4 Riding Exercises to Help Kiss Kissing Spine and a "Tight Back" Good-Bye. Part 2 of Spinal Health Blog

This blog post is part two of a series discussing equine spinal health, Spinal Crowding Syndrome and Kissing Spine. In this post, we will discuss specific riding exercises to improve spinal health and movement, and, in some cases, even kiss kissing spine good-bye!

Once again, we are very fortunate to have with us guest blogger, Simon Cocozza, a registered Instructor and Examiner for La Fédération Française d’Equitation (FFE) who has extensive experience dealing these issues, and will share his Core Correction riding exercise method. His exercise method can be used in any riding discipline, English or Western.

A Short Refresher...
In case you missed
 last week's blog, Simon provided a very thorough, yet easy to understand, explanation regarding Spinal Crowding Syndrome and Kissing Spine.  Please refer back to part one of the blog if needed. 

Take it away Simon!

Getting to the Core of the Matter
Below are four introductory exercises that look quite simple, and in a sense they are, yet they will produce a noticeable improvement in the horse’s willingness to flex through the spine. They combine stretch and twist motions at low speed that break down the defensive ‘locking’ habit of the back and encourage the horse to learn to let go and allow progress to the strength building phase of exercises that will develop true engagement under impulsion. The horse's core is key. The movements should be repeated slowly and deliberately until fluid and easy, in a similar way as a pianist would repeat the scales to perfection.

As spinal crowding syndrome (SCS) is, in part, a psychological defense, the effect is not only a strengthening of the horse’s core but also provides practice of the basic ‘language’ of movement between horse and rider that will increase ease in a performance by developing trust at the same time as strength.
These exercises should be performed initially from walk and repeated until the horse feels more fluid before moving onto the daily program. The human Yoga equivalent is also pictured which has the same effect on our bodies as it does on the horse.

Riding Exercise #1: Inside ‘Half Moon’ Bend and Stretch 
Quite simply a small circle around a cone, barrel or block at the  walk, with long reins and lots of inside bend.

This stretches the outside of the body and helps the horse to let go of their lateral back tension. Don’t insist, encourage. Relax, wait and repeat until your horse's head drops and they bend more freely and regularly.
Bend and stretch
Yoga Half Moon Pose
Riding Stretch #2: Leg Yield ‘Triangle’ Stretch at Walk
As with the revolved triangle Yoga pose for people, a stretched leg yield encourages the hips to rotate in the opposite direction from the shoulders, encouraging the spine to twist freely and gradually release its kinks. The horse may initially block themselves. Persist sympathetically and they will let go, drop their head willingly to the inside rein and step sideways with more and more elasticity.
   Low deep bend                ..... and crossing over          Revolved Triangle Pose
Riding Stretch # 3: Quarter to Full Turn On The Forehand – The ‘Half Split’
Great for opening gates and even better for building the Multifidus system. This exercise works on many levels and when perfected later on, the horse will work in a very fluid outline. It teaches the horse to move away from a light inside leg which is the basis of straightness control, lateral work and precise cornering later on. It also builds the lateral and rotative pelvic control muscles, as well as simultaneously lifting the spine and separating the spinous processes to relieve impinged nerves.

Get one or two correct steps before asking for more. The horse must step under their body with the inside hind and rotate their hind quarters around the inside foreleg. Back up the inside leg with a gentle tap of the whip aid to get the first steps. Watch out for evasions such as stepping backwards and walking out of the outside shoulder.

When the horse easily drops the inside rein to you and willingly gives the outside rein a contact, the correction has been made.
    High Turn                              Low Turn                            Yoga Half Split
Riding Stretch # 4. Quarter to Half Pirouette – Turn On the Haunches to ‘Thread the Needle’

This is essential for suppleness in the shoulders and rider/horse communication. From standstill (in the hault), with an open reined inside bend, increase the outside rein pressure until the horse steps away from the aid.

This develops thoracic sling motion range, encouraging the horse to carry their spine higher between the shoulder blades. This raises the horse's center of gravity and gives them the ability to push their front end upwards in each stride making their movement ‘uphill’ and supple, and allowing a space for the rear end to engage into. The result is light outside rein influence of the shoulder, allowing precision turns and the key to easily controlled shoulder in, half-pass and pirouette....not to mention various precise haunch turns required of Western riders.
Rotating the shoulders around the inside hind     Yoga Thread the Needle Pose
When beginning this work, the rider must think of a gentle, suppling guidance as the resistances are a combination of psychological as well as physical. Great care needs to be taken to ask for more effort and strength only after the horse has let go of their defenses.

Top Tips
  1. Long and low will stretch the horse but when you have an improvement, do the exercise at least once ‘on the bit’.
  2. Try to keep your weight in the saddle and stirrups always even sided whatever is going on.
  3. If you can’t sit to the trot or canter, don’t. Use the exercises to get more spinal freedom, and then try later when the gait feels smoother.
  4. When bending the horse, never pull the rein.  Hold steady at the angle you want and wait until the horse gives to the rein in response to the leg. When they want to drop their head and stretch out, let them.
  5. You and your horse need understand each other very well in order to bond and become one. If you feel that you can do a bit more, try it and let your horse be your guide.
  6. A movement assessment core score 0 horse will walk, trot and canter in balance with their nose very near the ground, at or slightly in front of vertical, the moment you fully give the reins.   This applies to all riding disciplines, English and Western. This is your goal.
  7. These exercises encourage legs to cross. Boot up!
  8. Every training session is a fresh beginning. It is never too late for a horse and rider to put the past in the past.
When you have felt the improvements brought about by mastering these simple exercises, move onto the more demanding ‘Core Correction – Advanced’ movements that encourage the individual’ full range of motion combined with impulsion.  Contact me for details.

When a horse has achieved a movement assessment core score of 0 (discussed in part of 1 of this blog), the horse will now be in the physical condition of those that these principles were developed to apply. One must remember the circumstances under which they were written are not those of today’s equine marketplace.

With horses that have core movement scores of 4 or 5, my first advice is to seek assistance from your Vet.  Obtain a lateral thoracic x-ray which will show immediately if there is any spinal crowding or kissing. Depending on the severity, there are a few options, which are traditionally surgical and/or anti-inflammatory medication. 

My preference as a trainer is to retrain the Multifidus system to eliminate the original cause of the misalignment rather than alleviate the symptoms when possible. When done carefully, even very severe cases have been reversed with this method.  Your horse may also need bodywork from an experienced professional like Ilene to help unlock the spine, back and neck muscles while doing these exercises.

Well, my friends, I hope these words are interesting and of use. Please don’t hesitate to contact me if you have problems, breakthroughs or wish to go further with this method.  Please never forget the gentle willingness of horses is their most precious quality and the one most loved by us humans. If we truly want to bond in motion with these amazing and magnificent creatures, we must reciprocate by recognizing the silent signals of difficulty that are hidden by their innocent generosity.

May the horse be with you.

Has your horse been diagnosed with SCS or KS?  Have you tried these exercises?  Did your horse have surgery?  Please join the conversation and share your experience and questions on the Stretch Your Horse Facebook page

Simon Cocozza is a European qualified Dressage trainer and rider currently based in Normandy, France, and a registered Instructor and Examiner for La Fédération Française d’Equitation (FFE).

After passing the BHSAI in London, England, he then studied for the Advanced National Certificate in Equine Business Management and Equitation (ANCEBM) at Warwickshire College of Equine Studies. After graduating, he was understudy to Grand Prix dressage rider Bertil Voss (NL) with whom he learned to ride and train high-level performance horses.  Since then, has had the pleasure of helping clients and horses to many French and European Championship successes.

His current work in dressage focuses on competition performance and unlocking the mysteries of optimal technique and proper biomechanics. His current lecture and tour is called "Releasing Your Horse's Inner Dancer" followed by "Ridden Exercises to Improve Your Horse's Core Strength."  He can be reached at quadriapony@aol.com or VisconteCozza.com


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