I have been working with many horses and riders from many backgrounds
this Summer and one thing I constantly come across is horses and
riders with weak abdominal muscles. The middle of the horse and
rider are weak and underutilized, while the back end of the horse
works hard, the rider’s back muscles work hard and because of
these weakness cycles the front end of the horse gets jammed up.
I see it over and over and it does not have to be that way.
If you are educated in the biomechanics of riding, you will ride
with an aligned body, a pelvis position that is neutral, a body
that can release and contract as necessary for balance, a body
that is flexible and an abdominal core that is strong and supportive.
If you do not ride from this perspective you are acting as a "road
block" to your horse’s movement and not activating the middle
of his body which ultimately means his back.
Owners and riders tell me they wonder why their horse keeps throwing
its head, why they won’t go forward, why they are uncomfortable,
why his or her trot is so hard to sit, why the horse can’t maintain
the canter and why he won't stretch to the bit. There may be a
health-related issue and you should have that looked into. For
example: throwing the head or coming up off the bit often and
erratically could be due to mouth problems, headaches and poll
tension and these issues can be relieved through a professional
equine dental exam. And these issues can and should be looked
at singularly for any conformational or health related problems.
But generally I view the picture of horse and rider as a whole
partnership rather than looking at each issue separately. In most
cases the causes of these issues is the inability of the horse
to move "completely" through his or her entire body because of
a tight rider, a tight saddle, poor postural habits or fixing
issues with equipment and gadgets. This approach is always based
on the "people schedule" instead of the "horse schedule". In order
for everything to function clearly and smoothly both bodies have
to be functioning in a fully healthful way with a strong, stabilizing
core. Here are some common "roadblocks" in the systems blocking
the horse’s ability to be "through" his or her body and into the
bit. By the way, this applies to all disciplines and all breeds.
ROAD BLOCK #1: Tight
In order for the horse to carry a rider with a supple and working
back, the rider must be in neutral pelvis position with an aligned
body sitting and stabilizing through the abdominal core muscles.
And with women, you must open your knees and think wide through
the upper thighs and pelvic bowl, otherwise you are closing your
hip joints and restricting motion, and clamped knees literally
take you up and off the saddle making you vulnerable and unsafe.
This position allows the limbs to free up and work with movement
without being restrictive or limiting. The abdominal core muscles
stabilize the upper body and support the back which allows the
hips, lower back muscles and hamstrings to function independently
without a lot of undue stress. Without a conditioned core your
body feels out of balance to your horse. Your body is constantly
adjusting, re-adjusting and over working postural muscles which
become injured over time. No wonder you are so tired and sore!
The horse does not feel you harmonizing with his movement but
rather working against him like a ball and chain. He will not
want to lift his back, instead he will hollow his back and you
end up with a rough ride and real struggle. Your body becomes
a drag on movement and you have to work extra hard to get lightness
and forward impulsion. Your core is what balances, contains and
re-balances the horse and allows you to function within a dynamic
and changing set of circumstances in the saddle. The core muscles
also stabilize the neutral pelvis which is the foundation of your
weight distribution and your balancing point.
If you are double bouncing at the rising trot, sloppy in the sitting
trot, unable to maintain an independent seat in any movement,
unable to maintain a collected canter or wooden in your position
you are weak in your abdominal muscles. The Pilates Method is
the absolutely best set of exercises I have found to address all
of these issues and maintain your body for riding for a lifetime.
Learn all about Pilates through videos, the web, your local Pilates
studios and the Dynamic Rider System at womenandhorses.com.
The solution: Stretch daily, strengthen your abdominal
core muscles on a regular basis (Pilates is very helpful, see
Dynamic Rider System Insert
1 and 2 on the website), learn how to ride in an aligned position
and be clear in your own body awareness about where neutral pelvis
is for you. Keep those knees open!
ROAD BLOCK #2: Tight Saddle
A horse and rider have to have a well fitted saddle for any of
the partnership systems to operate fully. If the rider or saddle
is tight the horse cannot function through his entire body. Tight
riders and tight saddles shut down the middle of the horse which
then shuts down the hind end and eventually the front end is compromised.
Over time this will lead to a sour attitude in the horse plus
injury and lameness. The horse's behavior will tell you what is
going on and we usually try and fix this with equipment and shipping
the horse off to another trainer. It’s a vicious cycle that you
The solution: Do not compromise on saddle fit! You would never
buy a pair of running or walking sneakers that did not fit. How
do you think the horse can function with a tight or poorly fitted
saddle? It is important for the saddle as it sits on the horse
to be level to the ground in its lowest place in the seat, balanced
front to back and side to side, conducive to the rider's comfort
and movement and pelvic support, and wide enough to allow the
horse's withers to lift and the shoulders to fully come through
without restriction. Consult with me or a saddle fitter in your
area and make sure your horse has a good fit for movement. Visit
for more information on proper saddle fit considerations and their
ROAD BLOCK #3: Restricted movement of head and neck
If your horse has bound up muscles from tie downs, martingales,
draw and side reins and other gadgets, he already has damaged
ligaments, tendons and muscles his neck and shoulders and will
over time become numb in his front end. He might even develop
weakness and tremors because of the shutting down of blood and
energy to his front end. With restrictive equipment the shoulders
cannot come through and extend the front legs, the front feet
become sore because the shoulders cannot lift, the neck becomes
tight and sore because the poll is immobilized and the nuchal
ligament becomes injured and the horse does not want to stretch
and put his head down. Don't blame the horse for not behaving
or "going" the way you want when you inhibit and injure him with
The solution: Do lots of ground work with a snug fitting halter
and soft cotton lines or ropes in the arena, in the round pen
and out in the field at all gaits. This does not mean sending
your horse round and round in mindless circles for a half hour.
Your horse needs thinking exercises using his body and his feet
with purpose. Your horse will learn to carry themselves and stretch
with connection and contact. Peggy
Cummings is a genius at this work and she has several books
on the subject. All the groundwork translates to the saddle and
how the horse connects to the bit.
If you have been using restrictive equipment your horse may need
lots of body work to release all of the bracing you have put in
and give him time to recover. You can give your horse good neck
and head massages, use essential oils as aromatherapy for relaxation
of the head and neck, learn to lead your horse with correct posture
and be supportive of them instead of dragging them around. Let
him or her work free in the round pen and add some trotting and
cantering poles. Through the Connected Ground Work and giving
your horse a chance to always stretch and find their bodies they
will achieve self-carriage and “throughness” completely. How great
would that be!!
The only time I would consider using any of this type of equipment
is on a young horse learning about rein contact. Using a bridle
and a curcingle, attach side reins from the side rings on the
curcingle to the bit and keep them long and loose and let the
horse seek and find the contact. Do not tighten them over time
as this will once again start the cycle of restriction and poor
posture. The Connected groundwork will give him the understanding
about neck and head flexion and bending with correct posture and
**NOTE A horse can be collected and still not be "on the bit".
A horse can be collected and still be "on the forehand" or "in
a false frame"". Check out a fabulous website www.sustainabledressage.net
where this is explained. Just because the horse is collected with
a flexed neck and poll and pushing off with the hocks does not
mean he is in self-carriage or "on the bit". To be in self-carriage
means the horse is totally through from tail to head in his biomechanics
and posture. The wither and shoulders will be even with or slightly
higher than the croup, then the head and neck can telescope out
from a free shoulder, lifted rib cage and back and driving hind
ROAD BLOCK #4: Weakness in hind end
The hind end of the horse is the power generator that moves the
horse ahead, backward and sideways. Weakness in the hind end begins
with shutting down the front end to control or contain the horse,
it has a see-saw affect. In balanced, effective riding we always
need to ask the hocks to connect and work with the horse’s abdominal
core muscles to lift the body. You need to learn to access the
hocks and the abs through your riding aids to be able to ask the
horse to flex in his hindquarters. Many times we simply ask him
to go forward, sometimes gently and other times with spurs and
whips and then we contain the front end with equipment or force.
The back end is not working in this scenario it is simply along
for the ride and the middle of the horse falls out from under
us. The rear end should be pushing ahead or driving forward under
the horse, while the abdominals lift the rib cage which lifts
the back which frees the shoulders. The withers lift up because
the shoulders can function in full range of motion, weight comes
up off the front end and now the neck is free to telescope out
in front of the shoulders and the poll can flex and the jaw relax.
The solution: Strengthening the hind end is best accomplished
with trotting and cantering poles, hill work and galloping work.
Use the poles in your ground work and mounted work. The abdominal
muscles should be visible and obvious when the horse is strong
and using his body correctly. His top line should be even and
smooth and not sunken down in the middle. Even in older horses
if they are working properly they will have a lifted back with
strong abdominal muscles.
ROAD BLOCK #5: Weak Mid-section
It is important in the horse that the abdominal muscles are very
strong as they stabilize, lift and activate. It is only when they
are strong and supportive that the rib cage lifts and the back
comes up to meet our seat. Then the front end is free and lifts
up off the heavy forehand. Once this happens the horse has provided
us with a place to sit comfortably and securely in all of the
movements we do together. I have seen horses that people say have
no trot extensions, but after Connected core development work
they move out beautifully. When they are ridden engaging a strong
core that can support the body, the shoulders free up to move
the legs outward and reaching while the hind legs push through.
When there is no middle development the horse is simply out of
self-carriage, his back is shut down and he is not "on the bit".
These horses simply do the best they can with their front end
and the back end movement and basically pack around their mid-section
with the rider. When you look at these horses naked you can see
they look like they are in sections instead of one long flow of
muscle from head to tail.
The solution: Your horse will need to learn how to accept
oppositional energy throughout his or her body (I will explain
this further in my next newsletter), connect to a line from the
ground or to the reins while mounted, come through from behind
while engaging the abdominal core and lifting up into self-carriage
and thinking and processing his or her work instead of just reacting
out of fear or being drilled over and over mindlessly until he
All of these solutions and more are available to you through trainers
and instructors like myself, Peggy Cummings, Linda Tellington-Jones
and their students. The best information for bringing a horse
into self-carriage and positive posture is out there. Tap into
it and use it for your own benefit whether you are into western
pleasure, hunters, jumpers, dressage, cutting cows or strutting
in parades. It is the way to keep your horse sound and comfortable
and you feeling safe and effective for many, many years. The bonus
is you will win lots of ribbons too!
Dynamic Rider System Insert 2: Fundamentals of the Functional
Core will be available for purchase by September 1. It will
feature a description and introduction of the core and its part
in riding, 4 diagrams of the core muscles layers and a fold out
exercise piece for $13.95 plus shipping and handling. Watch the
website to order.
Honor, respect and enjoy your horse!!