Core training for horse riders: I’m on the phone to a prospective client and, with a drip of sweat on my brow…. here it comes, those words that I hear daily, ‘I need to strengthen my core’.
Why does this get me so uptight you may ask? Well, I feel that the obsession with the terminology core in equestrians lead to neglect in other areas of functional training and it stresses me out to be honest. Now, please do not read this thinking I do not believe core training is necessary for riders. I think it is very important.
However, I see riders (and trainers) doing endless sit ups, overworking the global muscles or progressing to (in my opinion) far too advanced exercises that will more likely end up reducing core strength and increasing injury occurrence.
Your core is the transfer of power during movement, and is very important for any athletic event. Seeing that equestrian is an Olympic sport, I am not going to argue here with the naysayers that riders are not athletes. They are.
The core is made up of a complex layering of internal and external muscular structuring and allow for lumbopelvic (= back connects to hips) stability and flexibility. Essentially, a stronger core will allow for improved skill execution and decrease rate of injury.
The ‘inside’ layering of muscles are referred to as local stabilising muscles, you cannot really palpate (feel) them, they are your postural musculature and have function for endurance purposes. These muscles anticipate when you are going to move and prepare your spine to absorb or transfer the impact. You can maintain your centre of gravity and not lose your balance because these muscles act before you have to react.
The external layering of muscles are called your global mobilisers. These you can feel contract and relax, such as your abdominals and back extensors. These mobilises allow for you to perform actions, or in a riders case, perhaps resist actions and overt movement!
It’s not just left here though, there are other muscles that help with stabilising the core such as the hip muscles that attach the spine to the hip bone (pelvis). With all movement, both upper and lower, your body uses a lumbopelvic rhythm to perform the exercise. This is why it is essential (in my opinion) for equestrians to develop a strong hip hinge mechanism and include posterior chain activation movements such as deadlifts or deadlift variations. When you ride perhaps your pelvis rotates and hinders the application of your aid to the horse. With strong lumbopelvic stability you transfer power from your seat to move your arms or legs without wasting energy, or ending up wonky.
Core stability and strength has become a sexy buzz word for equestrians to leach onto and us rider fitness practitioners love it because we know how to hook you. Rider fitness is so much more that just ab work but for the sake of this blog I wanted to focus on core training which is an all purpose label for any aspect of lumbopelvic stability.
During movement, the spine experiences compression (during riding the spine sees a lot of this) and tearing forces (which essentially as a rider we resist as much as possible!), the lumbopelvic muscles help to keep the spine centred to resist these outside forces. It is important to train both the stabilisers and globilisers within your equestrian off horse training. By doing this you increase the lower backs ability to handle unexpected movements, whilst restoring and increasing strength and endurance of the muscles to prevent onset of injury.
Approaches to Core Training for Horse Riders
Low impact training to develop control of the stabiliser muscles, these exercises require conscious breath to teach the muscles to remain active during all movements, pilates style movements may be an appropriate example here.
Training the core during dynamic movement teaches the body balance and proprioception required for lumbopelvic stability. Here we can train the body to cope with rotational movements, larger perturbations and transfer of power between limbs and trunk. Dynamic core training activates your muscles and may allow you progress to work on unstable surfaces.
Think outside the box though, single leg exercises are excellent training mechanisms for lumbopelvic stability. This type of movement trains the body to use the core when one side of the body is activated more so than another, think flying changes, lateral movements etc. That said, any increase is twisting potential, such as instability exercises and single leg work should be positioned into a training plan once a rider has a strong enough core. Too much too soon will increase likelihood of injury.
Injuries can develop when a rider has lumbopelvic instability and where movement patterns are ineffective. This can then affect the entire body (because our body moves as a kinetic chain) and muscles which are try to compensate for loss of function in other areas, some areas will become too tight and others too weak.
Lumbopelvic and lower body flexibility work can improve core function in riders. Riders often experience lower back pain because hips are tight and inflexible and the spine must do all the work. When tight, hip musculature cannot assist with lower body rotation thus the spine will take over, causing movement patterns that are not great for keeping injuries at bay.
Typically riders will also have tight glutes and hamstrings, which is a common trait in all athletes with lumopelvic instability. Other things to look for are tightness in the gluteal and hamstring muscles which is also common in athletes with lumbopelvic instability. A regular foam roll, massage, stretching regime focussed on releasing the hips, glutes and hamstrings will help long term with functional core strength.
So my advice would be to approach your core training holistically, focussing on the three main areas highlighted above, not forgetting one aspect in favour of another and you should see improvements in core integrity and strength.