Preliminary results from research suggest you can strengthen your horse's core muscles to help him be healthier, no matter his job in life.

"One of the things we know from human medical research is that when people get back pain, the deep stabilizer muscles turn off. When the back pain goes away, these muscles don't turn on again. There is a very high recurrence rate of back pain, something like 70-80% in people (Hides, et. al, 2001). But if they go to physical therapy and learn how to turn on these deep stabilizer muscles, then the rates of recurrence of back pain are reduced to about 30%. We suspect the same thing is happening in horses.

"So far our studies have found that when the horses have done core training exercises for a few weeks, they have better posture, they stand better, they're rounder, they're more elevated through the withers, and they perform better, especially in the collected movements."--Hilary M. Clayton, BVMS, PhD, MRCVS, Mary Anne McPhail Dressage Chair in Equine Sports Medicine at Michigan State University

Clayton wants her Arabian horses performing at their best. She competes in dressage (and has earned U.S. Dressage Federation Bronze, Silver, and Gold Medals), is a certified equestrian coach in the United Kingdom and Canada, and has been a member of the Canadian National Coaching Committees for the sports of dressage, jumping, and eventing.

But Clayton also inhabits a world of science and facts. Her day job involves researching equine locomotion, gait analysis, sport horse conditioning, and lameness biomechanics at Michigan State University. Clayton is also a past president of the Association for Equine Sports Medicine, is a member of the International Equine Veterinarians Hall of Fame, and lectures on equine biomechanics and locomotion issues to both academic individuals and horse owners around the world.

So when Clayton pronounces enthusiasm about "core training" for horses, it might be something to keep our eye on.

Stronger Backs

Many riders are familiar with the concept of core training through their personal use of Pilates or yoga. They also might be familiar with similar exercises prescribed by physical therapists treating lower back pain, which Clayton points out have been backed up with research. "In humans the type of physical therapy associated with a reduction in the recurrence of back pain involves core strengthening exercises directed specifically at activating multifidus," she says. The multifidus muscle is responsible for rotating the vertebral column. Patients experiencing acute, first-episode low back pain were surveyed for the study she references in the introductory quote, in which they were medically managed and randomly allocated to either a control group (untreated) or specific exercise group. Low back pain recurrence in the specific exercise group was 30% after one year (84% in the control group had recurrence), and 35% of the specific exercise group experienced recurrence two to three years after treatment (75% in the control group for this period).

The application of equivalent exercises for core training in horses is, however, less familiar. Clayton began using exercises recommended by her colleague Narelle Stubbs (an Australian animal physical therapist) and was delighted with the results.

"I started using the exercises on my own horses when I was working with Dr. Stubbs," Clayton says. "I noticed obvious improvements in my horses' self-carriage and balance that I had not been able to achieve through conventional training."

The results were so good Clayton and Stubbs collaborated on a book and DVD project, demonstrating the various core training exercises that Clayton found helped her own competition horses. These anecdotal results have also fueled her and Stubbs' studies on the subject, which are still largely under way, but are revealing promising results. "There's actually a huge body of literature in this area in people that we are drawing on in planning our research of back pain and rehabilitation in horses."

Core Training 101

Core training exercises differ from other conditioning methods because of the particular muscles being worked. "Core training exercises specifically target the joints and the muscles in the horse's neck and back," explains Clayton. "They increase the flexibility of the joints between the vertebrae and strengthen the horse's muscles, particularly the muscles that hold the horse's back in a rounded position during work."

That's an important area to strengthen because the back naturally tends to hollow whenever weight is put on it. These exercises develop the muscles that will overcome the hollowing tendency, with the goal of holding the back a little bit rounder. "A rounder outline improves performance," reminds Clayton.

Core training also differs in that the exercises are done from the ground. For neck rounding, neck extension, and bending exercises, the handler uses bait (a treat) to encourage stretches and movement. For lifting up of the back, balancing, and hind limb extensions, the handler uses hand pressure to obtain the desired response.

Any rider, regardless of skill level, can utilize the techniques. "They are safe and easy exercises," Clayton states.

There is no need for expensive tack or equipment. The only equipment recommendations are protective gloves and footwear, possibly a finger protector, such as a plastic lid from a coffee can with an "X" cut in the center through which to pass the bait, and optionally a thimble or blunt instrument, such as the cap from a ballpoint pen, to help apply pressure. Exercises should be done in a level enclosed area on a nonslip, preferably soft surface.

All of the exercises are based on natural responses that have beneficial effects. Clayton says many can also be used therapeutically to improve flexibility or strength in a specific area.

Getting Technical

The exercises are divided into three progressively difficult groups:

  1. Mobilization exercises flex and bend the intervertebral joints. "You start with the mobilizations to improve range of motion," Clayton says. "At the same time these exercises activate and strengthen the muscles that are used to move the horse's neck and back."
  2. Core strengthening exercises are a progression from the mobilization exercises that will further strengthen the muscles responsible for posture (stance and carriage) and stabilize the spine and pelvis (particularly in highly collected movements). "The core exercises give you a way to maintain the contraction of the muscles over a longer period," she says. "They are particularly good for horses with a hollow topline or sagging belly."
  3. Balancing exercises improve balance and stability for athletic performance by inducing the horse to control manually induced shifts of his weight. These weight shifts could be side to side or front to back. "It is best to teach the balancing exercises after you've become familiar with how to do the mobilizations and core strengthening," she notes.

In general, start out with mobilization exercises for about a month, then introduce core strengthening exercises for another month. "Then, depending what stage of training the horse is at, maybe add in the balancing exercises," Clayton says. "However, for young horses I might allow up to six months to strengthen the core muscles before starting the balancing exercises."

As a rule of thumb, the horse is ready to progress to the next level when the exercises become easy for him.

Getting Physical

Although core training helps develop strength, balance, flexibility, and reduces the risk of injury, it's particularly useful for 1) preparing young horses for exercise under saddle, 2) furthering performance in equine athletes, and 3) maintaining core strength in horses that are being rested due to injury. Clayton says:

  1. For young horses that haven't been ridden yet, dynamic, non-weight-bearing mobilization exercises activate, strengthen, and condition the muscles of the back and abdomen that will be used to support a rider prior to getting on the horse. "The problem is horses don't naturally have the strength that they need in the back muscles to carry a rider," she says. "By strengthening these muscles before we put the rider on, we're a little bit ahead of the game. The sooner a horse learns to activate these muscles, the better." There is no minimum age for starting the exercises. Some veterinarians note that horses mostly use their abdominal muscles to lift the back to support a rider.
  2. She says preliminary studies suggest that tapping into or reactivating the deep stabilizer muscles can reduce risk of pain, build stronger muscles, and produce a better athletic response. When the horse moves at a gait faster than the walk, it is important to be able to stabilize the back for the transfer of propulsion from the hind limbs. She notes this is the job of the deep stabilizer muscles.
  3. Performance horses that are laid off due to mild lameness, broodmares, and post-surgical colic cases can regain lost muscle tone and core muscle strength.

For horses recovering from mild lameness, Clayton believes core training preserves strength in core muscles and, in general, doesn't stress injuries. However, she recommends avoiding weight-shifting exercises for horses with limb lameness and advises checking with your veterinarian before commencing exercises with injured horses.

For horses recovering from colic surgery, the surgical incision is usually healed enough after about a month that it is safe to start some of these exercises, says Clayton. "Recruiting and strengthening the abdominal muscles would prevent these horses from getting those really saggy bellies afterward. The same thing (is true) with broodmares." Getting the abdominal muscles toned and working also helps stop backs from getting too saggy with old age.

For best results, you should complete exercises when the muscles are warmed up--after the horse has worked, but before cooling out. "Ideally, do the exercises five days a week," she recommends. "If you can only do them two or three days, that's still better than not doing them at all. I spend maybe five minutes per horse per day doing core strengthening exercises. If I had more time, I'd spend more."

Introduce each new exercise gradually, starting with maybe three repetitions, then building it up to five repetitions per day. Allow the muscles to relax for a few seconds between each repetition.

How quickly the horse catches on often depends on how food-motivated the horse is. "The greedy ones learn really fast!" Clayton quips.

"In the beginning they don't understand that they're supposed to keep their feet rooted to the ground and move their head and neck," she notes. "If you have someone help you, it's handy, but if you don't, just stand your horse against the wall or in a corner to take away their ability to move their feet. Pretty soon they get the idea of following the treat."

Expectations

To a certain degree, the scientific data that supports equine core training and defines achievement is still a work in progress. However, Clayton says that measurable changes in neck and back mobility are present within a few weeks.

"We're currently analyzing data from a study we did last summer where we took a group of school horses at the end of the teaching semester and did the mobilization exercises with them five days a week for three months," she says. "We then used our motion analysis system and ultrasound evaluations to look at their range of motion and the thickness or cross- sectional area of some of the important core muscles. It looks like these horses gained significant improvements in range of motion very quickly.

"We haven't analyzed the changes in muscle size from the ultrasound scans yet, but I'd anticipate that the muscle adaptations might take longer to occur than the increases in joint mobility and range of motion." Ultrasound results from the study were expected by summer.

"Our studies include evaluating changes in cross-sectional area of the multifidus and the abdominal muscles," she adds. "We are doing preliminary statistical analysis of the data at the moment, but I think we can indicate that it looks like there is a significant increase in intervertebral range of motion within four weeks after starting to do dynamic mobilization exercises."

Take-Home Message

With the available data, Clayton and colleagues have demonstrated that core training exercises could play an important role in keeping a horse sound and performing at his or her best.

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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