You may have heard your trainer yell out these phrases many times: “Use your core!” “Engage your core!” “Sit deep!” or “Drive into your seat!” In response you may flex your abs a little bit, or try to breathe out to create a bracing effect, but all you end up doing is creating more tension in the saddle and that tension moves up to your shoulders into your arms and ends up in your hands. Your horse responds by pulling, losing the softness in their mouth, and the suppleness in their back. Your lesson ends with your trainer frustrated, and you exhausted and confused. So what does ‘using your core’ really mean and why is it important to a rider?
The muscles commonly labeled as the core are the muscles in the lumbar spine, abdomen, and hips & pelvis, which are found around the front, back, and sides of your trunk. The movements these core muscles allow are flexion, extension, rotation, and side flexion of your spine. What is important about these movements is how they statically and dynamically stabilize your core – or core stability! This stability provides the base from which you effectively control the tension, stability, fluidity, and movement to your hand and leg aids when on your horse.
Is core stability more important than core strength for riders? Yes! The nature of riding requires our hip, pelvis, and low back to move with the movement of our horse. Whether it’s walking, cantering, or moving over fences these muscles all need to coordinate with each other to produce stability, not rigidity. Excessive rigidity through the abdominal & spinal muscles inhibits shock absorption and can create significant back pain – a common injury in equestrian athletes (check out this article on how to stretch after your ride).
There are two components to creating core stability in the saddle – static stabilization and dynamic stabilization. Static stabilizers include the bony anatomy that serves as the attachment site for the dynamic stabilizers (muscles) as well as ligaments and cartilage that help to stabilize the joints of the spine, hip, and pelvis. Your dynamic stabilizers, as mentioned above, are the muscles in the lumbar spine, abdomen, hip, and pelvis.
There are many layers to your core. The larger, more superficial layers are responsible for larger movements (this includes the ‘6-pack’ muscle – the rectus abdominis), with the smaller, deeper layers responsible for stabilizing your spine and its segments (transversus abdominis). Let’s look at some of the specific muscles that make up the core, create stability, and how they affect you in the saddle.
Transversus Abdominis (TA) & Multifidus: These muscles are smaller and deeper, but really act as the powerhouse foundation of our core. The TA essentially acts like a corset creating compression of the abdomen inward and upward when engaged. Together these two muscles stabilize the spine and pelvis, and importantly, anticipate and react to forces exerted on the spine. This ability to anticipate movement provides important feedback to our nervous system to react appropriately. These muscles provide us with the ability to not only change our pressure and balance in the saddle (light seat vs deeper seat; impulsion vs compression), but also create the foundation for the rider to use their leg or hand aids effectively.
Rectus Abdominis (RA): The famous 6-pack muscle! This is large powerful muscle which produces flexion of the trunk and helps to control your posture on the flat, and prevents you from popping up out of your two point position too quickly or getting left behind over fences. Comparatively, the Erector Spinae (ES) muscle group also creates an erect and stable posture by producing extension of the spine. On the flat, the ES primarily act as a stabilizer of the spine and with assistance from the RA and Psoas, helps your spine and pelvis maintain a neutral position. However, over fences these muscles act dynamically to help prevent you losing your balance and falling forward on the neck during the landing. This is a common mistake seen when coming down a bank to fence, or in the middle of a triple combination Thus the coordinated movement between the RA, ES, and psoas keeps you in balance with your horse’s center of gravity which in turn is going to help keep your horse balanced on both take-off and landing, helping to avoid any unlucky rails.
Internal & External Obliques: Think of these as your ‘side abs.’ These muscles not only function to produce flexion and side flexion of the trunk, but they also produce trunk rotation. They act with the other muscles mentioned to provide coordinated movement, and specifically with the Quadratus Lumborum they prevent the rider from ducking to one side over fences, allow quick recovery if jostled out of the saddle, and help maintain balance on your seat bones in the saddle so you can effectively absorb the movement of your horse without collapsing on one side.