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.
Exhale 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.
Start 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
Lying 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