Pilates For Your Horse - Exercises to Improve Core Stability

Those of you who have read my previous articles about rider injuries and conditions will know that I’m a strong advocate for core stability training. Having good core stability means having a more balanced and controlled seat in the saddle, making you a more effective and efficient rider.

Core stability principles not only apply to the rider, but are equally important in the horse. In much the same way it makes you a better rider, having good core strength and stability improves your horse’s balance, control and flexibility, leading to improved overall performance. 

Core stability in the horse refers to improving the strength and activation of the muscles that control spinal posture and that stabilise the spine and pelvis. These muscles include the abdominals, sublumbar (attaching from the spine to the hip joint) and epaxial (topline) muscles. 

Another group of muscles in the horse that play an important role in stability are the thoracic sling muscles. Unlike humans, horses don’t have a clavicle (collar bone) so there is no bony attachment from the front limbs to the ribs, sternum and vertebrae. A group of powerful muscles called the thoracic sling provide the only attachment between the leg and the rest of the skeleton. Activation of these muscles creates a lift in the withers and sternum and helps to shift the horse’s weight back onto the hindquarters.  

Here are two exercises you can perform at home to help improve your horse’s core stability. For maximum benefit, always perform these stretches when your horse is warm, ideally after work.

1. STERNAL LIFT

This activates the abdominal and thoracic sling muscles to encourage lift and rounding through the sternum, withers and back. This is a great exercise for horses who have a poor topline or dropped abdomen.

  1. Stand side on the horse, just behind the the forelimb.
  2. Find the sternum by bringing your hands between the front legs. You will feel a ridge right in the middle of the legs in the region of the sternum. Cup your hands, and with your palms facing towards you, use your fingers to apply an upwards pressure into the sternum. If you struggle to perform this exercise using just your hands, try the rounded edge of a hoof pick to help apply increased pressure.
  3. Maintaining this pressure, slowly slide your hands back along the same line, to come to a stop just past the girth line.
  4. The horse should lift initially through the sternum and withers, then as you take the pressure back further, by lifting through the thoracic (saddle region) and thoracolumbar regions of the spine.
  5. Aim to hold for up to 10 seconds, performing 3-5 repetitions.
  photography - christine johnson

photography - christine johnson

Figure 1. Resting position of the withers and back (left); lifting through the withers and thoracolumbar spine by activating the abdominals and thoracic sling muscles (right). You can see that the horse has lifted through the abdominals to round through the back, while at the same time lowering the neck and lengthening through the spine.

2. NOSE BETWEEN FETLOCKS

Deep flexion exercise of the lower neck that also encourages lift and flexion of the withers and thoracolumbar spine.

  1. Stand to the side of the horse at the level of the girth, facing towards the horse’s head. Using a carrot (or your horse’s preferred treat), encourage the horse to lower their head towards the ground and then back towards the fetlocks, passing the carrot forwards between the legs.
  2. Hold for several seconds and repeat 3-5 repetitions.
  3. As your horse improves you can gradually increase the range by taking the carrot further back.
  4. You may want to perform this exercise with your horse’s hindquarters back against a wall or other barrier, to discourage them from stepping back to try and reach the carrot, rather than rounding.
 photography - christine johnson

photography - christine johnson

Figure 2. As the horse lowers to bring the nose between the fetlock, you can see the deep flexion of the lower neck and lifting of the withers and back. Note the contraction of the abdominals in the 2nd picture as the horse reaches further back between the legs.

If your horse is recovering from an injury or illness, please consult your veterinarian before performing any of these exercises. If your horse demonstrates signs of instability or poor balance, such as stumbling or leaning against a wall during the exercises, please cease the exercises immediately and seek veterinary advice. 

Thanks to Smokey and Chrissie from Johnson Equestrian Services for modelling and photographing for this article!