Pilates for Horse Riders

Any experienced horse rider will tell you, your position and movements on the horse can make a big difference to how the horse performs. Sit on a horse like a sack o’ tatties and that’s how the horse will carry you! We’re talking about normal riding position here, rather than anything fancy:

Image from gettyimages.com

Pilates is a fantastic way to help maintain rider conditioning and balance so that the horse can function optimally. It is more than just the core. Pilates trains body awareness, balance, flowing movements as well as finding the centre. The coordination of upper and lower body as well as being coordinated in rotational movements and controlling one side whilst the other is working are all fundamental principles. The horse benefits from your improved posture and position, and in turn their condition improves. We have had clients come to us because their horse has become injured and they want us to look at their own alignment to assess whether this has caused the horse’s injury.

Image from thinklikeahorse.org

This fantastic diagram (below) of the horse’s musculature shows the main muscles in the horse’s back which contribute their movement. If you look at where the rider sits in connection to that, you will see that the muscles lie underneath the saddle and rider. As we tell you frequently in Pilates, all the muscles in the body are connected and if one is not functioning well, this can have an impact all the way through the chain of muscles. The horse has the same fascial system, but added to this, their walking and running movement regulates their breathing. Look at where the ribs extend to underneath the rider, beneath that are the horse’s lungs. Again, in Pilates, we talk a lot about the importance of breathing, imagine having a small child sit on your chest when trying to breathe and you get an idea of what the horse is going through!

Image from dingosbreakfastclub.net

If the rider has a weakness on one side in the gluteal muscles and compensates with increased activity in their inner thigh on that side, they will be squeezing their thigh in tighter on that side. This will lead to increased pressure on the horse’s latissimus dorsi muscle on that side, which connects to the opposite gluteal muscles and into the chain all the way down the leg and could lead to problems over time. If the rider can retrain their position, the horse starts to benefit and improve their own muscle balance. Often, a riding instructor will give an instruction, such as ‘take your shoulders back’, many people will not know how to do this effectively as they have not learned the principles of effective movement from Pilates. By practicing Pilates, you will learn to align your torso whilst maintaining good shoulder position, plus you will be stronger and have better endurance in this position!

Image from peagreenphysio.com

If the rider does practices Pilates regularly, they increase their own stamina and concentration and reduce the number of aches and pains. The horse’s condition can then improve and both rider and horse will have a better riding experience. Pilates exercises aimed specifically at horse riders will focus on balance, control and mobility and result in that all-important integration into the saddle!

As horse and rider learn to be in sync and each benefits the others’ position, so the horse’s movement can be used in therapy for those who do not regularly get to feel the movement of walking through their legs. For example, someone with a neurological problem who mostly uses a wheelchair will be unable to get the benefit of the walking movement in the lower back, pelvis and hips. By sitting on a horse in a hippotherapy session, they will be able to enjoy the freedom of that movement. A lot of children and adults alike in this position get so much physically as well as psychologically out of these sessions.

Image from wikipedia.org

Here is a series of exercises which can help a horse rider find balance in the saddle.

Bridging – with ball between the knees/circle around the knees.

It is important to achieve balance between the inner and outer thigh so these exercises can be done together.

IMG_9107PilPlusExercisesExhale and roll up into the bridge from the tailbone up through the spine, until your ribs, hips and knees are in a straight line, inhale to hold and exhale with each squeeze in on the ball, building up to 5 times. Peel back down into neutral and repeat 5 times.

IMG_9109PilPlusExercisesKeep some pressure out on the pads of the circle as you roll up into the bridge. Squeeze out on the circle 5 times. Peel back down and repeat 5 times.

Roll up

IMG_9211PilPlusExercisesStart sitting upright with your arms out in front of you. Keep the shoulders back and the chest upright as you exhale and tuck the tailbone under and roll the lower back to lean back, as far as you are able to maintain the abdominal muscles drawn in (not doming up). Inhale to hold, then exhale to roll back up into sitting and sit tall before repeating. Repeat 10 times.

Hip twist level 4 on ball

IMG_9556PilPlusExercisesLying with the ball underneath your tailbone, take your knees up into table top, using your arms beside your hips for light balance. Keeping one knee upright, exhale and slowly take the opposite knee out to the side, keeping the foot in alignment (you may not get very far!) then inhale and return to the centre and repeat on the other side. Repeat 10 times on each side. Aim for symmetry between the movements to each side.

Please do not perform theses exercises unless you have been cleared by a doctor or physiotherapist to do so. Please see your Pilates instructor/physiotherapist if you have any questions about these exercises.

Images from darrochphotography.com unless otherwise marked


Women’s Health Physiotherapy and Pilates

It is not commonly known that Physiotherapists can specialise in problems of the pelvic floor and bladder. This may be a small area of Physio, but it can make a huge difference to those who are struggling with a little (or a lot of) leakage and a loss of continence. This problem can seriously impact on quality of life for many women, and some men too.

Image from www.myphysiowyndhamvale.com.au

The more accurate term for the service is Pelvic Obstetric and Gynaecological Physiotherapist, however, Women’s Health Physiotherapist (WH Physio) is still in wide use so will also be used here. Specialist Physiotherapists specifically deal with pelvic floor issues, but also with associated problems of prolapse and weakened abdominal muscles post-childbirth. A WH Physio can also look at patterns of drinking and toilet visits and help make practical changes to reduce symptoms of urgency. WH Physios also specialise in the ante- and post-natal period, and can help with pregnancy related back, hip and pelvis pain. Then in the postnatal period we can help you return to function if abdominal muscles have split during pregnancy or if you have any aches and pains following childbirth, or repetitive strains from looking after your new baby.

‘Women’s’ health can be misleading, because everyone has a pelvic floor. Continence issues due to a weakened pelvic floor affect one in three women and one in ten men – as it affects many women after childbirth it is more of a women’s problem. A series of simple exercises and some straightforward lifestyle changes can make a huge difference. The exercises, as in most cases, do not work overnight and ask at least 3 months of commitment 3 times a day from you. However, each set should only take a couple of minutes and can be done anywhere (I do mine on the bus!) so it is just a case of remembering or setting and alarm on your phone. Compared to the alternatives – either a worsening problem that needs to be dealt with by using more and more pads, increasing strength medication; or even surgery which has been the subject of controversy recently – a few moments of your day is really a small price to pay.

Image from Advanced Uro-Gynaecology for Physiotherapists: Michelle Lyons

Unfortunately, it has been found that one third of women with weakened pelvic floor are doing the exercises incorrectly and could make their problems worse. Assessment of the pelvic floor by a specialist Women’s Health Physiotherapist can help you ensure you are performing the exercises correctly. You can also be taught different ways to check for yourself that you are doing it right once this has been established. When the exercises are done correctly with other lifestyle changes alongside them, they can be incredibly effective and give you a fantastic way to look after yourself and help prevent any problems arising in future. There are plenty of descriptions of pelvic floor exercise programmes online, however, nothing can match having this assessed individually, especially if you are having persistent problems.

Much rarer than a weakened pelvic floor is a pelvic floor which goes into spasm, due to an imbalance of different fibres of the muscles. This can be incredibly painful, so it important to learn how to completely relax the pelvic floor as well as how to contract it effectively and to be able to do both under conscious control.

In Pilates we talk about the ‘centre’ – this comprises the deep abdominal muscles which wrap around the abdomen like a corset, the diaphragm at the top and the pelvic floor at the bottom. These 3 sets of muscles which form a ‘cylinder’ work together to provide active support for the low back, mid back and pelvis. If you learn to engage the pelvic floor correctly this will lead to the deep abdominals switching on at the same time (keep breathing deep and wide into the ribcage to get the full cylinder working together!). Unfortunately it doesn’t work the other way – if you contract the deep abdominal muscles, the pelvic floor does not switch on automatically.

In any Pilates exercise where you lift up your head, this can push the abdominal contents down on the pelvic floor, which can put undue stress on the pelvic floor, especially when adding in the additional work on the abdominal muscles. It is necessary with any head up position to engage the pelvic floor before performing the lift of head and shoulders; this prevents any downwards pressure on the pelvic floor and helps it to strengthen and improve control at the same time. I bet you’ve never been told to pre-contract your pelvic floor before lifting something heavy, but you want to do that too for the same reason!


There is research that Pilates is effective for those with mild continence issues as it teaches you to contract your pelvic floor effectively and this carries over into everyday life.

So, next time you’re in your Pilates class and the instructor advises you to think about engaging through the pelvic floor, really add this into the exercise! You will be making a big difference to helping your pelvic floor work effectively as part of the whole core system.

If you are not sure if you are contracting your pelvic floor correctly, please come and see me in the clinic to check this for you as well as provide you with a personalised programme and advice.