Your core muscles play a big part in your riding and training ability. Yet, for many people, the core is largely misunderstood or neglected altogether.
In this article, we explain why your core is so vital and how you can improve it.
What is your “core?”
If you remove your arms, legs, and head, the middle part that you’re left with is your core, also known as your trunk.
Most people assume that their core consists only of their stomach muscles when in actual fact, it relates to every muscle that attaches to your pelvis and every muscle that stabilizes your spine, both on the front and back of your body.
What’s so important about your core in dressage riding?
Every movement of the horse is received by the rider’s pelvis, therefore, having a strong and supple core is very beneficial, especially to dressage riders.
- Your core helps to create a soft seat that can easily follow the horse’s movement.
- A strong core supports your posture, keeping you centered in the saddle and in a stable position. This prevents you from collapsing to one side or sitting off-center.
- You will be able to sit in balance comfortably without having to strain and you will have total control over your shifting weight aids.
- A good core is necessary for an independent seat which leads to improved coordination of the aids and clearer communication with the horse.
- Your seat aids and half-halts will be more effective if you have a strong and stable core.
How to build core strength
Unfortunately, you won’t be able to develop a strong and effective core by riding alone. Exercises off-horse are needed to develop the necessary strength and flexibility.
Yoga, Pilates, and swimming are excellent forms of exercise that can help to improve core strength.
It’s very easy for riders to forget about their own fitness, but time spent exercising on the ground will improve the quality of time spent in the saddle.
First things first…
Historical injuries often cause riders to overcompensate by using other less painful or restricted muscle groups. That can cause you to sit crookedly in the saddle or twist your body, which has a negative effect on your horse, as he tries to compensate for your weaknesses.
So, your first step in training your core is to see a physio or chiropractor to sort out any physical problems that you have.
When looking to improve core strength most people focus solely on the abdominal muscles and start crunching! However, without the stronger lower back muscles, this will result in very little improvement.
So, you need to start your core training by improving the strength and flexibility of the lower back. If these muscles are weak, the rest of the core cannot be stabilized.
The glutes and hamstrings should also not be forgotten since these are important for the hips and pelvis to function.
As you can see, there’s more to core training than trying to get a six-pack! The best thing to do is to take a holistic approach and focus on balancing and stabilizing the body as a whole. As mentioned, Yoga, Pilates, and swimming are excellent for this.
Your breathing is crucial to developing core strength.
If you can learn to control your breathing, you’ll have finer control over your posture and core.
(Note: Breathing is also an important element to Yoga, Pilates, and swimming.)
Breathing correctly is also an extremely useful way of calming anxiety or competition nerves. Often, if you’re nervous or worried, your body will tighten and stiffen against the horse, with the result that you won’t be able to use your core properly.
Meditation is also an excellent tool for controlling your breathing and helping you to conquer your nerves, so check out one of the many meditation YouTube videos. They’re free to use and can be very helpful.
How to use your core when riding
When riders are told to “engage their core” they often stiffen their hips and upper body. This results in an ineffective and insecure seat that is unable to follow the horse’s movement.
Your core is there to stabilize your position whilst keeping you in balance and moving with the horse, and this should be done almost unconsciously.
When you walk from one side of a room to another, your core is helping to keep you upright and balanced, but you don’t have to think about this, you merely walk. The same principle should eventually apply to your riding.
To help you get to this level of unconscious competence, riding on the lunge without stirrups (alongside your off-horse chosen exercise/s) is a great way to help you learn how to engage your core correctly, to sit in balance without strain, and follow the horse’s movement, all at the same time.
Once you can follow your horse’s movement passively, you can then start to use your core and seat;
- as a stopping aid,
- to dictate the horse’s length of stride,
- to improve the horse’s engagement and balance,
- to prepare the horse for movements and transitions,
- and to improve the overall expression and cadence of the paces.
A strong core is essential for good dressage riding. Core strength enables you to have an independent seat, makes your half-halts more effective, keeps you secure and strong in the saddle without stiffening, and allows you to follow your horse’s movement with ease.
Remember that your “core” encompasses much more than six-pack abs.
To see the greatest improvement, try to include Yoga, Pilates, and/or swimming into your regular health and fitness routine.