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Amy Skinner on Engaging the Core, Part I

Published: 12/14/2016
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Editor's Note: Amy Skinner is a regular guest columnist and has been a horse gal since age six. She  runs Essence Horsemanship, rides and teaches English and Western. Skinner has studied at the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art in Spain, with Buck Brannaman, Leslie Desmond, Brent Graef, and many others.

Read more about Amy here.

Read more Journals & Journeys here

By Amy Skinner

Many riding students have heard those simple instructions to “engage their core.”  To many, this is a baffling and vague direction.  Throughout my years of taking lessons, I’ve heard it every way from “pretend like you’re growling” which made me stiffen and hold my breath, and “suck your gut in,” which had the same effect.  As an instructor, I’ve struggled to find ways to explain it to my students.  What helped was gaining a real understanding of what the core is, and how to engage it out of the saddle. 
As many riders know, a horse can only rise to the level of its rider, and a rider who lacks an understanding of how to engage her core will find it difficult to help her horse engage its horse core.

When we think about the core in riding, we refer to not just your abdominal muscles, but to your torso from below your belly button to the crown of your head as well as the muscles from the tailbone to the crown of the head.  The core is not just a neat little package of rippling belly muscles, but the muscles that support your spine, ribcage, and neck.  They support good posture when you stand or sit erect, with your head, neck, ribcage, and pelvis aligned. 
I like to think of the core as more of a “tube” that surrounds your torso and keeps it upright. I’m aware of the muscles along the front of my torso, my sides, and back. 
To engage the core, it’s important that the rider maintains a regular breathing pattern and doesn’t try to force or hold anything.  The shoulder blades draw down the back and together. The belly button draws up away from the zipper of your pants and inward toward your spine.  It should feel comfortable, though your muscles are working and should not prevent you from breathing.

Read more about the importance of core strength here.

Check out these core strengthening moves.

Check out our Rider Fitness articles.

If your core is not engaged, you may find yourself slouching, hollowing your lower back, or collapsing your rib cage (caving in the space between your rib cage and pelvis).  Any of these faults can result in the horse traveling heavy on the forehand, dropping a shoulder, or hollowing his back.  Sitting on the horse’s spine, it is essential for the rider to stay symmetrical in their body and to assist the horse in engaging its core by engaging ours. 
When a horse rushes or falls on the forehand for example, the rider can help by lengthening their torso to help the horse rebalance.  When sitting the trot, a centered rider engages their core by allowing her hips to be loose, to follow the motion, and to absorb the concussion and positively affect the quality of the movement. 

For more advanced maneuvers, the rider will find great influence over the horse with their core, where you can help to lift the horse’s back by drawing those muscles below the belt up and in.  This type of engagement not only puts the rider in a better position to shape the horse, but helps keep them in alignment to prevent the horse from bracing and taking the rider with them - thus helping to maintain a “center” of the riding rectangle. 

If you struggle to engage your core while riding, or understand exactly what it means to engage your core, try this: 

  • Practice in front of a mirror standing straight, aligning your pelvis, ribcage, neck, and head. 
  • Keep your knees soft and relaxed. Don’t lock anywhere. 
  • Imagine your tailbone being weighted down toward the ground.
  • Check to make sure your pelvis isn’t tipped either forward or backward - you want your pelvis straight so that your lower back is flat. 

This may be difficult. Don’t force anything. Take it easy. It may take time and some practice, but keep working toward a flat back without strain. 

  • Let your collar bones spread wide while you drop your shoulders away from your ears, so that your neck is longer and your chest is broad and open. 
  • Bring your shoulder blades down your back and together, and lengthen through the neck with your head straight and both ears level. 
  • Imagine pushing through the crown of your head so that you are growing taller, as if someone is pulling you by the hair on the top of your head toward the ceiling. 
  • Check that your shoulders are level, hips are level, and notice any areas of tension.  
The more you practice and maintain this posture in your day-to-day activities, the easier it will be to apply core engagement to your riding. Any tightness or asymmetry gets transferred into the horses we ride, so it’s well worth it to better ourselves. Plus, we’ll feel better!

Read more about the importance of core strength here.

Check out these core strengthening moves.

Check out our Rider Fitness articles.

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4/13/2017 valerie
Good article exactly what I needed

"Here lies the body of my good horse, The General. For years he bore me around the circuit of my practice and all that time he never made a blunder. Would that his master could say the same." - President John Tyler's epitaph for his horse