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Core Strength and Stability

Core Strength and Stability: Why it is so important and how to strengthen it

Last weekend I was lucky enough to be indoors at Unicorn Equestrian out of the rain and teaching some lovely horse owners the basics of equine biomechanics and strengthening exercises at a rider biomechanics camp.

This got me thinking about how important core strength is for our ridden horses and how many horses I see are weak in this area.

I see a wide variety of horses from youngsters to horses undergoing injury rehab to competition horses, but the common ground among all of these is often a weak core. If we expect to ride our horses or ask them to work, we have to treat them like an athlete, and the bases of all human strength and conditioning programmes is core strength!

But why is this SO important and what do we do about it?


Why Is Core Strength So Important?

Without core strength, the horse cannot lift through its back, engage its hind end and work into the contact. Simple.

Asking a horse to work without engaging its core leads to a “false” outline, hollowed back and reduced push from behind.

To explain this, picture an archery bow. The wooden part of the bow is equivalent to the horse's spine, and the string represents to core muscles. If you tighten the string, the wooden bow arches and rounds. If you loosen the string, the wooden bow collapses and hollows. This is called the bow and string theory and demonstrates that without an engaged core (tightened string), the spine hollows, but with a strong core the horse can round and work over his back.

Working with a weak core can increase your horse's chance of injury as it places strain on other areas such as the lumbar spine and sacroiliac joints.


How To Test For Core Strength

We can test core strength with a sternal lift exercise. Use your fingers to gently scratch along your horse's midline from the girth line back. Each horse will react in a different spot. You should see your horse arch his back up away from your pressure. If your horse cannot do this or struggles, they may have a weak core.

Lateral tail pull exercises can also highlight a weak core as the horse should be able to counteract the sideways pull and remain balanced. If they are easily pulled off centre, this shows a weak core.

Contact your physio or book an initial assessment session to discuss this further.


Core Strengthening Exercises

Young/ Weak horses

For horses with really weak cores such as young horses or horses coming back into work after time off, start without a rider. Introduce walk poles progressing on to raised walk poles either in hand or on the long lines. In my opinion, raised walk poles are seriously underused and highly beneficial for core strengthening.

Resistance bands are also very useful. I start horses back into work with a lunge roller and tail bandage around their hind limbs to encourage hind limb engagement. I may then progress on and pair it with a soft lunging aid to encourage a low-head carriage that allows the horse to stretch long and low without restrictions. In my opinion, horses with weak cores should not be lunged in a pessoa or similar as they lean into the training aid as they are too weak to hold themselves in this more advanced frame. This is not to say they cannot be helpful in more established horses, but it would not be my starting point.

More advanced/ stronger horses

More advanced ridden horses also benefit from core strengthening exercises and again, pole and hill work would be my starting point. You can also incorporate resistance bands into ridden work with EquiCore systems or similar that allow a band to be clipped onto a costume-made saddle pad to encourage core and hind limb engagement.

For a more in-depth and specifically tailed strengthening programme, contact me to book a physiotherapy session where we can create a plan that targets your horse's weaker areas.

Sternal lift exercises and carrot stretches are great for incorporating into post-exercise stretching regimes. If you are unsure on how to perform these, contact your physio.

For horses in competition work, lateral work as well as grids and bounces are really helpful in keeping your horse strong and also help with hoof-to-brain coordination.


For further information, or to book a physiotherapy session to assess core strength and create a tailored strengthening programme, contact Hannah on 07494505191 or click here to book online

Goldney EquinePhysio

BSc (Hons) Veterinary Physiotherapy

National Association of Veterinary Physiotherapists

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