Feeling stiff, weak or limited in your riding? Your fitness is just as important as your horse’s! Pilates, is a total body approach to movement, that can be helpful for equestrians of all disciplines.
More than ever, the equestrian community recognizes that horseback riding involves two athletes – the horse and the rider. Books, articles and advice on rider fitness are commonplace. It’s understood that a fit rider experiences less fatigue, is less likely to be injured, and can enhance the horse’s performance. The Pilates system of exercise is well suited to develop and improve riding skills.
A bit of history
Joseph Pilates developed the Pilates exercise system in the 1910s during World War I. A German national, Mr. Pilates created his exercise program to support the health of fellow World War I internees in England. Later, as a hospital orderly, he incorporated the variable resistance of springs into rehabilitation programs for patients. He translated the use of springs into machines and created the unique equipment now seen in today’s Pilates studios. Mr. Pilates immigrated to the United States in the late 1920s and established a studio in New York City. Initially, the dance community was its primary clientele. But the popularity of Pilates grew and studios started popping up all over. Today there are over 30,000 studios nationwide.
What is Pilates?
What makes Pilates unique is its total body approach to movement. It gives you balance, strength and flexibility. Breathing is emphasized, and the deep postural muscles of the abdomen and back are called upon in all the exercises to stabilize the body and create fluid, graceful movement. Body awareness is important – it’s not just about doing the exercise, but about how you do it. The movements require deep focus and concentration for coordinating the entire body.
All these skills and principles lay a foundation for good riding. Posture, postural support, and body awareness and control are practiced in the relatively quiet environment of the studio (as compared to on horseback!). As a result, the rider can solidly develop these tools so they are available in the saddle.
Benefits for equestrians
To ride well, a rider must stay balanced on a (sometimes unpredictably!) moving horse. Balance is most efficiently accomplished when the rider is in good posture, with the bones of the spine in their correct (or neutral spine) alignment. If the spine is not in good alignment, other muscles must compensate, resulting in unnecessary tension (usually in either the muscles of the shoulder girdle, and/or the hip joint). Maintaining good posture while the horse is moving requires activity in the deep muscles of the abdomen (transversus abdominus and the internal and external obliques) and the back (multifidi) to preserve correct alignment of the spine. This allows the rider to stay in self-carriage, balanced over the middle of the horse, and moving with the horse. Suppleness of the shoulder, and minimal gripping with the legs, is then possible.
Essentially all the Pilates exercises teach access to and function of the deep muscles of the abdomen and back to support posture and efficient balance. Some directly strengthen the muscles of the “core”, while others challenge the ability of these muscles to maintain alignment during movement of the legs or arms. These approaches are both valuable to riding. The rider develops sufficient muscle connection and strength to stay in good posture and balance on the moving horse, and the use of an arm or leg aid does not disrupt this balance.
Many Pilates exercises also work on developing balance in the muscles of the shoulder and hip joints to promote maximal range of motion. For example, many of us are tight in the muscles that pull the shoulder forward. This can lead to a rounded upper back and poor posture. Pilates exercises for the shoulder help strengthen the muscles that pull the shoulder back, and stretch the tight muscles in front of the shoulder. Similarly, some riders struggle with tension in the hip flexor muscles (muscles that pull the knee up in the saddle). This contributes to an arched posture. Pilates exercises can help strengthen the core to support correct posture, and balance the muscles of the hip joint so the hip flexor muscles do not dominate.
Sound principles of movement and balance important for riding are taught in some of the simplest exercises of the Pilates system. Don’t underestimate the benefits of simple (but not easy!) exercises that support the deep postural muscles of the trunk, awareness of neutral alignment, and suppleness at the shoulder and hip joints. Enjoy this total body program that enhances body awareness, organization, balance, posture and body control.