Before starting any equine exercise regimen, experts recommend that you check with your vet to ensure there’s no physical issue that would make the exercises problematic for your horse.
Once you have the “go ahead” from your vet, remember that frequency is a factor in exercise efficacy. Doing belly lifts and butt tucks several times a day is more effective than just a few times a week. Also, you may get more enthusiasm and better participation from your horse (without the additional calories) if you do the exercises just before each feed and just before giving them turnout or letting them loose in their paddock after a ride or workout. This way you can utilize the natural reward of food or freedom instead of cookies or carrots.
Belly Lift Hints:
Ensure that your horse is standing square before doing any core strength exercise. This is not only because you won’t get much of a lift or tuck if your horse’s legs are splayed out, but also because you want them working their whole core, not just their legs.
When doing belly lifts to strengthen your horse’s central core, be sure to ask your horse to lift the front of their core, strengthening their sternal and withers areas as well. For the sternal lift, you want to move your hands forward as you “scritch” to ask for the lift from the pectoral muscle area, between their front legs. You’ll see your horse lift the area just in front of or at the withers. For the withers lift, move your hands to ask from the mid-girth area. You’ll see your horse lift the area just behind the withers.
Carrot Stretches Targeting Your Horse’s Neck & Frontal Core:
Do each of these stretches on a daily basis. Make sure your horse is standing square and does not tilt their neck during the stretch. Start with a gentler stretch, and gradually build up to a more extreme stretch as your horse builds strength and flexibility. At the height of each stretch, ask your horse to hold the stretch for about ten seconds before releasing. Repeat each of these stretches about five times, letting your horse relax briefly between each stretch.
Chin to chest: This stretch increases the range of motion of the horse’s upper & middle neck and activates the deep flexor muscles of their upper & middle neck.
Standing at your horse’s shoulder, use a carrot as bait to ask your horse to follow the carrot to the center of the chest, towards the breastbone. As your horse becomes stronger and more flexible, raise the carrot higher to increase the neck arch, and thus, the stretch.
Chin between the knees: This stretch increases the range of motion of the middle & lower neck and stimulates the contraction of the deep neck flexors in the mid-neck area.
Standing at your horse’s girth area, pass your hand with the carrot between the horse’s legs, asking them to draw their head between their knees.
Chin between the fetlocks: This stretch increases the range of motion of the lower neck and activates and strengthens the deep flexor muscles of lower neck. Once you have increased the stretch, you’ll see a significant rounding of the horse’s back, as you would in a belly lift.
Standing behind the horse’s elbow, pass your hand with the carrot down between the horse’s fetlocks, drawing your horse’s head down and back between the fetlocks, gradually moving the carrot further back to increase the stretch as your horse becomes more flexible.
Other Core Strength Exercises
Butt Tuck/Lower Back Rounding
Butt Tucks are excellent for encouraging greater hind end engagement and strengthening the core. They can also really help improve your horse’s topline.
There are several ways to get a butt tuck. One method is to stand up close and to the side of your horse’s butt. Start with your hands about three inches out to each side of the base of your horse’s tail and down about five inches. Your hands should be located in the crease between two butt muscles. “Scritch” sideways and down, using firm to heavy pressure and watch your horse’s pelvis for a downward tilt as they tuck their butt under. You may find that using bunched finger tips or knuckles and running them slowly down the crease between the muscles instead of “scritching” works better for you.
In either case, once you get a tuck, gently release, wait a few seconds, then repeat. Doing about five-ten tucks a day is recommended.
Tail pull is a resistance exercise that can help strengthen your horse’s abdominal and thigh muscles. You only need to do this once a day, and making the tail pull part of your daily grooming ritual is an easy way ensure you do the exercise regularly. Standing to one side of your horse’s hind end, grasp your horse’s tail just below the dock, then gently pull slightly to the side, just until you feel your horse contract the muscles to resist your pull. Gently hold for about 10 seconds before slowly releasing the tail. Alternate which side you are pulling from each day.
Backing Up several feet at a time (about 20-30 steps), straight back and at a slow pace, encourages your horse to move their hind legs further under their body, strengthening their hind end and lower back muscles.
Riding Up & Down Hills is also good for strengthening your horse’s core and legs. Riding uphill strengthens the hind end. Riding downhill strengthens the front end. Remember to start with a gentle slope and gradually increase steepness as your horse gets stronger. If you want to further increase the difficulty and have access to different surfaces, loose, sandy soil is more challenging to move over than flat, firm soil.
Open Turnout: Ensuring your horse gets lengthy (4+hours), daily open turnout is an easy way to help maintain your horse’s posture, stance and of course core strength.
Why? For millions of years, as they searched for good grazing and drinkable water, your horse’s ancestors traveled over variable terrain, and were in motion a good part of the day. They climbed hills, moved up and down gullies and washes, walked over rocks and rough ground, and generally had to use their bodies in ways that constantly built and maintained their core strength.
When you give your horse open turnout, unless your turnout is on a golf-course, the natural movement over different surfaces automatically requires your horse to work their core. This makes open turnout a wonderful way to ensure that even if you can’t be there to work with them one-on-one, your horse is still getting the daily core strength workout they need!