Equine core muscles are very difficult to isolate with the traditional training techniques common to horse sports. However, by examining what we do with the human body when faced with a weak core, we can find new methods for conditioning these areas of the equine body. In his new book CORE CONDITIONING FOR HORSES, Visconte Simon Cocozza has taken principles of the human practice of yoga and used them to develop novel ways of reaching deep within the horse’s body and gently “unlock” areas that may be a little “rusty,” improve core fitness, and even relieve pain related to conditions such as kissing spine. In this book, he provides step-by-step instruction explaining easy mounted exercises that enhance the horse’s posture and boost his confidence in his body and movement, making him easier to ride, and ultimately, the dance partner you’ve always imagined.
We caught up with Simon and found out a little more about his exciting core conditioning techniques…as well as discovering he has a penchant for chablis.
TSB: Your book CORE CONDITIONING FOR HORSES provides a collection of yoga-inspired ridden exercises for the horse that warm him up and strengthen his core. How did you determine that these particular exercises were of such key benefit to the horse?
SC: Well, training the inside of the horse is rather new territory, so it was a combination of researching our current understanding of equine biomechanics and good, old-fashioned scientific method. The anatomical composition of the horse is very well understood, of course, but core motion dynamics and how it all interacts are still largely theoretical. It helped me to look at the mechanical properties of the skeleton in the real world—in motion and under the rider rather than simply it’s construction. When the weak areas and their ridden causes became clear, it was a case of addressing them one by one. Yoga showed itself as a solution early on as it aims to restore natural alignment to the vertebrae in a calm and kind way, which really resonates with horses. With some adjustment for anatomical scale and the addition of the rider to the mechanism as a whole, I found that it was possible to use yoga’s slow, low-impact movements to isolate the weak areas quite quickly and easily. When this presented itself, I was quite surprised.
TSB: Do you practice yoga? If so, what are the benefits you have found it has made in your own life? How does it affect your riding and horsemanship?
SC: Ha! I was hoping nobody would ask me this! The yoga instructor I consulted with for the book is the amazing Alison Robertson, based in France. Alison has kindly taken pity on me and is helping me learn what our horses feel like when asked to bend rusty body parts! Despite being a plank of wood, it is definitely helping me feel looser in the back, and in particular I have noticed yoga “evening up” the two sides of my body around a (semi) flexible spine, which is definitely helping my symmetry in the saddle. However, it is not as easy as I had imagined!
TSB: How do your core conditioning exercises fit into other training and conditioning programs? Can they be used in concert with other techniques and training schedules?
SC: This is an important point and something I was not prepared to compromise. We desperately needed a simple way of helping all horses feel better in themselves and develop their optimal spinal function, no matter their given discipline, age, breeding, or temperament. For this reason, there are different exercise plans in my book to help the horse owner develop a core conditioning warm-up exactly for the individual horse in question. I think this been achieved with the warm-up plans I present (Wellness, Flexibility, Connection, or Agility)—the exercises can be tailored to fit any horse, whether a light, young, Thoroughbred racehorse or a seasoned, heavier dressage horse. At the spinal level, function is identical, yet the approach needs to be just right for that individual horse’s type and lifestyle.
TSB: One of the benefits of your core conditioning exercises is they can help horses that have been diagnosed with or are suspected of having kissing spine. Can you tell us how your techniques alleviate pain and improve a horse’s chances of recovering from this issue?
SC: Well, “kissing spine” is rather more common than we thought, unfortunately, yet despite the problems it causes, it is a relatively simple engineering problem. The spine is a finely tuned piece of equipment and only operates correctly when aligned properly—and then its complex design works really, really well. Unfortunately, if the angles are off even slightly, like a bent pair of scissors or a rusty lock, the mechanism catches on itself and causes damage to the delicate structure it relies upon to do its job. To make matters more complicated, it is covered in nerves, making the horse tense up when s/he feels a pinch anywhere along the back. These tensions unfortunately feel like training or even behavioral problems, which is why they are not diagnosed very quickly, making them become habitual and limiting performance and quality of life. The solution is thankfully very simple, involving strengthening the muscles that are already under the spine to redress and realign the horse’s back. The body knows what is good for it, and when activated, these structures spring into action and everything starts to work properly again.
TSB: You were born in Italy, were educated in England, and live in France. How did your background influence your decision to become a professional horseman and devote your time and energy to improving the horse’s health and well-being?
SC: I have been very lucky that my family has a strong history with horses, which has helped enormously. My mother is an instructor, so I was brought up around, on, and under horses, and my Italian family has been composed of almost all swashbuckling military horsemen and women for millennia. Perhaps it is simply in the DNA? Although I am a nerd and wanted to be a scientist, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to work with horses. After a few years working in the commercial side of the horse industry, I became uncomfortable using some of the restrictive and insensitive methods that we employ without question in European training. Restraint and force did not seem to be necessary with such a highly complex and essentially perfectly designed creature as the horse, and I strongly felt that there had to be better way. So I spent a few decades trying to understand how it all worked. This work has, of course, all been done before, long ago, yet I feel I may have reiterated some forgotten knowledge that may allow us to smooth off some of our modern corners.
TSB: What is one lesson you hope readers will take away from your book?
SC: By far, it is to put ourselves in the horses’ hooves. When working with these sensitive beings that worry and tense up so easily, we really must show them our love in every moment of our work together, especially when we run into problems. This is when they need us the most. They are so very, very emotional, and we should remember that there is always an innocent reason for their actions, even if it looks otherwise.
TSB: If you were trapped on a desert island with a horse and a book, what breed of horse would it be and which book would you choose?
SC: Oh, I think it would have to be a Pura Raza Espagnol, an Andalusian. These horses are like generous people, that is why we use them in movies, for the High School, such as in Vienna, and for tricks like dancing, performances, and stunt work. Try that sort of thing with a Warmblood and he will just walk away!
I am tempted to say I would read Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Dafoe, but that is a bit obvious, so it would have to be Douglas Adams’ quadrilogy of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, which I feel sure the PRE would enjoy me reading to her/him, too.
TSB: If you could do one thing on horseback that you haven’t yet done, what would it be?
SC: I am fascinated with Working Equitation, and I love watching it. It has so much potential for perfection and looks like dressage meets “handy pony” meets gymkhana, but for grown-ups. I mean, they gallop over a bridge and carry a spear!
TSB: What is the quality you most like in a friend?
SC: Integrity. Without that, nothing else matters.
TSB: What is the quality you most like in a horse?
SC: Focus. Some of them look at you and say with their eyes, “Hi! Lets interact!” and they hold focus on you. Time stands still when that happens, and no matter what package s/he is in, your souls connect. This is the essence of a great relationship and the first thing I look for.
TSB: What is your greatest fear?
SC: A global shortage of olives, Nutella, garlic, or Chablis, in that order. I suppose I ought to say world war, although the former would surely trigger the latter.
TSB: What is your greatest extravagance?
SC: I have an unreasonably large collection of Passier saddles. I love them, especially the old ones. They are masterpieces of craftsmanship and each one rides a little differently. I am not even ashamed of this and have instructed my family to bury my favorites with me…preferably after I have died, though.
TSB: If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
SC: I would like to be able to fly. But that’s not very realistic. In “Real Life” I would like to be a little taller. When in Germany and Holland I feel child-size—in fact, their children are often taller than me! A short stay (pun intended) in Italy or Portugal usually puts that right.
TSB: What’s in your refrigerator at all times?
SC: Landjaeger sausage. It’s like the Holy Grail of bacon.
TSB: What is your idea of perfect happiness?
SC: Oh, there are so many answers to this one! If I had to choose one it would be waiting, at dusk, for the Spaghetti alle Vongole to come to the table at a little waterside trattoria on the Amalfi Coast, surrounded by people I love.
TSB: If you could have a conversation with one famous person, alive or dead, who would it be?
SC: Without question, the physicist Nikola Tesla. He was the twentieth century’s da Vinci. He almost changed the world. Almost!
TSB: What is your motto?
SC: May I suggest a quote instead?
“A learning experience is one of those things that says, ‘You know that thing you just did? Don’t do that.” ― Douglas Adams
Simon Cocozza’s book CORE CONDITIONING FOR HORSES is available from the TSB online bookstore, where shipping in the US is FREE.
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