Pilates and horse riding have many similarities and complement each other really well. In horse riding, you need good posture, a strong core and flexibility of the spine – all of which the Pilates method promotes. Being on a living, breathing animal makes it even more important for the rider to have all these factors in place to help prepare for whatever happens underneath him/her.
Pilates trains us to become aware of what our bodies are doing and allows us to make corrections where needed. In this post I have gone into a bit of Pilates for horse riders including reasons why Pilates is good for horse riders, some focus points and examples of exercises and stretches perfect for riders.
Why Pilates for horse riders?
There are a few basic elements that need to be brought into a rider’s fitness program – strength, flexibility, balance and the ability to multitask. Pilates increases body awareness, improves flexibility, balance, strength and co-ordination while teaching you to focus on a few things at the same time. This will support an optimal riding experience.
Other benefits of Pilates for horse riders include lengthening of the spine and strengthening of the core, which stabilizes the body in movement and releases tightness in the spine which can reduce the risk of pain in the lower back.
The Pilates technique of lateral breathing teaches effective breathing while supporting the spine. It also helps to draw attention to the breath while riding, preventing the breath from being held while concentrating.
Breathing is one of the principles of the Pilates method. In Pilates, we synchronise the breath with the exercise, inhaling as we lengthen the body to prepare and exhaling on the exertion. When using lateral breathing, we breathe deeply, with the emphasis on expanding the breath into the lower back and sides of the ribcage. This allows us to keep our abdominal muscles engaged which in turn, protects our spine and organs, acting like a corset to support our whole trunk.
How to Breathe Laterally
- Put the hands on either side of the rib cage
- Inhale through the nose feeling the rib cage pushing into the hands
- Feel that the rib cage is expanding sideways like an accordion
- Exhale out the mouth drawing the rib cage down again
- This technique is challenging at first and takes practice to perfect
The psoas major is a muscle that attaches at the bottom of the thoracic spine (T12) and along the lumbar spine (through L4), then runs through the pelvic bowl, down over the front of the hip joint, and attaches at the top of the femur (thigh bone). It is the only muscle connecting the spine to the leg. Its main function is to lift the leg towards the body when the body is fixed or to pull the body towards the leg when the leg is fixed.
Focusing on good posture and proper alignment in movement, as we do in Pilates, allows the psoas to remain a flexible, responsive, bridge between the spine and lower body. When the psoas is inflexible and shortened, it essentially holds the lower back in an arched or hollowed position due to the way it is attached to the spine. This translates into a posture where the pelvis is tipped forward, with the seat bones pointing towards the rear of the horse. This is not an ideal posture for a rider and needs to be addressed by doing the correct exercises and stretches.
Why is posture important for horse riders?
Having strong muscles to support good posture is imperative to a rider. Some of the most common problem area in riders include:
- weakness through the muscles of the shoulder blades and upper back
- a head forward posture which is caused by weak neck flexors and tight neck extensors
- tight chest muscles which result in a slumped posture and round shoulders
- weak abdominal muscles which are the most important group of muscles for controlling your body’s core stability
- tightness in the lower back
- short and weak hamstring muscles
It is very difficult to keep the shoulders back and maintain the correct posture while riding without addressing these problem areas. A Pilates class is the perfect place to work on these problem areas where your instructor has assessed your weaknesses and worked out an appropriate program for you using the Pilates principles.
Exercises for the equestrian
Here are just a few examples of exercises that are perfect for the horse rider. Remember to always breathe through an exercise and if you are feeling any discomfort during these exercises, consult a professional for advice on appropriate modifications to these examples.
The shoulder bridge
This is a great exercise to strengthen the hamstrings while working on mobility of the lower back and stability of the pelvis
- Lying on your back in a neutral spine with your knees bent, feet on the floor hip width apart
- Inhale to prepare
- As you exhale, flatten the lower back into the mat and slowly start to roll the spine off the mat articulating one vertebrae at a time
- Inhale and hold the position
- As you exhale, roll the spine back down to the beginning position one vertebrae at a time
- Repeat 6 times
Single leg stretch
This is a great exercise to increase core and back strength which will prevent slouching and supports the spine.
- Lying on your back with your legs in table top position with hands on your legs
- Inhale to prepare
- As you exhale, lift you head and shoulders into a curl
- Extend the right leg to a 45 degree angle keeping the left knee in place
- Place your hands on either side of the left knee
- Inhale and change legs
- Repeat with the inhale
- Keep changing legs and exhale for 2 changes
- Keep the breathing pattern inhale, inhale, exhale, exhale (which is one set)
- Do 5 sets
Back extension on a ball
This exercise is great for strengthening the upper back and shoulder blade muscles
- Lying on a ball, toes tucked under hip width apart, hands under the forehead
- Inhale to prepare
- Exhale and extend your spine lifting the upper body off the ball
- Make sure the shoulders dont tense up to the ears and keep the tummy gently pulling in towards the spine to keep the lower back supported
- Inhale lower down
- Repeat 10 times
Stretches for the equestrian
Hold each stretch for about 30 seconds on each side and relax into your stretches using deep breathing to release any tension.
Glutes and Piriformis stretch
When your Glutes and Piriformis are tight they can cause you to have a sore lower back and hamstrings, poor balance, and even shooting nerve pain down your leg due to sciatica.
The IT Band is a long muscle in the thigh that stabilizes the knee, pulls the thigh away from the body and rotates it inward. Tightness of the ITB can make subtle changes to the way the knee moves resulting in knee pain.
Tightness in the hamstrings limits motion in the pelvis which can increase stress across the low back and affect posture negatively. Stretching these out is often painful but very beneficial.
Key focal points of Pilates like pelvic and shoulder stability, core strength, and flexibility are essential for horse riders. The Pilates principles, centering, concentration, control, precision, breath, and flow are all applicable to horse riding. It is therefore completely understandable that Pilates for the rider is gaining in popularity as we speak!
For those of you who would like to add a great book to your collection, Pilates for Riders, by Lindsay Wilcox-Reid is the perfect addition to any collection!