The Equine Spine and Core Engagement

The Equine Spine and Core Engagement

I’ve seen this photo circulating around social media recently so I figured I’d weigh in with some thoughts I have…

The information that goes along with this photo is far more valuable than the photo itself. In the study that this photo is from, radiographs were taken of the equine spine in both the engaged and neutral position. In this instance, engagement was achieved by asking the horse for a pelvic tilt or ‘butt tuck’. You can clearly see that there is an obvious change in the amount of space between the dorsal spinous processes in each photo. In the study that was done at U.C. Davis, it showed up to almost double (WOW!) the amount of space between the dorsal spinous processes when there was muscle engagement vs. a neutral spine position. The mid thoracic part of the spine was the area that showed the largest spatial increase between the vertebrae, which is also the most common area where kissing spine is present. This is KEY information to have in terms of rehabbing and also towards preventative care!

So what happens when the horse does not have the musculature to support the rider in a biomechanically sound way?

  • The horse goes around unengaged-hollow through the back which can cause overriding dorsal spinous processes or ‘kissing spines’.
  • Commonly I will see underdevelopment of primary muscle groups needed for organic movement/engagement and overdevelopment of secondary muscle groups due to ‘training aids’- this results in compensatory movement patterns, putting strain on joints, tendons, ligaments.
  • In addition, the horse who does not have proper supporting musculature will bend to the rider’s hands resulting in hyperflexion of the neck. This can then lead to issues with the poll, TMJ, soft tissue damage, airway obstruction and depending on the severity, sometimes bony remodeling of the of the cervical vertebrae or mandible will be present.

These are just a few common examples, but the bottom line is, when the horse does not have the musculature to support the rider and the job he’s been given, it creates a myriad of problems – almost all of which result in the horse’s body breaking down.

When building the musculature to support the position of the spine (engagement)-so that you are imposing the least amount of wear and tear on the horse’s musculoskeletal system- you HAVE to factor in that whatever you’re doing WILL NOT be as effective if you have a rider on the horse’s back. That being said, as riders and owners what can we do to best set our horses up for success?

Well for starters, get used to the idea of working with your horse from the ground. No, this does not have to be all the time, but don’t be afraid to give your horse’s back a break.

An easy way to do this is through dynamic mobilization exercises that focus on core engagement. Things you will need to know:

  • Which exercises engage what muscles
  • What the proper body mechanics/positioning is
  • How often they should be done
  • How to take the horse through the mobilization

I outline these specifics in my ebook ‘Stretching & strengthening, a comprehensive guide for the everyday horse person’.

Some other useful techniques can include groundwork that focuses on building the proper musculature without restrictive training aids.


  • Lunge work with poles
  • Equicore system
  • Hill work
  • Working with obstacles/proprioception work
  • Hydrotherapy/water treadmill

It may be an unpopular opinion, but taking the time to set your horse up for success on the ground WILL contribute to your horse’s soundness and longevity. After all, these are our partners and if we are asking them to learn something new or to perform a job they wouldn’t normally do in nature- we should prepare them to do so as best as we can!