We all know that a good strong core is essential for equestrians but be honest how many of us do anything, beyond riding, to improve our core muscles? We’re all guilty of it but you might be surprised to know that you don’t actually need to spend a lot of time doing exercises though. Studies have shown that if you spend just a few minutes every day for eight weeks not only will your position as a rider be improved but so will your horse’s scope. I know you might think that sounds silly but if you’re sitting better as a rider your horse will be better balanced too and will move much more freely.
Developing your core strength will make you a better rider, it’ll improve your balance and posture in the saddle.
Why is a strong core important?
You might not realize it but your core can act as something of a shock absorber as well as helping you to maintain a symmetrical riding position and keep your balance, even during the toughest of maneuvers. A weak core (or lack of core stability) will result in an unbalanced riding position, which will result in your seat being asymmetrical. This will cause you to move excessively in the saddle which will have a double negative effect of causing you musculoskeletal pain (such as lower back pain and stiffness), it will also unbalance your horse and therefore impede his movements.
A strong core will improve your posture and balance on the saddle, this will result in good body alignment for you and as an added bonus your horse will be happier too.
What are core exercises?
Core exercises are all the rage these days but have you ever stopped to wonder what they really are and why they can help you as a horse rider?
Your core muscles are a group of different muscles that work together to strengthen and stabilize your spine (or your core). The muscles extend from the base of your head to your pelvis but as an equestrian, it’s your lower core muscles (your lower abdominal, side, and deep abdominal muscle groups in particular) that you need to focus on. This is why basic crunches (also known as sit-ups), which focus mainly on your upper abdominal muscles, won’t really work.
Core exercises for equestrians
The principle of core strengthening exercises is to start by learning to contract local muscles. Once you can do this then the next stage is to be able to do this independently from other muscles while your body is in different positions. It might sound like it’s too complicated to do but in practice, it’s much simpler than it sounds and is even easier to do. The most important thing to remember though is to keep breathing! I know that might sound daft but when you’re concentrating on doing something you’re not always thinking about breathing yet the process of breathing will help to strengthen those muscles.
If you don’t have a yoga mat (or camping mat) then I strongly recommend investing in one before you start these exercises, while you don’t need it for all of them it will certainly help to make you more comfortable. You don’t have to invest in an expensive mat, Amazon has a good selection, but the cheapest I’ve found is this one.
You shouldn’t do all of the exercises every day but should aim to do two or three of them at around four times a week. Some of them can be done while you’re waiting for the kettle to boil for your morning coffee.
NOTE: If you have any pre-existing medical conditions you should speak to your doctor before starting any new exercise plan, no matter how mild it is.
9) Engage Your Core
This has to be one of the easiest exercises ever because not only do you not need any special equipment you can do it quickly and easily at any time, regardless of whether you’re watching TV, driving or just relaxing.
Time: 3 minutes (including rest time)
How to do it: Sit comfortably with your back being straight, tighten your stomach muscles. Hold this for 10 seconds, making sure you continue to breathe at the same time. Slowly relax your muscles and repeat 10 to 12 times.
2) Abdominal Hollowing
Along with the exercises to engage your core, this is one of the easiest and will only take a few minutes to do.
Time: 3 minutes (including rest time)
How to do it: Start by lying on the floor with your knees bent at a 90-degree angle and your arms by your side. Gently contract your muscles so that your stomach moves towards your spine, without holding your breath, and keep that position for 5 seconds before slowly relaxing your muscles. You should repeat this 30 times.
Every now and then there’s another internet challenge to see how long you can hold a plank for but beyond these challenges, planks are great for equestrians because, if done properly, you’re utilizing your lower core muscles to keep your balance.
While there are plenty of different variations of this exercise, depending on your level of fitness, for beginners the basic plank is the best.
Level: Moderately easy
Time: 10 seconds to 2 minutes depending on your level
How to do it: Making sure your toes and your elbows are on the floor with your lower arms flat on the ground and your body straight. The idea is to hold this position (without wobbling) by using only your core muscles. When you first begin doing this you should hold it for around ten seconds but, as you get better, you can aim for up to two minutes.
4) Opposite Arm & Leg Raise
Technically this is one of those plank variations but many people don’t class it as a plank exercise. To some extent they’re easier to do than the plank but because you need to repeat them it’s easy to tire.
Level: Moderately easy
Time: 2 to 4 minutes (including rest time)
How to do it: Begin by kneeling on the floor with your legs and hips being level, your hands level with your shoulders and your head looking forward. Keeping your head up and your eyes looking forward, stretch your right arm and left leg (or the other way round if you’d prefer) out in front of you. Holding this position for five to ten seconds will help to engage your core muscles. Repeating this for the opposite side will count as one rep and you should aim to do around ten of these reps.
This will help to improve your core because while you’re stretching your arms and legs your having to use your core to keep your balance and stop you from rocking.
Time: Depending on your speed it can take anything from 2 to 10 minutes
How to do it: Start by lying flat on your stomach with your arms and legs stretched out in front of you as if you’re swimming (or flying) then lift your right arm and left leg off of the ground and bring them together before repeating with the opposite side. This exercise set should be repeated up to 30 times but to start with the aim of doing it 10 times, in terms of speed it’s better to start slowly and then pick up speed as you get better.
6) Bicycle Crunches
I know I said crunches don’t work for equestrians but bicycle crunches are different because, although they do utilise your upper abdominal muscles they also work on your lower and side muscles. Bicycle crunches are so good at working your core but they can be very tiring at first, especially if your core isn’t very strong.
Time: No more than 5 minutes
How to do it: To start with make sure you’re lying flat on the ground (or on your mat) with your hands behind your head and your legs 45-degrees off of the ground. Next, bend your left knee and bring it upwards to your chest, at the same time twist your shoulders so that your right elbow makes contact with your left knee (making sure your left arm is still on the floor).
7) Dead Bug
The dead bug is great for not only improving your core strength but also for reducing lower back pain. Like many core exercises it can help improve your balance and posture but what you might not realize is that it can even help with your coordination.
Time: 1 to 2 minutes (including rest time)
How to do it: Start by lying on your back with your arms and legs (with your knees bent) stretched up at 90 degrees. Next, lower your right arm and extend your left foot until they’re both around 2 inches from the ground, holding it for 2 to 3 seconds, before returning and repeating with the opposite arm and leg. You should repeat this (with both arms and legs) 10 times.
8) Russian Twist
The Russian twist is ideal for strengthening all of your core muscles but especially the ones that matter most to equestrians. As a bonus, it can also help to keep you fit and healthy which can’t be bad!
Time: 90 seconds
How to do it: Unlike most of the previous exercises, you need to sit to do this. Once you’re sitting on the floor stretch your legs out in front of you, with your knees bent, and then lean back. Make sure you’ve engaged your core and hold the position before twisting your torso from side to side. Do this, without moving your legs 12 times, rest then repeat the process again. If you’re feeling brave you can do this with your feet off of the ground but, be warned, it’s much harder!
9) Roll Downs
If you do Pilates you’ll of no doubt of heard of roll downs and will know how much they can help you. As well as strengthening your core muscles and improving your overall posture (both in and out of the saddle) they can also help to relieve tension in the neck and shoulders.
Time: 4 minutes
How to do it: Stand tall with your back flat against a wall then move your feet around 8 inches away from the wall, making sure your back is still against it. Once you’ve done this begin to move your head down so that your chin is level with your chest. Now slowly ‘roll’ your back down and away from the wall and keep going as far as you can without your hips leaving the wall, all the while you’re doing this your arms should be relaxed and feeling as if they’re hanging down. Hold this for between 5 and 10 seconds before slowly rolling yourself back up and resting for a few seconds and repeating 10 to 12 times.
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