As part of our Focus on 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 keep them active and enjoying their bodies.”
BestHorsePractices asked Austin why fitness and core strength is so important to riders:
Beth Austin: It has to do with agility, being able to control your movement and communicate through the sit bones so the horse is able to respond.
Our center of gravity is usually about two inches below the navel. That’s the center of communication between you and your horse.
The pelvis must be in a good neutral position. Not slouching and not arching. When you’re using good core strength, you’ll get that beautiful riding posture.
The people I’ve worked with who are serious about riding say their backs feel better afterwards. That’s exciting because we know the deep transversus abdominis muscles are firing and the spine being well supported. Riding can be very therapeutic and it’s a fun way to get those spinal stabilizers turned on.
One of the first things I think of regarding core strength and riding is compression: when a force moves through our body, the core’s role is to support the spine, support neutral alignment, and create stability in space for our axis. All our mechanics – from our feet in the stirrups to our hands on the reins – will fall into place after we have strength of core. Think of the core as the hub of a bicycle wheel. And, of course, all that movement is being communicated to the horse.
When we are working to improve our core strength and posture, it can be like untangling a ball of yarn. It’s hard to undo bad habits and bad form. If bad habits are like super highways in the brain. New, good habits can be like jungle paths.
It’s mindful work.
Another reason why we have trouble is that we 21st century humans have very limited, habitual postures and activities. We sit a lot. That creates imbalances. Our hip flexibility gets compromised. We lose our range and multi-directional intelligence of the hip joint and pelvis from all of our fixed posturing.
Exercises that open up and strengthen posture – like the plank or heel slide – will help create balance. It’s important to work toward neutral alignment. When you walk uphill or up a set of stairs, focus on having a really stable core.
Sit-ups are really bad news. They have us grossly overusing the hip flexors. That leads to compression. None of us need more compression.
Check out more articles in Focus on Fitness.