking, and rebedding are good for the horse and good for the heart. A typical five-gallon water bucket weighs about forty pounds – many horse owners schlep a few of those around each day. Add hauling hay bales, grain sacks, hammering, digging, and fixing up after your horse’s mischief, and you have likely met your weekly exercise quota without even counting the muscular rigors of riding.

I once had an argument with my daughter’s grade-school gym teacher: Weekly exercise outside of school time was required as part of the class grade. This teacher refused to consider riding a form of exercise. “The horse does all the work,” she said. “Spoken like someone who has never ridden a horse,” was my reply.

Anyone who has ridden a horse for the first time, or after a long hiatus from the activity can testify to the unique muscles that are (ouch) stimulated by this activity.

Indeed, horseback riding is a well-documented and widely accepted mode of delivering physical therapy. Former US press secretary, James Brady, famously complained about his hippotherapy rehabilitation (he called his physical therapy “physical terrorism”). Horses helped him regain some of his function following the head wound he sustained during the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan.

NARHA (North American Riding for the Handicapped Association) is a global organization that has revolutionized the delivery of physical therapy for children and adults with physical, mental and emotional challenges. Horses are officially rehabbing our military veterans.

Freedom Stables/Harmony Horsemanship in Deerfield, WI . Michael Sears, Journal Sentinel

Horsemen know the profound effect these animals can have on our psyche. We can testify to horses’ stress-reducing effect on us. But horses have also proven their value in reaching humans as no other therapy can. Horse-assisted psychotherapy has succeeded in helping people with profound mental problems, such as autism, eating disorders, PTSD, and anger management. Horses connect with us at a most primal level, and although psychic healing is more difficult to document than physical rehabilitation assisted through horses, it is nonetheless increasingly recognized.

EAGALA – Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association – is an international program devoted to the notion of horses assisting with social, emotional and mental healing. At the equine science program I directed, we hosted a similar program where I had the privilege of witnessing the transformative power of the horse on children with autism, ADHD, victims of unspeakable abuse and those faced with other mental, behavioral and social challenges.

So, the next time you are breaking a sweat at the barn or enjoying a companionable moment with your mount, thank your horse for keeping you healthy – body and soul.

Dorrance Protégés Join Summit Roster

Along with powerful academic and arena presentations, the Best Horse Practices Summit, October 8-10 in Durango, Colorado, will now offer an opportunity to hear from esteemed protégés of Bill and Tom Dorrance. The brothers are widely admired as pioneers of the superior, more mindful horsemanship we see practiced nowadays.

Randy Rieman and Bryan Neubert will join us in Durango for a very special evening, Celebrating the Dorrance Legacy. For Rieman and the Neuberts, it will be a relaxed dinnertime chat at the luxurious Strater Hotel Theater. For us listeners, it will be a night to remember where we can lean in and savor their memories.

Register now.

The BHP Summit is shaping up to be an impressive two-and-a-half days of learning to improve riding and horsemanship. For

Bryan Neubert

a limited time, the Summit organizers are offering a Bring 3, Get in Free!” incentive. When four attendees register and identify each other as part of the incentive, one will be refunded in full.

Rieman and Neubert spent many seasons with the Dorrances and attribute their successes to Bill and Tom’s tutelage.

Neubert and Rieman travel nationally and internationally as clinicians and colt starters. Rieman is also a master storyteller and a regular presenter at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. Kate Neubert focuses on young performance horses and this year competed at the Road to the Horse event in Kentucky.

Amy Skinner, another young and talented horsewoman who will be coming to Durango, was thrilled to hear about the addition of the Dorrance Legacy evening to the program.

“The Dorrances worked on a refined feel that focused on what the horse was about to do, then either confirming or redirecting it.  That makes for a more relaxed horse, which, in turn, fosters a better relationship between the horse and rider.  It’s an approach that benefits riders of all disciplines.

Randy Rieman

“It wasn’t just about horsemanship for these men. It was about a better way of life. For those of us who want to dig a little deeper into our relationships with horses, hearing from Dorrance students will be an unbelievable opportunity.”

Skinner runs Essence Horsemanship and starts colts under Jim Thomas at the Bar T Ranch in Pittsboro, North Carolina.

Dr. Steve Peters, who with Martin Black will present a BHPS session on Evidence-Based Horsemanship, said the Dorrance Legacy addition was a perfect fit for the conference.

“When Martin and I first started working on Evidence-Based Horsemanship, we looked at giving the horse enough time to ensure optimal learning and to its receiving of dopamine reinforcement.  Martin, who also worked with Tom Dorrance, would regale me with stories of Dorrance’s grasp of what we now know to be the neurochemical makeup of the horse.

Kate Neubert

“It seems Tom was a master at dialing up the horse’s arousal or dialing down its anxiety as needed.  Although I never met him, I am convinced that he was truly a great equine behavioral neurologist,” said Peters.

Register now.

2017 presenters include:

  • Wendy Williams, author of the best-selling The Horse: The Epic History of Our Noble Companion, will give the keynote address.
  • Dr. Robert Bowker, former director of the Equine Foot Laboratory at Michigan State University.
  • Dr. Gerd Heuschmann, German veterinarian, rider, and author of the best-selling book, Tug of War: Classical versus Modern Dressage.
  • Dr. Sheryl King is a popular international presenter on equine behavior.
  • Warwick Schiller, NRHA (National Reining Horse Association) Reserve World Champion and represented Australia in reining at the 2010 Alltech World Equestrian Games. He tours internationally and has a popular video subscription.
  • Jim Thomas runs Bar T Horsemanship in Pittsboro, North Carolina. He has started scores of BLM wild horses and competed in multiple Extreme Mustang Makeovers.
  • Dr. Steve Peters and Martin Black of Evidence-Based Horsemanship.

Additional Summit offerings:

  • Fresh, fine dining Strater Hotel meals
  • Meet-and-greet receptions
  • Autograph sessions
  • Trade Show
  • Rider Fitness workout and core fitness elective with David Stickler
  • Post-BHP Summit field trip to visit a wild horse herd in nearby Spring Creek Basin.

The Best Horse Practices Summit is a Colorado 501 (c) (3) non profit corporation with a five member board of directors and nine member steering committee. Its goal is to advance ideas to improve the horse-human connection.

See you in Durango this October!


What?? Yes, Riders are Athletes

Editor’s Note: Ah, to be young and carefree. After a few years of ignoring what might be obvious for some, guest columnist Amy Skinner realized her diet and exercise were instrumental to a successful horsemanship career.

Read more on Rider Fitness here.

Read rider Julie Kenney’s Journey of Fitness here.

She writes:

Horse people are well known for having bad eating habits and long work hours. I’ve been no exception. For years, I skipped breakfast and started riding horses, cleaning stalls, slinging hay, fixing fences, and teaching lessons on a stomach full of nothing but black coffee.

By lunchtime, I’d be starving. But with plenty of horses left to ride and no desire to feel a bunch of food bouncing around in my stomach, I’d eat something small, like a granola bar or half of a sandwich. At day’s end, I’d be famished and sit down to a huge dinner and then go to bed.

I was always tired. And, oddly, no matter how many hundreds of bales of hay I threw or mounds of manure I shoveled, I never got any stronger.  In addition, my back hurt from riding colts and working them through their acrobatics. At night, I’d have to work at stretching out my back.

One day, I realized my job was athletic. That made me an athlete. 

Athletes eat and train for their jobs, otherwise their bodies wouldn’t be able to perform. I decided to treat myself like a athlete:

— I started waking up earlier and making breakfast, eating a midmorning snack, a good lunch, and a lighter dinner.

— I cut out sugar, upped my protein, and lowered my carbs. I added lots of fruits and vegetables.

— During my lunch breaks, I started working out by adding yoga, strength training, or running to my days.

The first two weeks were hard. I was always sore. It was really tempting to quit. The workouts seemed to make riding harder. My legs felt like heavy tree trunks.

But within a month, I felt fantastic. I was stronger and more energetic. My day doesn’t exhaust me anymore and I don’t feel stiff at the end of the day.  My metabolism is much higher and I actually feel like the food I am eating is giving me what I need for my day, not just filling my stomach and making me tired.

In another month, I noticed huge changes in my riding. I have much better awareness of my body. Little issues – unevenness in my body, collapsing a rib cage or shoulder, and slouching shoulders – started going away.  My posture is better because my core is stronger.

I can go with a horse much better when it spooks, spins around, or bucks, because I have much better core stability. That stability and strength mean I rely less on my hands or reins for balance.

The change has made me a more confident rider because I’m less intimidated by sudden movements and goofy antics from young or troubled horses.  I am much less reactive and more able to ride out a buck or squirt or bolt and take my time to deliberate what action should be taken.  My back does not hurt at the end of the day.

Another side effect of my fitness progression is that I have a better understanding of bringing a horse along in its own fitness.  In my own body, areas of stiffness and weakness have only benefited from more attention.  I work harder on weak points instead of favoring what was easy and already strong.  I also made stretching, lengthening, and symmetry a huge priority so that my strength was functional and benefited my lifestyle instead of just looking better.

The same goes for the horse:

— it takes time to build muscle

— it’s important to strengthen weak areas and work on symmetry

When training the horse, we can’t expect immediate change. It should happen slowly over time if we are to build healthy muscle and lasting improvement.

I also got a sense for when to push a little when a horse was resistant, as I would become fatigued in my own workouts but knew progress could be made if I reached a little deeper. I also gained insight on when to back off and give the horse a rest.

Sticking with the change in diet and exercise has been tough, but worthwhile. It’s so easy to get caught up in tasks and dismiss healthy eating. But once I got in the habit of eating better and more often, my tastes changed and I stopped craving what wasn’t good for me.  Yes, my grocery bill is through the roof, but I have all the energy I need to do my job. Getting stronger and more fit has made all the difference.

Riding, after all, is an athletic endeavor.

Sign up for Amy Skinner lessons in Maine, April 29-30.

Best Core Practices

We welcome Kerry O’Brien as a new guest columnist and Rider Fitness contributor.

Read more on Core Fitness here.

O’Brien is a therapist certified by the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork and long-standing member of the American Massage Therapy Association. She blends hands on bodywork with biomechanical re-education. She owned Inspiring Motion, a bodywork and movement studio in Sherman Oaks, California, for a decade and recently moved to Cortez, Colorado with her adopted mustang. Her post here is part of our Special Section on Riding & Lady Bits.

Read more on her mustang advocacy work here.

She writes:

Since the pelvis is our major means of communication with our horse, one can’t underestimate the importance of good pelvic biomechanics, including well-functioning hip and sacro-illiac joints.

Fluid movement and high function are what make an “independent seat.” It’s also what makes for beautiful riding, a horse-and-rider team melded together without any extraneous movement.

There are many overlooked muscles in the pelvic area

Success in this area is not just about that most popular of exercise terms, “core strength.” Nor is it about Kegel exercises (especially considering the fact that Kegels are very often performed incorrectly). Many pelvic floors are actually too tight and most people mistakenly rely on their extrinsic, prime movers (think big, outer muscles) rather than their intrinsic (small, inner) stabilizers.

Tight muscles are weak muscles. And clenching doesn’t help.

What does help:

  • Releasing those too tight muscles.
  • Retraining correct sequencing of the subtle, deep, stabilizing muscles. These are the pelvic floor, deep spinal stabilizers like multifidus and erector spinae, as well as the deep abdominals, transversus.

Other areas of concern for riders are the psoas (a hip flexor and lower back stabilizer) and the adductors, or inner thigh muscles, which are contiguous with the pelvic floor. Generally speaking, tight adductors equal a tight pelvic floor.

So, the rehabilitative goal is first to release, secondly to increase awareness (what we might call neuromuscular intelligence, learning proper sequencing of this whole family of deep stabilizing muscles), and lastly, to strengthen.

There should be no gripping. Gripping is working from the outside in. The proper action comes the inside and if done correctly then riding can actually strengthen the pelvic floor and reduce incontinence.

It’s challenging to teach but it can be accomplished in most cases. Several years ago a study assessed the effectiveness of teaching pelvic floor exercises. Even after instruction from a physical therapist, eighty-five percent of patients did the exercises incorrectly. Considering that most often one is simply given a handout, the odds of correctly activating your innards are pretty slim.

I once had a male cyclist client who was very depressed because in spite of performing his pelvic exercises religiously, he was still incontinent months after prostate surgery. I suggested he return to his physical therapist to check if he was doing them correctly. Sure enough, he had been doing the exact opposite of what was required. Once the PT was able to clarify and correct, he was able to alleviate his incontinence almost immediately.

Good pelvic biomechanics can be learned and trained and best to do it off the horse. But riders can experience the benefits once horseback. I will say that my own years of training and learning to sequence independent movement from the inside out has made me a better as a 60-something rider than I had been decades earlier.

Work smarter, not harder!

What is a Good Seat? Katrin Silva explains

Katrin Silva grew up riding dressage in Germany before moving to the United States at age 19 to learn to ride Western. She’s been riding both disciplines for the last twenty years. Read her article on Contact here.

Silva has competed successfully through fourth level dressage on quarter horses, Morgans, Arabians, Hanoverians, and many other breeds. Based in New Mexico, she enjoys improving horse-rider partnerships and firmly believes that good riding is always good riding, no matter which type of tack a horse is wearing. Check out her blog here.

By Katrin Silva

Good riding is always good riding. No matter what riding discipline, we have much more in common than it appears at first sight. All good riders develop a good seat.

But what is a good seat?

  1. A Good Seat is an independent seat.

We can’t expect our horses to carry themselves until we, their riders, carry ourselves. A good rider is in self-carriage, whether she is a hunter-jumper rider in two-point position or a Western rider sliding to a stop.


If we look at pictures of horses and riders in any discipline, there’s an easy way to figure out whether the rider is in self-carriage: Imagine the horse disappears suddenly, like in a Star Trek episode. Now, look at the rider: What happens when she hits the ground? Does she land on her backside?

During this transition, Julie would fall over backward . . .

Does she fall forward, face-first? Or does she remain standing, with both feet firmly planted on the dirt?

A few strides later, harmony is reestablished. (see second image)

Riders who land standing are in self-carriage. They are less likely to cause pain or discomfort to their horses. They are less likely to struggle for balance, or to hang on to the reins in a desperate attempt to feel secure.


We expect our horses to carry themselves, but we have to fulfill our part of the bargain before asking our partners to do the same.

A rider in self-carriage will have a better chance of staying on when young horses get a little scared or excited.

  1. A good seat is an effective seat

I don’t really like to use the adjective “correct” to describe a good seat. It sounds too much like there is only one ideal way to sit on a horse. But it depends on everything from body type to rider goals. A much more fitting adjective is “effective.”

There are many riders whose position in the saddle mimics what they’ve learned from their well-meaning instructors, yet their seat is anything but effective. Some riders have been told to sit up straight so often that they look like they have swallowed a broomstick. They are often so focused on maintaining their “correct” body position that they forget to breathe.

An effective seat allows for good two-way communication

Others have heard that they need to relax completely and to avoid all tension at all cost. That’s good advice, but without a certain degree of elastic core engagement, these riders resemble spineless creatures carried around like so much dead weight. Either extreme is wrong and ineffective. Only an effective seat allows a rider to communicate with the horse.

Communication is a two-way process. An effective seat allows riders to feel what the horse is doing. It’s soft and following. The rider’s core is engaged but not tense; her core muscles tighten and release in rhythm with the horse’s back, picking up the signals it sends without static interference, and without causing discomfort to the horse. A good seat enables riders to link into a constant feedback loop between horse and rider.

An effective seat allows the rider to influence the horse in a controlled way via leg and rein aids. Ideally, this can happen on a more subtle level via the core muscles. The rider feels what the horse is doing, and requests changes of direction or gait primarily through the seat. Accomplished riders on responsive horses can look like they’re not doing anything. What a beautiful sight, like a couple dancing together.

A good seat keeps you in the saddle when the horse spooks.

There are varieties of a good seat when riders sacrifice this level of subtlety for added stability, comfort (their own or the horse’s), or a specific goal like getting out of the horse’s way when jumping an obstacle.

So, the search for the ideal seat must remain in vain. Trying to conform to someone else’s idea of the perfect position can be counterproductive because it keeps us from focusing on feel and communication. But a more independent, more effective seat is something every good rider spends a lifetime developing.

A Dressage Vote for Pilates

We hear this week from Katrin Kuenstler, a German rider living and teaching in Australia. She weighs in on Rider Fitness and Core Strength. Read more about it here.

Kuenstler writes:

I am a dressage rider, riding instructor and Pilates instructor and can only say from my own experience that taking up Pilates as a core strengthening exercise has made a huge difference in the way my body can cope with the physical stress of riding. I used to get really sore, especially in my lower back and hips, but don’t anymore.

Research has shown that the only activity to get riders in shape for riding is riding. However, I wouldn’t want to miss Pilates as a supporting core building activity.

One of our big goals while schooling our horses is to allow the horse to move in balance and straight, so it can become supple. This requires the rider being secure in his own balance, which will help the horse’s balance and not be negatively influenced by it.

Think of a really great rider who you admire and like to watch. They would never shift when the horse tries to get its own way. They are so strong in their position that they can stay balanced even if the horse tries to pull them out of balance.

Ultimately, the horse will become more balanced itself because the rider maintains her balance. It requires immense body control and core strength for a rider to keep her position stay secure and centered. After all, riding means sitting – and balancing – on an unsteady surface.

I am referring to ‘the core’ as the corsage around our spine and pelvis. It is formed by the very little abdominal and spinal muscles that sit very close to our skeleton and stabilize our bones and joints.

The reason children seem to ride so beautifully and effortlessly is because they are much more active than adults and include core-building exercises – like jumping on a trampoline – in their every day play.

I teach a lot of young riders who are also engaged in other sports, such swimming or gymnastics, which will naturally increase their overall fitness and muscle tone.

Men also often seem to sit more stably and more centered on a horse and I’ve found that men naturally have a much stronger core muscles than women.

Core strengthening exercises do not necessarily have to be static. Riding is dynamic and therefore the strengthening of the core needs to be, too.

A key element is the breathing. In Pilates, every exercise is connected with a breathing pattern and I find the lateral Pilates breathing (in which you breath into the sides of your rip cage) most useful in my riding.

The rider’s pelvis is what connects us to our horse. It absorbs the horse’s movements and passes them onto the spine in way that gives the appearance that the rider is sitting still. In order to relax our gluteus muscles, so our hip joints can open, close, and absorb the movements of the horse and able to protect our spine when it is flexing, extending, and rotating with the horse’s movement, a strong core is the key.

For me, planking is one of the most beneficial exercises to strengthen one’s core – IF it is done correctly and NOT statically, but connected to the breathing and mixed up by movements such as lifting one hand or foot off the floor.

It is my strong believe that by strengthening our core through targeted exercise, we make it easier for ourselves to sit in balance and keep our stability. At the end of the day, that will do our horses a great favor!


Developing the Intelligent, Functional Core

Continuing our conversation on Core Fitness, we spoke with accomplished physical therapist, Beth Austin, of Santa Cruz, California. A runner and dancer, Austin rode often as a girl and has an excellent sense of the horse-rider partnership. The therapist and seminar leader works with a wide range of athletes and patients and says, “I have a passion for helping others learn to move in ways that will

Beth Austin

keep them active and enjoying their bodies.”

Next week, Katrin Kuenstler, rider and Pilates instructor, discusses her perspective.

Read more about core work from:

Beth Watson

Katrin Silva

Amy Skinner

Beth Austin writes:

Core strength needs to be dynamic and intelligent. The muscles must learn how to respond appropriately to the information they receive. This is a very particular kind of muscle intelligence that may involve clearing out some neural patterning that has become habitual but also dysfunctional.

Re-patterning is essential. Think of an orchestra: if all the parts know how to tune their instruments and play the full spectrum of their range, they can play anything well with just a little practice. Now consider the many muscles which involve core strength, if we are stuck in a shortening habit (like each instrument being able to play only one note at one volume or timing) it is very difficult to create a new, more graceful, informed movement patterns until the shortened pattern that limits movement intelligence is untangled and trained out.

Trying to ride without breaking down your ability to stabilize the center of gravity may not cause too many problems if:

  • you are naturally balanced in your body
  • you don’t have tissue restrictions that send asymmetrical patterns through you and to the horse.

However, the more we repeat movement patterns, the more we increase the possible detrimental effects of unbalanced movement patterns and the more we turn them into nervous system freeways that are harder to re-route toward balance.

Check out additional articles on neuroscience:

Straight Dope on Dopamine

Wobble Board of Learning

The way many people are “training” their core support can be very detrimental. Incorrect training, however well-intended, may end up compressing the lumbar spine, hips, and limiting mobility range and the ability to respond to incoming information… creating all

Katrin Silva emphasizes the need for core strength

manner of real problems for their bodies and their effectiveness as riders, athletes, or just humans.

If lengthening control is incorporated into the strength training and if core muscles and hip flexors are trained into long fluid stability, then the results can make all our body’s movements more easeful and enjoyable.

Check out these Core Exercises here.

Unfortunately, some people may effectively lock themselves up in the low back and pelvis and are core “dumb” even though they can plank for minutes.  There is a lot of “bad” core training going on out there where people do sit ups or other exercises that make their center of gravity more rigid.  The same is true with pelvic floor: there is so much intelligence to be developed beyond Kegel contractions. Indeed, there is a world of lengthening and non-symmetrical control that is essential for clear communication through one’s seat in riding.

Read more about core work from Beth Watson and Katrin Silva and Amy Skinner.

Reading a fair amount of physical therapy research, I can say our mainstream measurement tools and perspectives come up very short for measuring some of the essential components of core stability.  Too often, the training leads to static shortening for activity that requires dynamic strength and responsiveness.

Next week, Katrin Kuenstler, rider and Pilates instructor, discusses her perspective.

Core Strength Requires Understanding

Beth Watson is a physiotherapist living in Perth, Australia. Here, she lends yet another excellent point of view to our focus on Rider Fitness, especially core fitness.
Clinician Wendy Murdoch suggested in a recent article that “core strength is counterproductive to good riding.” We disagree.

Watson, owner of Performance Physiotherapy, works with horses and riders. We welcome her as a contributor. Read more Rider Fitness articles here.

Watson writes:

The core, particularly in a rider, is not isolated but one part of your entire body moving in concert: think of the spine as a tower encased in a cushioned barrel. There are back extensors, abdominals, diaphragm, pelvic floor, and glutes forming an airbag cushioning system around the spine.
You want to be able to be able to move your spine in all directions and be able to activate this support network efficiently. Ms. Murdoch mentions the healthy core and posture of a baby – that’s because babies use their cores in a variety of postures throughout the day.  I would love to see adults do this, but most adults spend at least six hours at a desk per day. Adult musculoskeletal life is not at all like a baby.

To add to this, if you have a back injury, your body goes all out of whack; fast and slow twitch muscle fibers decondition at different rates. Instead of providing a beautiful cushioning system, this deconditioning contributes to poor posture and alignment and can cause more pain. If you spend lots of time at a desk, this issue will only be exacerbated.

This is why specific core retraining programs can be useful. Please note that this training is distinct from balance work. Balance

Beth Watson

is equally as important but needs to be addressed specifically.

You do not have to do heaps of repetitions of non-functional exercises in order to improve core strength. Functional training should be the star of your show. It’s all about awareness of your body and what muscles are activating and being able to take that movement memory into lots of situations. Having core strength for us mere mortals isn’t about doing the plank for hours. It’s about moving your spine in a healthy way.

Training equestrian riders to have a strong core is much more complex than prescribing exercise. Mental awareness and visualization of this system and how it works can be as important as the physical strength itself. If the ability to fine tune and accurately activate the muscles in the riders back is not there, it is impossible to tweak your position to go with the horse, and indeed help the horse through its work.

If you are a rider who:

  • already has a strong core
  • spends little time at a desk
  • has no previous injuries

then there may indeed be little benefit to core training. Otherwise, there are excellent benefits in undertaking specific training to optimize activation of your core.

Having good core strength correlates with a healthy spine and good posture. It’s essential for riders to carry out their sport.
For the average rider who may be time-poor, it may be more appropriate to focus on training movement in a way that activates the muscles appropriately as opposed to focusing only on ‘core strength’ training. An example that comes to mind is the plank exercise which may encourage incorrect activation of the core muscles in some cases.

A combination of mental visualization, understanding the core unit, functional training through daily activities, and specific strengthening provides the greatest benefit in the least amount of time. Riders can find ways to train smarter, not harder. Remember core strength is still essential for those who wish to ride and train their horses with success.

Read Amy Skinner’s article on Core Engagement.

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