Athletic Therapy, Biomechanics, Chronic Pain, Equestrian, Motor Learning, Posture, Uncategorized

Fix It Friday’s: How Stable Are You? 

No, I’m not talking about how much time you spend in the barn, or how you handle stress…. I’m strictly asking about your physical stability. 

There’s a few tests I do for this when assessing a new client, one of which I’m going to share with you today. I truly believe that education is the key to getting every client and athlete to their next level, whatever their goals may be. So sit tight, and get ready to test your core ability in a few simple steps! 

I write lots about the core. The core is basically the area between the base of your skull/and chin to your hips. Common misconception is that it’s your abdominals, but it is so much more! 

The core is important for everything we do. In various athletic endeavours it does one of two main jobs- either stabilizes our trunk so our limbs can move in the most efficient manner and we can balance appropriately (riders, this is you), or it can be used to create power through torque and momentum (think a kicker, pitcher, sprinter, etc). I won’t get too much into the physics of this, but the basics is it helps centre us, allows for the best possible movement, and/or transmits force through the body for power. It literally plays a part in everything we do, and if it’s not used correctly you start to see breakdowns elsewhere or within the core area itself (back pain, hip dysfunction (leading to knee pain), shoulder pain and neck pain). 

I haven’t done the math, but if I could take a guess I would say about 80%-90% of the people I see have some level core dysfunction. That aligns pretty well with the infamous stay that 88% of equestrians have low back pain. It’s all starting to make sense, isn’t it? 

So… How do you know if you need to get better at your core? Well I’ll show you. All you need is a mirror, or an observer. 

We’re going to use one of my favourite exercises as a movement screen (which it actually is..surprise!). 

The Bird-Dog is an excellent way to assess your core body when it comes to stabilization. 

Starting on all fours, with a mirror at your side or your trusted observer watching you, lift and extend OPPOSITE limbs as shown above. Make sure your back is straight and knees are directly under hips with hands under shoulders. Try to form 90deg angles with the ground! 

Here’s what you’re looking for: 

– any unevenness or lift in the hips. 

– any shift in weight bearing forwards or backwards or sideways- or if you try to move your back stance knee inwards (that’s cheating!). 

– any sag in the low back or arch in the upper back. 

– any unbalance, increased shakiness, or falling over (yes it happens!). 

As a clinician I score this movement out of 3. To get a 3/3 technically you should be able to lift and extend SAME SIDE arm and leg, with no deviations in posture. I have yet to find a perfect score. The opposite version shown above is technically an alternate test. So a perfect score here means you have no deviations in stability or form, with no pain. Any PAIN in this test auto drops you to a 0-1/3. Anything less then a perfect score means you have work to do. And believe me, even the fittest and brightest athletes often get surprised with this. Fitness level does not necessarily mean you move well! 

What did you see? Let me know in the comments or email me at 

Interested in building that core ability? Check out these posts on my favourite core exercises: 

Core Concepts

Proper Activation You’re Doing It Wrong

Stay tuned for more Fix It Fridays! 


From the Top Down: Upper Body Stability for the Rider

Many riders struggle with poor shoulder posture; often this is from both habit and from muscle weaknesses/amnesia in the upper back. If you find that you tend to use movements at the elbow to pull back or have trouble balancing during transitions (and as a result tend to pull on the horse’s mouth instead) instead of using steady resistance (as discussed in Aspire Equestrian’s article here) and slight hand/finger motion to accomplish a smoother (in look and feel) transition– you are likely not activating the lats the way you should. Similarily, if you experience trouble maintaining a strong shoulder and upper back posture, and/or experience pain in between the shoulders, neck, and upper back.. you likely have forgotten how to use the rhomboids, traps, and lats properly.

Don’t fret! It’s a common problem with a simple fix for anyone willing to work at it!


The latissimus dorsi runs from the front of the shoulder, down to the pelvis. It’s textbook function is to help with shoulder movement with their composite action being a pull-up, or a front crawl type movement at the shoulder. They also stabilise through the back. For the purposes of the riding athlete, the lats are stabilizer of both the shoulder and the back. We don’t require big movements at our shoulder or arms, but what we do require is a stable shoulder girdle and spine to create resistance and allow movement of our elbows, hands, hips, and ankles.

Another important part for the riders upper body is the stabilisers between the shoulder blades. The rhomboids run between the interior border of the scapula or shoulder blade to the spine and function to pull the shoulder blades back towards one another and stabilize the upper back. The trapezius is a diamond shaped muscle running through the neck, shoulder, and upper back and has many movements on the shoulder blades and spine- but again, for us it aids in keeping us stable and upright in the tack. As riders we want everything from the top of our rib cage (this starts at the base of the neck) down to our pelvis to be one stable unit, while our hip joints and elbows allow for fluidity and functionality at the hands and lower legs. To do this we both need a stable core and a stable upper back/shoulder area.

The first step is teaching you how to properly establish a connection and feeling for these muscles on the ground. If you need a reminder for how your shoulders should be sitting in a proper posture, simply have your hands at your side and rotate so your thumbs are facing outwards. Feel how that immediately puts you into a more open, tall posture at the shoulder?

Now, let’s start with those rhomboids and traps between the shoulder blades. Standing, or sitting in a good, tall posture bring your arms up straight in front of you until the shoulder is at about 90degrees. Here, keeping the arms straight, you are going to retract the shoulders (or bring the shoulder blades closer together). Remember to keep the arms straight. Hold here for about 5seconds, and then relax forward. Repeat this at least 10 times, and do it as much throughout the day as you want. This is a very small, simple movement.. but some of you may find that it takes more concentration then you’d think it would. This is a rebuilding exercise to get your brain reconnected to controlling those muscles, from there we can begin to build stability in the shoulder.


My next favourite exercise to teach riders about postural stabilisation through movement in the lats and arms is called a Wall Angel. For this, you need a wall. Start in a half squat position with you back against the wall and feet slightly in front of you. Now, flatten out everything from the pelvis up to the neck/head against the wall. This may be the most challenging part for some. Many riders like to hinge from their mid back, and this can often be a source of pain or instability within the spine. Getting into this “flattened against a wall” posture brings us back into a neutral posture and allows us to begin rebuilding stabilisation (using the lats and other shoulder stabilisers) through the torso and upper body. Now that you’re in that half squat against the wall with every part of your spine against the wall, or as close as you can get, bring your arms up as you see them in picture A. This is the second challenge. You may find your back now wants to pop off the wall, or that your shoulders are too tight to bring back to the wall. If the latter is the case, some pectoralis major stretches may be in order for you. If you can’t get the arms so they are pressing flat (or close to) the wall, instead bring them in front to a similar position to the retraction exercise we discussed earlier. Now, back pressed flat, neck straight and head against the wall with arms up and also against the wall, you are going to slowly slide them up as far as you can keep them flat, and then back down to the start position.

wall slidesRepeat this between 5-10 times, a few times a day. I like to have riders do this before they get on their first horse, in between horses, and after their ride to encourage that tall, strong posture. This also helps to teach activation of the lats, strengthen all the postural muscles in the upper back, and build postural awareness.

Fitting these into your daily routine is a great way to begin rebuilding your ride in the saddle. I also like to have my riding clients ride with their inside hand behind their head, pushing their elbow back. This creates a tall posture, and encourages activation of the lats to stabilise in the back, and the shoulder stabilisers in the upper back through movement on the horse. Try it out next time you’re on and see what it does to your position!


Core Concepts Part 2: Proper Activation

When someone tells you to activate your core… your first instinct is likely to suck everything in and “squeeze” those abdominals.

That’s they way most everyone has been taught over the years…. But unfortunately, that’s not really how to get the most out of the core.

While that does tighten the abdominal muscles, it does little in the way of stabilising the spine and trunk appropriately. As riders we need a stable trunk (everything from the shoulders to the pelvis) in order for our hips and elbows to be fluid, and our lower leg to be effective. The active core allows for dynamic stability, which is efficient stability through movement… not stiffening and bouncing around in the tack, but going with the flow of your horse.

So… how do you activate the core?

Try this. Hands on your hips so you fingers are slightly pushing into the sides of your stomach. Push the muscles under your fingers out so you can feel them working. Feel how those strong core muscles activate into your hands with the “push out” feeling? Yes, it’s going to feel a little odd. Maybe like you’re holding your breath or holding in having to go to the bathroom. You’re not holding your breath (though it will take practice to breath properly while doing this activation.. old habits die hard), what you are doing is creating a strong, hoop basket like system around your entire truck. This locks in the spine, keeps the torso strong, and is what every rider needs to begin rebuilding their position. 99% of the riders I’ve worked with are new to this activation technique, and the same number almost immediately feel a HUGE difference in their efficiency in the tack. If you have low back pain, this is a must for your tool box.

The big players here are your obliques (external and internal), rectus abdominus, and transverse abdominus.


How do you build this activation while in the tack? This is a habit like any other… it’s going to take awareness and practice practice practice! In the saddle, do self checks by riding with one hand on your hip feeling for those core muscles activating. Off the horse, start adding these couple key exercises into your routine:

1. The McGill Curl-Up:

– contrary to what the guy does in the video… I would prefer for riders to hold at the top of the curl-up for 10-30seconds and slowly lower down. Have one hand at those abdominals to ensure they are activated the whole time. Practice taking deep breaths and a regular breathing pattern throughout the activation. This exercise is excellent for building endurance and the activation motor pattern!

2. Side Plank/Bridge:

– Start from your knees moving from the hips, as shown in the video. Once you feel strong holding from the knees.. you can progress to a full side plank position.. having the feet wide is often more comfortable then stacking the feet. Try both out and see which is best for you!

These exercises should not cause pain anywhere, and you should be checking for proper alignment and core activation the entire time! There is many progressions to both those exercises, but master the basics first and then move up. Remember, perfect practice makes perfect!


Core Concepts Part 1: Pelvic Stability and the Rider

What our hips and pelvis are doing is often what sets up the rest of the body. Pain and dysfunction both above and below the hips can usually be traced back to something going on with the muscles surrounding the hips or with pelvic alignment/posture. As Shakira would say, the “hips don’t lie”. As you might have guessed, strength deficiencies in the hips are going to affect our posture and movement in many ways. Our core is made up of everything from the hips up to the shoulders.

The most common thing I see in a rider, and any other athlete’s hip and lower body posture, is weak hip stabilizor muscles. Have you ever had trouble keeping your leg on during a posting or sitting trot, or over a jump? You probably assumed, or were told, that you needed to develop a stronger leg. I know I’ve heard that phrase many times as a rider. Generally, riders don’t have problems with muscle strength below the knee. Where there does seem to be weakness is at the side of the hips in the gluteus medius muscle. The gluteus medius is a small, deep muscle running from the side of your hip bone to the top of your femur. It’s job is to both raise the leg out to the side, and stabilize the pelvis during movement. If this muscle isn’t working properly, the other muscles around the pelvis and lower back have to work harder to stabilize, and do their own jobs; resulting in tightness and sometimes pain. If this muscle does do what it should, the entire lower body will work more efficiently, and be stronger.

PICTURE: (red shows the outline of Gluteus Medius, while the black dots show where it attaches to the pelvis and femur (thigh-bone)).


Want an easy way to test out if your gluteus medius is doing it’s job? Stand up, raise one knee up (so you’re standing on one leg)… did your hips shift over to the opposite side? Now try this same thing with a friend lightly putting pressure on the shoulder of your standing leg as you raise the opposite leg.. can you do it without that tiny shift in weight? If not, then your gluteus medius might be slacking off.

Dysfunction here can result in lower back pain, hip pain, knee pain, and affect how the muscles of your core, back, and legs function both in and out of the saddle. For a little muscle, it has a lot of responsibility.

Now that we’ve established whether or not your gluteus medius is weak, how do we strengthen it? My favourite exercise to get this little guy into action is a hip circuit. Side-lying, straight leg with shoulder, hip, and ankle aligned. Raise the leg with the heel pointed towards the ceiling slightly and lower (x10)—about to the height in the first image, next raise the leg higher – as in second picture (stopping before you feel your hip bone rotates towards your rib cage) x 10. If you aren’t feeling this right where Mr. Glute Med lives, then readjust your hip alignment (shift forwards or back, keeping leg straight and ankle in line with hip joint). If you want to add to this, continue on by keeping the leg straight and doing clock-wise and counter clock-wise circles from the hip. These circles shouldn’t be bigger then a basketball, and the core and hips should stay stable throughout. Have a friend watch to make sure you’re staying in the right position.