Two Ways to Work Your Horse’s Core without Even Moving His Feet

In this excerpt from her book Pilates for Horses, eventer and Pilates instructor Laura Reiman teaches us two great (and simple!) exercises to strengthen your horse’s core and thoracic sling, and increase his ability to take weight on his hind end.

Photo by Erin Gilmore Photography.

Has your horse tried Pilates yet? Pilates is an empowering method that all people can use for their own health and wellness, and to help strengthen their horse’s mind and body as well. As a Pilates teacher, I often hear concerns that someone isn’t flexible, or strong, or balanced enough to try Pilates. The reality is that this methodology can work for every body—all you have to do is have the courage to start.

My Pilates for Horses program can be useful for you whether you’re a beginner or a professional, and whether you use a handful of exercises or all of them. Whatever your horse’s current need, there is a modification to help better serve you. If you remember why you are doing each exercise, not just how to do it, you will be able to easily adjust or switch to a different exercise that hits the same muscle group in a different way, based on how your horse is feeling that day. Keep in mind the principles of Pilates as you work and ride:

– Control
– Center
– Concentration
– Precision
– Breath
– Flow
– Awareness
– Balance
– Efficiency
– Alignment
– Coordination
– Stamina
– Lengthening
– Harmony

Strive to find these principles in both yourself and your horse. Make goals and celebrate small milestones. Be safe, and have patience. Consult a vet when appropriate and find a trainer who is willing to work at your pace, setting a thoughtful and progressive training schedule for your horse. No matter your discipline, Pilates-inspired exercises can be utilized in some way to create a stronger, more mobile, and balanced horse. Above all, have fun!

Exercise: Nose Forward Reach

Also considered an incentive stretch, this exercise emphasizes core engagement by asking your horse to shift his weight forward toward a treat, without moving his feet.

– Activates the thoracic sling including the serratus ventralis, pectorals, and subclavius as well as hip/pelvis stabilizers including the gluteals, sacrocaudalis dorsalis, tensor fasciae latae, quadriceps, bicep femoris, adductors, and sartorius.
– Stretches the rectus capitis dorsalis and lateralis, multifidus cervicis, rhomboids, splenius, and trapezius.
– Increases balance and stability.
– Improves self-carriage.

1. Stand in front of your horse and hold one hand gently against his chest to stop any forward steps.
2. Offer a treat right in front of his nose to get his attention.
3. Slowly move the treat in a straight line away from the horse, enticing him to shift his weight forward toward the treat without taking a step.
4. When using a clicker, activate it 3–4 feet in front of the horse’s nose.
5. Make sure your horse’s neck is straight with no tilt and the nose is pointing forward toward the incentive.
6. Hold for 10 seconds to start, working up to 30 seconds over the course of several weeks.
7. Repeat 2–4 times.

Every day, before or after work. Hold for 10–30 seconds and repeat 2–4 times.

Tips and Common Issues and Precautions
– The goal is for your horse to shift his weight forward without actually stepping forward, but watch your feet. Your horse will most likely take a few steps before you figure out how far you can move the incentive away or how much pressure you need to keep on the chest.
– Use a treat that you can wrap your hand around so the horse can smell but not eat it immediately, and will hold his forward stretch.
– Allow your horse to be in control of the stretch—do not pull him into position or hold his nose down.

Photo by Roberta Reiman.

Exercise: Weight Shift Back

Ask your horse to shift his weight and/or rock backward without stepping back.

– Contracts the thoracic sling, multifidus, and muscles surrounding the stifle.
– Teaches your horse to load and engage the hind end.

1. Apply gentle pressure to your horse’s lead rope or chest, asking him to shift his weight backward without moving his feet.
2. Release pressure quickly so your horse doesn’t step back. The quick release is essential to keep your horse from actually stepping back.

Every day, before or after work. Repeat 2–4 times.

Tips and Common Issues and Precautions
– If your horse refuses to shift his weight, try lifting and holding a front leg for 10 seconds to release some of the weight on the forehand before replacing the foot and trying the exercise again.
– Placing stability pads under the front legs can also help release weight and tension in the front, activating the stabilizer muscles so they are easier to recruit. Try placing a pad under one or both front feet for 15–20 seconds before removing them and trying the exercise again.
– For increased difficulty, lift one of your horse’s front legs and hold it up while asking for the weight shift.

This excerpt from Pilates for Horses by Laura Reiman is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books (