Core Training Exercise Guidelines

Core training exercises can be done without a warm-up--for example, in horses that are recovering from injury--because the horse controls the amount of motion, and loading of the joints is less than during locomotion. Hilary M. Clayton, BVMS, PhD, MRCVS, Mary Anne McPhail Dressage Chair in Equine Sports Medicine at Michigan State University, says that in athletic horses, however, the optimal time to do core training exercises is after the horse has warmed up or been worked, but prior to cooling out. The horse is untacked except for his halter. You can secure a lead to his halter, if you wish.

Mobilization Exercises
Mobilization exercises round and flex the intervertebral joints. For these exercises you need to position the horse so he's standing balanced and square. In the learning phase position the horse against a wall, back him into a corner, or use a helper to prevent the horse from swinging his haunches away from you. Using bait (a treat), encourage the horse to move his head and neck in a downward or sideways direction. After reaching the desired position, try to hold it for several seconds; you can place your free hand on the horse's head or neck to help maintain the desired position. Repeat each exercise three to five times daily on each side for the lateral bending exercises, allowing the muscles to relax for a few seconds after each attempt.

Lateral Bending Exercise
The following exercise is one of Clayton's favorites for all of her horses. "This lateral stretch exercise recruits many muscles that round and bend the horse's back," she says. "Also, as the horse increases his end range of motion, he'll actually be able to progressively reach further over time as flexibility improves."

Lateral bending exercise:
1. Stand about three feet from the horse's side, facing forward.
2. Encourage the horse to follow the bait around to the side, moving his chin to a position about 2 feet from the side of his hind leg.
3. Encourage the horse to reach as far as possible in a backward and downward direction to maximize lateral bending. Try to avoid twisting of the neck that causes one ear to be lower than the other.

Core Strength
Core strengthening exercises strengthen and stabilize the spine and pelvic muscles as the horse responds to pressure over specific areas. If you have strong hands, you can apply pressure manually; if not, use a metal thimble over your thumb or finger or apply pressure using a blunt tool, such as the rounded end of a hoof pick. Perform three to five repetitions, allowing the muscles to relax for a few seconds after each exercise. "Some horses, especially those that are girthy or cold-backed, may resent certain procedures," warns Clayton. If resentment persists, omit the exercise until you've consulted with your veterinarian.

The following exercise stimulates lifting of the base of the neck, sternum, and withers through pressure on the ventral midline between the forelimbs. These movements are essential for self carriage.

Sternal, withers, and thoracic lifting exercise:
1. Stand facing the horse's side, just behind the elbow.
2. Apply upward pressure to the sternum (breastbone) in the middle of your horse's chest, between the pectoral muscles. Gradually slide your hand back between the forelimbs and behind the girth line while maintaining a steady upward pressure.
3. The horse responds by initially lifting through the sternum and withers. Then as the pressure moves further back, he responds by lifting in the thoracic area immediately behind the withers, and finally in the thoracic area under the saddle.

Note: the amount of pressure needed to stimulate a response will vary between horses, so start gently and increase pressure gradually, or use a slow stroking action until the horse responds.

Balancing Exercises

Balancing exercises improve balance and stability by inducing the horse to use active muscular contractions to shift the center of gravity toward his haunches and/or to resist displacement of his center of gravity. According to Clayton, a horse uses his muscles in some of the balancing exercises to shift his center of gravity, while in others, he uses his muscles to resist a shift. "Many of the balancing techniques used in horses are similar to those performed in Pilates and yoga training in people," Clayton states.
The next exercise stimulates activation of the pelvic stabilizer muscles to maintain the horse's balance.

Tail pull:
1. Stand to one side of the hindquarters.
2. Take hold of the horse's tail, pull it toward you by flexing your elbow. (The goal is not to pull the horse off balance, but to stimulate resistance in the pelvic stabilizer muscles.) You'll see the muscles around the stifle contracting as the horse resists the pulling force.
3. You can gradually increase the amount of force applied to the tail or the number of repetitions as the muscles get stronger.
Remember to check with your veterinarian before including such exercises into your horse's training regimen; this is especially important if the horse is recovering from an injury.

About the Author

Marcia King

Marcia King is an award-winning freelance writer based in Ohio who specializes in equine, canine, and feline veterinary topics. She's schooled in hunt seat, dressage, and Western pleasure.

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