When I started on my dressage journey, I thought I had a pretty strong set of abdominal muscles. I was a regular runner, did some Crossfit type workouts, and regularly helped my husband train for his military PT test (mainly by making him embarrassed that he couldn't do as many sit ups as me). I wasn't in the best shape of my life, but I could bam out sit ups with the best of them. Then, I started sitting the trot, asking for lengthenings, and demanding through contact.
Oooooh boy. It turns out, my core has an awfully long way to go. Anyone else had this discovery?
First level is demanding. It asks that the rider develop a lot more muscular control to maintain balance, straightness and constantly correct aids. It asks that you sit UP for the first time (instead of the slightly huntery frame of Training level), and that you begin to draw your horse up to you as the beginning of baby collection. That's nearly impossible without a set of incredibly strong and active deep core muscles. That's a type of strength you can't necessarily get from a workout or a specific abdominal exercise, and without riding several horses a day seems impossible to achieve.
My weakness has been pointed out in countless Nancy lessons, but none so much as my July lesson where I sat the trot the entire time. Guys, my abs were so weak that my back hurt the day after that lesson from having to compensate for my weak core. After that, I was more inspired than ever to tackle my ongoing core weakness.
(Video of Nancy tweaking my position at the start of the month. She was reminding me to sit UP, as if tied to the ceiling. Please ignore my flailing elbows, this was hard and I don't quite have it together.. yet.)
Obviously doing more sit ups is not the answer, as my abdominal muscle strength is actually quite high. Plus, how many high level dressage riders do you see going around with completely ripped 6 packs? Pretty much none, right? I'm starting to realize that pure strength is the issue here, I think it's tension endurance, suppleness and the ability to lengthen the muscles that matters more instead. So, how do you do that?
Well, here's what I've been doing to help my full core strength (did you know your core muscles go from your thigh to under your arms? How ridiculous is that?!):
- Walking with my dogs (not so much running, as you can't be as upright). At least 2 miles daily, typically 4-6. This takes about an hour to two of my time every day. I go in the morning, before sunrise. The important things to focus on here are keeping the core muscles tight, and supporting. Think sucking in to zip up a tight pair of pants, while at the same time feeling as if your breastbone is being pulled upwards towards the sky. Doing this gets the muscles working in opposition, so it's hard at first. The motion of walking is similar to the motion your hips will make on a horse, and helps you work your core while focusing on other things. I also enjoy how I can practice holding a dog leash in each hand and work on keeping my shoulders back and down and my elbows at my side, instead of doing the chicken dance.
- Kettlebell swings. I do these with a full mobility swing (the kettlebell goes over my head, instead of just to eye level), but that's an advanced move and requires that you already have basic stability of your core and lumbar spine. Safety first, start with swings to eye level! What I love about this exercise is how similar it is to the dressage posting trot, leading with the hips. The swinging motion forces stability in the whole core while the body moves. Finally a swing overhead more fully lengthens the core muscles while they are working in opposition, strengthening them.
- Yoga. Doing a yoga routine (I like the first half hour of the P90X yoga video) is brilliant for working on your core stability, strength and length. The type of dynamic stretching in yoga forces you to pay attention to your breathing and balance, which really helps translate into riding.
There are other exercises that you can do to strengthen and lengthen your core muscles. I know a lot of pro dressage riders avidly practice Pilates. From what I understand this sort of core "strength" becomes second nature (think balancing on your bike), and learning the art of sitting up tall in the saddle requires more muscle development than keeping that knowledge in use. In other words, as you learn to sit the trot and ask for collection, you need more core strength. After you learn it, the muscle memory will help support you and you won't need so much strength to maintain.
This depth of thought on the core is something I never encountered in riding until I started to really work at dressage. This focus is also why photos of me slouching are so completely annoying to me, but inspire me to keep working. Anyone else really work on their core strength? Am I on the right track here?