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


Pilates for Low Back Pain

Low back pain is a condition which affects almost all of us from time to time. It can range in severity from irritating to debilitating, and many untypeable ****ing’s in between! As physios, the phrases we often hear are ‘it just started out of the blue’, ‘I didn’t do anything’ or ‘it was lifting that chest of drawer/sweeping leaves/shovelling snow that did it’. Possibly the shovelling snow was the final straw in years of lack of movement, poor movement patterns and an imbalance in the repetitive loading of tissues.

The causes of back pain can be complicated and confusing, with everyone around you weighing in with their opinion. ‘ooh, that sounds exactly like when I slipped my disc and was flat on my back for three months’. Gosh that sounds terrifying, is that really what’s happening to me? Probably not.


The actual structures involved in causing back pain could be any one or any combination of muscles, joints, ligaments, connective tissue, nerves, discs. I am deliberately putting discs last, because there is a lot of mystery and confusion surrounding the intervertebral discs. The theory is that when pressure is put on one side of the disc for a prolonged period, there is a possibility that some of the jelly-like substance in the middle of the disc can protrude out the other side. The disc itself is very firmly attached to the vertebrae above and below it, and is not going to ‘slip out’. The other reason discs are last on the list is that disc protrusions account for approximately 5% of all back pains, and of those, only a tiny proportion will require surgery, most can be resolved over time by adapting the way you move and with targeted exercises..


The reasons for back pain occuring are as many and varied as the people experiencing the pain. It could arise from an imbalance in muscle function, deconditioning through our increasingly sedentary lifestyles,  the trauma of a fall from height or a number of conditions such as osteoporosis and osteoarthritis. Even people who have a these conditions can make drastic improvements to how they function and their pain levels by improving muscle function around the affected joints and improving joint alignment.

The worry when someone thinks they have hurt their back by doing an activity such as sweeping leaves or shovelling snow is they is they associate movement and exercise as the cause of the pain; therefore not moving and reducing exercises is seen as the solution. Unfortunately this can lead into a downward spiral of deconditioned muscles, poor posture and stiffening up resulting in more pain. This cycle can be broken by introducing gentle Pilates exercises gradually and building up stability, control and flexibility. So, first of all move, then improve functional movement and increase to higher performance Pilates.


Movement itself is known to reduce painful stimuli to the nerves and your physio or Pilates instructor can help you find the best ways to move and advise you on balancing movement and structured rest.

Pilates is great for back pain because it can be tailored to your level of ability and you can progress at your own rate. A balanced Pilates class will find and challenge areas you need to work on: The flexibility of joints and muscles, balance, body awareness and control. You will work on your posture and alignment of joints, improving your sense of how to hold yourself well when not moving. Your core stability,  the deep muscles in your torso which should work at a low level all the time, will improve to help you maintain an aligned posture. Recent research has shown that Pilates can improve bone health, therefore reducing your osteoporosis risk. For our older clients, your risk of falling is reduced through improved balance, but if you are unlucky enough to fall, you will have reduced your fracture risk by doing Pilates.


Our clients have long known the benefits of Pilates for their back pain. I wanted to share some feedback we received from clients recently:

I managed to do the Chicago marathon, which was a complete medical miracle as I literally couldn’t walk with the pain two weeks previously. The consultant can’t believe it either so I had another MRI Scan on Monday – with the results coming next week……

I have to say I was unsure about Pilates before as I always wanted to go to classes that got the ‘sweat on ‘! There are massive benefits for all ages groups – whether you are sporty or not.

“Having suffered lower back pain of varying degrees for many years my frustration with it increased in line with my interested in cycling.  I decided to seek a long term solution which came in the form of Pilates.  This increased my core strength providing more stability in my back and worked wonders on and off the bike including eliminating my pain.”

The best time to start Pilates is now. Whether you have never had low back pain or had it frequently, the sooner you get started, the sooner you can reduce the number of episodes of back pain and if you do get pain, you can reduce the duration and intensity of it. You may even manage to prevent it all together.


Take what you learn in your Pilates class and apply it in how you move every day. This will make a huge difference in how quickly you progress your practice and you will notice far more benefits than practicing for your one or two hours of Pilates a week.

Strictly Pilates for Dancers

It’s that time of year again, we start looking out our winter woollies, the leaves start to turn gorgeous shades of red and orange, and of course on a Saturday and Sunday night we’re glued to the TV watching our favourite celebrities strut their stuff on Strictly Come Dancing.


Inevitably, inspired by the effortless-looking cha cha or tango that the professional dancers pull off week after week or maybe by the spectacular costumes, we start looking into local ballroom dance classes. At the very least we pull a few sneaky moves in front of the mirror when there’s definitely no-one watching! Wherever we dance, we all want to be judged as ‘punchy and dynamic’ and with ‘power, drama, passion and beauty’, to steal a few of the Strictly judges’ favourite praises.

If we do get out there and learn a few steps at a class, how do we avoid tripping up or losing balance and potentially injuring ourselves? Or even avoid the scathing verdict of the judges? I’d rather not dance at all than be called ‘flat footed and stompy’, ouch!


Professional dancers know that they have to work hard to prevent injuries in their daily working lives and many companies send all their dancers to Pilates classes to prevent imbalances and maintain muscles at optimum strength and length. Pilates contributes to the core stability, coordination and balance required when moving quickly and changing direction in complex routines. In addition it builds your body into a strong foundation which means you can do some much more impressive moves and put some flair into it!

Hamstring injuries are common, especially where a dancer is frequently performing the splits. Any dancer who is lifting a partner is at risk of wrist, shoulder and low back injuries if they have not trained their core and upper quadrant (the collective term for the collarbone, shoulderblade and shoulder joint) to support their partner and withstand the fast movements involved in a lift.

The most common injuries dancers pick up are of the foot and ankle, but they can really injure any part of the body depending on the demands of the style of dance they are doing. Ballet dancers need to balance on their toes and maintain great strength and precision while demonstrating extreme flexibility; at the other end of the spectrum a breakdancer will need incredible upper body strength and coordination. Pilates addresses core and global strength, flexibility, coordination, balance and lung function which can all improve dance performance.


Following a programme of Pilates can help build a good foundation to prevent injuries when doing the activities you want and also give you the poise and balance to improve your performance. Like Abbey Clancy was told, after working on her core, her tango was ‘snappier than the crack of a whip’!

Reference: http://hjd.med.nyu.edu/harkness/patients/common-dance-injuries