As riders it is paramount that we have a good core. We attend classes to strengthen our core to help our stability, balance and to help find a better seat. It is a highly talked about subject in present times and riders are becoming more aware of the need for our core to be strong. However, understanding of what the core is, what it does and what it protects is lacking….and no it is not just our six pack muscles!
The core comprises of a series of muscles which includes all muscles from our chest to mid-thigh, in fact one piece of research states that there are 29 pairs of muscles included in the core! We use the core in nearly every single movement we do. When we are weak, it compromises the strength in our arms and legs. The core muscles can be used to stabilise, help shift weight from one side to the other and initiate movement. In an ideal world the core muscles are symmetrically balanced on either side of the body, however this is not normally the case.
The muscles that attach to our pelvis, predominantly the transverse abdominis (TA) play a big role in pelvic stability. When contracted it anchors the pelvis so other parts of the body can move more efficiently. If you relate this to riding, the TA (along with other muscles) can help fixate your pelvis into the correct position allowing clear leg, hand, and seat position aids. So, all those imprints are not just for nothing!
When looking at our position we often refer to the neutral spine when doing exercises, this is predominately to activate and strengthen the muscles without compromising the lower part of our spine. Muscles such as the erector spinae (seen in the picture) and smaller ones, for example multifidus, and not forgetting the TA, help support the lower back. When you have the support by the muscles around the lower back, you will often find a decrease in back pain if you are suffering from back pain (which is quite high in riders!).
One big muscle group which plays role in core stability is our glutes! There are 3 muscles which make up the glutes and provide stabilisation of the hip and can have an influence on lower back position. When they do not activate properly it can lead to overused, and potentially injury prone hamstrings, lower back pain, and also a decrease in performance. Glute muscles have been seen to atrophy in a chair orientated lifestyle – if you think about it not great if we are sat in our saddles! So, it gives even more importance to counteract the effect if we are at a desk 9-5 and do those bridges!
Now looking a little deeper into the body, we have the Psoas, one of our hip flexors. It originates from our lumbar spine and inserts into our thigh bone. This is more often than not very tight in riders, generally because it is weak and overused. Its major role is to flex the hip. However, it can automatically overwork to stabilise the lower back when sitting and when moving the opposite leg. As you can already see the psoas is used on many occasions when riding. It is therefore key to strengthen it as well as learning to contract the correct muscles, to stop the muscles from being overused.
Looking at it as a whole, all these muscles work together to provide stability, hence the term ‘core stability’. Yet, it is important as a rider to select the correct exercises to help strengthen and develop your core muscles for riding. Not only can it help prevent injury but could ultimately have a massive impact on you and your horse’s performance.