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Having a neutral pelvis and a neutral spine is something that is talked about frequently; whether in an article about how to ride, or in an article about our health. But what are they and why are they really so important? 

As horse riders, I suppose the main reason they are so important is because we need to find our neutral pelvis and spine to become effective riders. But there is a far more fundamental reason to worry about finding our neutral spine and pelvis, a reason that applies to everyone, horse rider or not and that is our own long term health depends on it! Stated another way, if you are not in neutral spine and pelvic alignment, your body has to compensate somehow for the less than ideal posture, which causes unnecessary and potential harmful strain in your shoulders, back and/or legs.

A neutral pelvis is exactly the same thing in every human body. It is the alignment of the ASIS (Anterior Superior Iliac Spine) or the bony protuberances at the front of your pelvic girdle (that are often called your hips bones) and the pubic bone on the Sagittal Plane (or in other words the front or anterior plane.)

You can create this alignment when lying down, sitting on a chair, kneeling, standing or riding a horse and in Pilates we look for this alignment at the start of every movement. 

A neutral spine is different in everybody, although it has the same elements which are the natural and balanced curves of the spine that occur when the pelvis is in neutral. This is important because it is only when we have the natural curvature of the spine that we get the maximum amount of space between each of our vertebra. Each vertebra is shaped with slightly angled tops and bottoms so that they fit against each other (with the discs in between) to create these curves. When they have the natural curves and the maximum spaces in between, the nerves can flow out of your spinal cord without impingement or resistance. If the spaces are compromised you can get trapped nerves leading to severe back pain and sciatica.

We therefore need as much space between adjacent vertebrae as possible.  Obviously our spinal discs are there to do just this but over time those discs degenerate and we need to use muscles to support and separate our vertebra instead, which is why correct exercise becomes increasingly more important the older we get.

Now whilst a neutral pelvis is exactly the same in every person, the neutral spine is different for each individual.  Everyone’s spine curves a little (to some degree or another) at the neck, upper back, and lower back. These curves, which create your spine’s S shape, are called the lordotic (neck and lower back) and kyphotic (upper back). They help your body:

  • • Absorb shock
  • • Support the weight of the head
  • • Align your head over your pelvis
  • • Stabilize and maintain the structure of the spine
  • • Move and bend flexibly 

We can’t set a neutral spine because it is the height of each individual’s vertebrae as well as the particular angles of the tops and bottoms of those vertebrae that determine the size of the curves.  However when we achieve a neutral pelvis we get a neutral spine – we don’t set the curves, they exist and we can then work to strengthen and balance the muscles to further support the spine.

Of course, life and age seems to do the utmost to ruin the correct curvature of our spine.  With all the imbalances of life that we develop over time we end up tipping our pelvis one way or the other, or tipping our shoulder girdle forward or back, and eliminating the natural and correct curvature in our spine.

As a Pilates Instructor as well as a Rider Biomechanics coach one of the common problems I see is the hollow backed rider – or more correctly someone with anterior pelvic tilt. This is when your hip bones (or your ASIS) are tipped forward of the pubic bone which creates an over arch in the lower back. As a rider the consequences of this posture are:

  • • Insecurity in the saddle
  • • Limited suppleness of the shoulder girdle and hips
  • • A difficulty in obtaining an elastic contact
  • • Encourages the rider to ride from their shoulders and hands and not from their core
  • • Perches the rider on top of the horse
  • • Lower or mid-back pain
  • • Weak Core
  • • Tight hamstrings

The opposite of the hollow backed rider is the C-shaped rider or a rider with a posterior pelvic tilt. This is when the hip bones are tipped backward of the pubic bone (tucked pelvis). This is frequently accompanied by a rounding of the spine and a tendency to look down. This postural problem is not uncommon with those who spend a long time sitting in front of a computer or at a desk. As a rider the consequences of this posture are:

  • • Chair seat
  • • Strain on intervertebral discs
  • • Being left behind the movement of the horse
  • • Rounded shoulders
  • • Causes the rider to look down, or to jut the chin
  • • Using the reins for balance

In life, we move our pelvis through both anterior and posterior tilt, our pelvis and spine are supposed to be able to pass through all sorts of different tilts and curves.  However we need to be able to find and stabilize our position in neutral pelvis on command. Now, it’s Dynamic Stability we’re looking for not a rigid, forced stability.  That is a position that is created not by one set of muscles, but a multitude of muscles that are in balance with each other to keep up this dynamic stability.

So which muscles do you need to work with to obtain a healthy spine and improve your riding?  Well I suppose the answer is any that connect to your pelvis as well as all the spinal extensors and flexors!  That is your transverse abdominals, the rectus abdominals, your psoas, illiacus, periformis, gluteus maximus, medius and minimus, the quadriceps, the hamstrings, the adductors and adductors, etc.etc.

Probably one of the most important exercise you can do to begin with is one that creates an awareness of just where your hips and pelvis are, one that allows you to feel the full range of movement of your pelvis and spine, that passes from anterior tilt, through neutral pelvis to posterior tilt (and back again).

On the Mat

Lie in Relaxation Position, knees bent, feet flat on floor a hip width apart. Rest your arms by your side.

Release the muscles of your back and let the weight of your body sink onto the floor. Make a mental note of where you feel the weight of your body touching the floor.

Now take an inhale breath and on the exhale scoop in your abdominal muscles and lift your Pubic bone towards the ceiling. This should move the top of your pelvis towards the floor (posterior tilt) flattening your lower back into the mat.

On the next inhale take your hip bones forwards and downwards towards your thighs which will move your lower back away from the floor (anterior pelvic tile), and increase the arch in your back.

Slowly alternate between flattening and arching your back, inhaling as you arch your spine and exhaling as you flatten your spine to the floor.

Gradually decrease your range of movement, until like a pendulum moving more and more slowly your lower back comes to rest in its natural curve and your pelvis is in neutral. 

When your pelvis is in neutral alignment, your pubic bone and the ASIS (left and right hip bones) will be parallel to the floor.

For more information on Pilates exercises for your pelvis and spine and how Pilates can improve your riding visit my website https://frangriffith.com Here you will find a number of free videos and articles as well as details of how to join live on demand classes for Riders, or subscribe to a monthly membership that grants you access to a plethora of videos at anytime.

As both a Rider Biomechanics coach and a Pilates Instructor I hear a lot of people complain about having tight hamstrings. But what causes tight hamstrings?

Quite simply, most of us spend far too long sitting down and not enough time up and about stretching and lengthening our hamstrings. You’re particularly prone to tight hamstrings if you’ve got a desk job. In this scenario, the vast majority of your time is spent sitting at your chair hunched over a computer. In a normal sitting position your hamstrings are in a contracted position and the more time you spend like this the more your muscle has the chance to shorten which leads to tightness. This means that cyclists and horse riders are particularly prone to tight hamstrings as their sports also involve sitting.

Tight hamstrings can be prone to spraining, straining or even seriously tearing when placed under stress. A tight hamstring can also pull your pelvis out of alignment which can lead to all sorts of postural problems. Similarly, tight hamstrings can also cause knee, calf or Achilles injuries.

Walking regularly, staying mobile and stretching can help prevent your hamstrings from contracting or getting tight. But sometimes it is not the hamstrings that are causing the problem, which is why simply stretching the hamstrings doesn’t work for some people!

And just because your hamstrings feel tight, it doesn’t mean that they are. The tightness you are feeling could be caused by weak gluteal (bottom) muscles, anterior pelvic tilt, or tight hip flexors.

Obviously the first thing to do is check to see if your hamstrings are really tight or just feel that way.

Sit on the floor with one knee bent up, foot on the floor, and the other leg straight out in front of you. Hold onto the knee that is bent and reach down toward the foot of your straight leg. If you can’t touch your toes while keeping your knee straight, then you have tight hamstrings.

If you cannot touch your toes, you could always do a double-check and try this test. Lie on your back and try to raise one leg straight up to the ceiling. If you can get your leg beyond an 80-degree angle, then your hamstrings are not tight and you’ll need to work on your hips or butt.

However assuming it is your hamstrings there are a great number of exercises and stretches that you can do to help loosen them, and doing a regular Pilates class is an ideal way to not only lengthen your hamstrings but to work on gluteal muscles and hip flexors at the same time. It’s always a good idea to warm up your muscles before stretching. Try taking a walk or doing some other activity so your muscles are warm before starting any exercise programme.

Never stretch while you’re in pain or try to force a stretch. Don’t hold your breath while doing stretching exercises, if possible breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Try to incorporate hamstring stretches into your routine at least a couple of times a week.

I have shown a couple of stretches below but if you would like further exercises that can help you, you might like to consider joining a live Pilates class or taking out a Premium Plus subscription which will give you unlimited access to any number of Pilates videos .

Seated

Sit on the ground in a butterfly (long frog) position.

Extend your right leg with your knee slightly bent.

Then bend forward at your waist over your right leg.

You may hold your lower leg for support, but don’t force the stretch.

Hold for 10 seconds and work up to 30 seconds.

Repeat with your other leg. Repeat this stretch with each leg two to three times total.

Downward Dog

Start on the floor on your hands and knees. Curl your toes under and straighten your legs, sending your tailbone towards the ceiling. Tight hamstrings may make this pose difficult, so you can keep your knees bent slightly if necessary. Just make sure to keep a straight spine.

Take a few deep breaths or hold for a count of 20 before return to your hands and knees.

More and more middle-aged and older people ride now. In fact there are more of us than ever before, you only have to look on Facebook and see just how many groups are dedicated to women over a certain age (sorry guys) who ride horses! And although some of those ladies will have had horses their entire lives, many of them are only getting their first horse now their children have grown up, or they have retired and have some time!

Unfortunately riding on its own isn’t enough to develop or maintain the core strength and flexibility we need to become the riders our horses want us to be. As we grow older it becomes harder and harder to get fit, or even just to maintain our fitness and suppleness. Even taking into account the amount of general exercise we do just looking after our horse, it still isn’t enough when we are in our 40s, 50s, 60s or beyond. Those years of working at a desk, sitting at a computer or behind a wheel have taken their toll.

Whether your interests lie in just hacking or trail riding or in dressage or endurance riding doesn’t matter. We shouldn’t be a burden for our horse when we sit on his back and unless we sit in balance and alignment in the saddle our riding will be detrimental to our horse.

As a Rider Biomechanics coach as well as a Pilates instructor, the most frequent “problem” areas I see in the older rider are tight hip flexors, lack of core muscles and postural imbalance (sitting more to one side than the other). Tight hip flexors in the rider restricts the movement of the horse’s back, causes the rider’s knees to creep up and can cause pain in the rider’s lower back. A weak core in the rider can create balance issues, causing the rider to be left behind the movement or pulled out of the saddle. Postural imbalance may cause the saddle to slip, affect the way the horse moves on a straight line or circle and even more alarmingly lead to back problems for the horse.

As riders, most of us have to juggle time spent riding and looking after our horse(s) with all the other aspects of our daily lives, but investing a little time in an exercise regime such as Pilates for your body will be hugely beneficial for both yourself and your horse.

Pilates is an excellent way to help the rider become more aware of their body and to teach them how to isolate and use specific muscle groups. Targeted exercises help improve the rider’s core, suppleness, flexibility and alignment.

If you haven’t done Pilates before it is a good idea to start with a Pilates for Beginners course as you really need to learn the fundamentals, otherwise you might like to  look at one of the courses aimed specifically for riders, be they on the mat, at the yard or on a Swiss Ball.

Once you start your course it is important to remember that you need to do the sessions regularly. As we grow older improving our fitness and suppleness takes time but losing condition and fitness seems to happen virtually overnight.

You can start improving your core strength by just sitting on Swiss Ball whilst you watch TV  – as you need to use your core just to stay balanced. Other exercises that are really beneficial for riders include Pelvic Circles on the Ball, Abdominal Curls, The Bridge, The Plank, Oblique Stretch and Scarecrow.

Rider Biomechanics is not just about sitting in a pretty position it is about understanding the forces put on your body by your horse’s movement and the forces that your body put upon your horse’s body.

Sitting well on a horse is much more difficult than a non-rider can possibly imagine. The most important thing for us, as riders, to understand is that it is our responsibility to have an awareness of our own body and to know whether we are sitting in alignment, or out of balance. For example: are you aware if your right hip is dominant and you sit more heavily to the right? Are you able to follow your horse’s movement or do you block his back with your seat?

Really good riders who seem to expend very little effort while sitting on big moving horses aren’t up there doing nothing, they are able to mirror their horse’s movement and enhance it. Just as an elite figure skater makes her routine look easy or a professional dancer on Strictly Dancing seems to float across the floor an excellent rider can appear to be absolutely motionless whilst her horse performs superb extensions across the diagonal or intricate lateral movements. They are all athletes who have to work hard on their own bodies to ensure suppleness, flexibility and core strength.

All too frequently riders are happy to spend hours schooling or exercising their horses but aren’t prepared to spend anytime exercising or schooling their own bodies. Pilates is ideal for horse riders as it not only helps improve your flexibility, it promotes suppleness, strengthens the core and encourages a greater awareness of the body’s alignment. Fortunately there are now a plethora of on-line exercise classes aimed at riders, so not having time is no longer a valid excuse.

Making sure that you can sit on your horse with your spine in alignment when your horse is at a halt is a good place to start. You will need to check that you are lined up vertically from ear, through shoulder and hip to heel. This basic position allows your pelvis to be in neutral with your seat bones aiming directly down; and your lower back neither rounded nor hollow. Your abdominal and lower back muscles (core) need to be toned enough to keep your spine stabilised. Your vertebrae should not articulate to absorb the up and down of your horse’s movement this should be done by a vertical bilateral movement of your hips. Your thigh should be resting snugly, inwardly rotated on the saddle, so you can use your thigh or knee as an aid when required.  The angle of your thigh should ideally be between 40 and 45 degrees. Any shorter and you will find yourself forced into a chair seat and any longer can cause you to over-arch your back unless your hips are really supple. Your foot should rest really lightly in the stirrup, so that you remain soft and supple in the ankle joint. If you force your heels down you will lock the ankle, knee and hip joints. According to the old masters of the Spanish Riding School your foot should rest so lightly in the stirrup, the stirrup could be blown off by a breath of wind.

Once you start moving it is your hips and pelvis that should influence your horse. Be aware that your horse will always tend to move under weight, and that this can be used to your advantage or used against you.

To really see how well you are sitting get a biomechanics coach to access you. Alternatively if you live within travelling distance of West Wales book a session on PI the electronic horse.

This short article has only touched briefly on the rider.  Asymmetry in the horse can have as detrimental effect on your position as much as our asymmetry can affect the horse. There is just so much to learn about biomechanics and the more I understand the more fascinating the subject becomes.

I remember as a child thinking that being told that you had good hands as a rider was the ultimate compliment. It was certainly something I dreamed of being told. Of course, as riders we all want good hands, I mean who wants to be told that their hands are bad or harsh?  But what in fact is meant by the term “good hands,” and more importantly how can we know if we have them or if we haven’t got them, what can we do to achieve them? 

Basically good hands are those that are totally independent of the seat. They are able to maintain a light contact with the horse’s mouth and coordinate with the primary aids (weight or leg) for transitions, turns and changes of pace. Conversely, bad hands are hands that are used to maintain balance, pull backwards, or are hard or uneven (when one hand is more dominant than the other. Many riders think that hardly holding the reins at all make good hands, but this isn’t true. Whilst light hands don’t disturb the horse or cause damage to the mouth or nose (if you’re riding bitless) they lack clarity and can’t support or help the horse find balance. Good hands should influence the horse’s balance, carriage and movement when minute changes of pressure on the reins are used in conjunction with other primary aids. 

Obviously our hands are attached through the arms to our body and if our body isn’t right then our hands won’t be either. To obtain good hands there are 3 pre-requisites that are essential for the rider; a) a strong core, b) an independent seat and c) correct postural alignment.

Without a strong core you can’t have an independent seat, and without an independent seat you can’t have good hands. The core isn’t just a sixpack, it is the whole corset of muscles between your torso and your seat that support your spine. Doing Pilates on a regular basis is a great way to strengthen the core as all the movements initiate from the powerhouse (core). 

The next prerequisite for good hands is an independent seat, a seat that is secure and supple enough so you don’t bounce as the horse moves, but are able to move with him. An independent seat allows you to maintain your balance throughout transitions (and spooks) without having to use your hands to stay on.

Finally, you need good alignment, so that you are able to sit in balance with your shoulders aligned over your hips and heels. Looking down, rounding or hollowing the back puts the shoulder blades in a stiff, forced and awkward position, which causes tension in the shoulders and consequently in the arms and hands (and not to mention in the horse). Our upper arms should fall from our “shoulder girdle” – which includes the shoulder blades, collarbones, and shoulder joints – with our lower arms forming a straight line between our elbows and our horse’s mouth. The shoulder and elbow joints are the major shock absorbers between the rider’s body and the horse’s mouth. Consequently, straight arms actually cause hard hands.

Modern lifestyles encourage the muscles in the front of our chest to become shorter and tighter than those in our upper back. When these muscles are too tight or overused, they cause us to round our shoulders and collapse our chest. Humans are also natural “grabbers” so it is common for riders to use their biceps and the muscles in their forearms when asking for a downward transition. However the muscles we should use are those that stabilize the shoulders and back.

Whilst obtaining good hands can be a lifetime journey we can speed up that journey by working on our bodies off the horse. Here are two exercises that will help strengthen the muscles we need to use in our upper back and shoulders and create a great awareness of the positioning of our shoulder blades.

Shoulder roll—Lift your shoulders up toward your ears, roll them back and release them down behind your ribs. Do this several times with your elbows bent as if you were holding reins. As your shoulders and elbows drop, your elbows become “heavy,” your back feels strong and solid, and your hands come into a good position with thumbs on top. This will help fix “elbows out” and “piano hands.”

Dumb waiter – Bend your arms so that you form a right angle at the elbow and bring your forearms in front of you, palm upwards – as though you were a waiter holding a tray on each hand. Now open your forearms to the side, keeping your upper arms by your side. You should feel your shoulder blades drop down and your chest open. Close your forearms to the starting position. Repeat 10 times. This will help fix rounded shoulders.

When you release your shoulders, your shoulder girdle finds its correct positioning and your arms can then move freely at the shoulder joints, making it easier to follow your horse’s head and neck. To halt, or if a horse pulls against you, engage your core and let your arm pits drop downwards, thinking “heavy elbows.” At the same time, exhale. This will help stabilize your seat and stop you pulling backwards.

The actual angle of your elbows depends on how high your horse’s head carriage is. Ideally, as already mentioned, there should be a straight line from the horse’s mouth along the rein, through your hand, wrist and forearm to your elbow. This means the bit acts “neutrally” with neither up nor down pressure. If your hands are higher, the line is broken upward which puts the pressure up into the corners of the horse’s lips. If your hands drop below the ideal line, the pressure is downward against the tongue and bars of the horse’s mouth, which makes a jointed mouthpiece “break” over the lower jaw with a sharp angle, causing severe pressure. You will of course need to adjust your hand position if your horse raises or lowers his head.

The wrist should be straight, never bent inward or backward, and not tipped up or down. Hold your wrist as if you were shaking hands—straight but relaxed, with the edge of the wrist up. Some riders ride with “piano hands”—with the knuckles up, as if playing the piano. This causes the two long bones of the forearm (ulna and radius) to cross, making the wrist and elbow stiff. Unfortunately bad habits can be hard to break, so if you have a tendency to ride with piano hands, or if your hands go up and down when you do a rising trot, here is a fun exercise to help fix the problems.

Sit on a Swiss (or gym) Ball with a riding crop in your hands. Rest the stick over the top of your index fingers and place your thumbs on top of the stick. Rest your hands (little finger downwards) on your thighs. Your hands should be about 5 or 6 inches apart and your feet should be a hip width apart. Your knees should be at right angles with your feet in line with your knees.  Start gently bouncing on the ball, trying to keep the contact between your pinkie fingers and your thigh.  Play around with increasing the tempo and practice sudden stops by engaging your core, sitting tall and thinking heavy elbows.

Riders are often told to squeeze the reins when asking a horse to halt, slow down, turn or flex at the poll, but a long, hard squeeze encourages a horse to brace. There is a method of squeezing softly that I find can work well. Hold your reins in a soft fist, with your fingertips lightly touching the palm and your thumb resting on the rein. Now imagine that you have a dab of saddle soap on the ball of your thumb; press the ball of your thumb down and forward on the rein, as if you were smearing the saddle soap toward the horse’s mouth. This produces a progressive squeeze of all four fingers without pulling backward. Ideally this should be done with just one hand.

Most riders will have heard trainers talking about the importance of core strength, but what do they really mean by this. Very often the expression core strength is taken to mean our rectus abdominal muscles (commonly known as a six pack) but this isn’t really right, just having a good 6 pack is not going to help our riding. The core, often referred to in Pilates as “the powerhouse” is much more than just these muscles – it is our entire central unit, including all the muscles that affect the stabilization of the spine, pelvis and ribcage, and as such plays a major role in how we ride.

An unstable pelvis creates an unstable ribcage and shoulder girdle. This lack of stability doesn’t just affect the rider it influences the horse as well. So it makes sense that we “school” our own bodies as well as that of our horse.

There are basically 8 key muscles involved in creating good core stability. These are:

The Obliques

Both the internal and external obliques are situated to the side and front of the abdomen, with the internal obliques running in the opposite direction to our external obliques. These are the muscles that are responsible for turning our torso or hips and are vitally important for keeping us evenly stacked when riding our horse. Think of the obliques as stiff guide ropes that are responsible for holding the sides of our body up evenly and allowing us to turn without collapsing to one side.

Transverse Abdominus

These muscles are situated under the obliques and form a brace that wraps around our centre and helps protect the spine. It is these muscle that engages when you cough.

Quadratus Lumborum

The quadratus lumborum or QL is a muscle of the posterior abdominal wall. It is the deepest abdominal muscle and commonly referred to as a back muscle. It is irregular and quadrilateral in shape and broader below than above. It attaches to the bottom rib and to the lumbar vertebrae as well as the back of the pelvis (iliac crest). This muscle has a major influence on how we move, stand and ride our horse. It is a lateral flexor which means it has the control of whether we tip or rock to one side in the saddle.

Piriformis

This muscle runs from the front of the sacrum, through the pelvis to join the thigh bone (femur) at the greater trochanter on each side of our body. The piriformis laterally rotates the femur with hip extension and abducts the femur with hip flexion. Abduction of the flexed thigh is important in the action of riding as it allows us to open our hips. The action of the lateral rotators can be understood by crossing the legs to rest an ankle on the knee of the other leg. This causes the femur to rotate and point the knee laterally. Running right next to the sciatic nerve tightness in the piriformis can cause sharp sciatica-like pain.

Psoas

The psoas (there are two, one on the left and one on the right) originate along the sides of the vertebral bodies of the 12th thoracic vertebrae and extend down to the 5th lumbar vertebrae, and along the sides of the intervertebral spinal discs. They then travel down deep in the abdomen to attach below the lesser trochanter of the femur which is located towards the inner thigh region. The psoas is joined at the hip (literally), by the iliacus, which travels from the hip to the thigh. Together, the psoas and iliacus make up the iliopsoas–the body’s most powerful hip flexor.

The psoas is an extremely important muscle for riders. It is the psoas that enables you to move your legs and hips independently.  Every time you lift your knee, the psoas contracts. When your leg swings back, the psoas lengthens. You use your psoas to tuck your pelvis under. The psoas also promotes good posture. In conjunction with the other muscles, the psoas helps stabilize your midsection and pelvis. Every time you stand, walk, or ride, you’re engaging the psoas. If the muscle is compromised, either by injury or tightness, your riding inevitably suffers.

Gluteus Maximus

Is the largest and most superficial of the three gluteal (glutes) muscles and makes up a large portion of the shape and appearance of each side of the hips. Along with the psoas it helps control the front to back balance of the hips. When tight it can inhibit the movement of the horse’s back and when weak can affect the riders balance in the saddle.

Gluteus Medius and Gluteus Minimus

The gluteus medius and gluteus minimus function together to rotate the hip inward as well as outwards. They are crucial for helping the rider stay balanced in the centre of the saddle.

This is a just a small selection of the muscles that make up your core and are involved in stabilizing the lower half of your body. By understanding the role that these muscles play you will be able to become more aware of the areas that you may need to work on to improve your riding.

These are a variety of exercises that you can do to strengthen this muscle group, these include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Plank (core, thighs, glutes, shoulders)
  • Side plank (core, obliques)
  • Plank Shoulder Taps (core, arms, glutes, shoulders)
  • Bridge (core, psoas, glutes, hamstrings)
  • Side Plank – Thread the Needle (obliques, quadratus lumborum, glutes)
  • Boat – (abdominals, core, psoas, lower back)
  • Criss Cross (abdominals, obliques)
  • Bird Dog (abdominals, core, lower back, glutes)

Plus Plank on a gym ball, Bird Dog on a gym ball, Lying side oblique raise on a gym ball and swimming on a gym ball!

As horse riders we know that a huge emphasis is placed on our body’s alignment. From the moment we have our first riding lesson we will have been told to sit up tall, pull our shoulders back and balance on our seat bones. But what is alignment and why is it so important for our riding?

Anyone who has experienced a session on PI (my electronic horse) will have seen how sitting even slightly out of alignment can have a huge impact on how our weight is distributed over our horse’s back. 

If you imagine your body is made up of building blocks, we basically want to be able to stack each block on the one below. When you are riding, your bottom building block is the pelvis, the next block is the rib cage and shoulders and the final block is the head and neck. If each of these blocks are stacked correctly then we will be in balance, but if one of these blocks isn’t sitting correctly on the one below or is crooked then we are out of alignment and out of balance.

But why is alignment so important and why does incorrect alignment affect not only our riding but our health as well?

A great analogy is your car. When you get your car serviced, it’s wheel alignment is checked. This is essential not only so that the tyres perform optimally, but that you can drive safely in the direction you want. When the wheels aren’t aligned correctly your car will pull to one side and the tyres will wear badly. 

The same is true for us. If we aren’t aligned properly or stacked correctly, then our horse may well veer in the direction of our weight (falling in or out), and compromise our own back and joints through unnecessary wear and tear. Add a horse’s movement underneath you and you’re going to create even more stress on your body. The impact and force on joints that aren’t aligned properly can be immense and over time can reduce the length of your riding career. Even worse is the fact that if we are seriously out of alignment to can cause major damage to our horse’s back and legs.

Correcting our alignment starts with the position of our pelvis. When we’re riding, we want to make sure our pelvis is stacked up correctly and we’re on our seat bones evenly. It is only when we have a neutral pelvis that can our hips move freely. If our pelvis is positioned too far forward (anterior tilt) we restrict movement in our lumbar spine and can create vulnerability in our lower back. If our pelvis is positioned too far back (chair seat) our legs will have a tendency to creep forward and upwards, leave us behind the movement and frequently causes our horse to sag his back behind the saddle. If our alignment is off and we’re sitting to one side, we’re going to create more stress in that hip, and compromise our horse’s back.

Once we have got our pelvis sorted out we need to ensure our torso block is also stacked correctly. Although the placement of each block effects the placement of the others, it doesn’t always follow that because you have your pelvis right, the rest of your spine will also be in ideal alignment. The ribcage block can be tilted to the front, to the back, to the side or even rotationally shifted! Our torso can It’s also important to make sure our spine is stacked up correctly and we’ve developed a strong core with a neutral spine. Good shoulder posture comes next. If we’ve got a blockage happening in our upper body, it’s going to affect what’s happening with our hands and reins, ultimately affecting how the horse moves and responds.

Good alignment is not just about creating a visually pleasing picture. It’s not even just about making sure you protect and look after your own body, its about looking after both your body and the welfare of your horse! 

This is where Pilates can really help riders. One of the cornerstones of Pilates is alignment. From a Pilates perspective good alignment helps your whole body to function correctly. It’s really hard to for us to correct our body’s alignment when we’re sitting on top of our horse as we have to contend with the force of the horse moving underneath us. We need to improve our posture by working on ourselves while we’re off the horse! 

For an online class dealing with this subject please click here.

Horse riders tend to be busy people by both necessity and nature. Trying to hold a job down, look after the horse and the house, do the shopping and exercise the horse all takes time.

Riders are also creatures of habit, so that when we muck out we tend to always hold the broom the same way, one because it is easier and two because it is faster to do it the way we know. The same happens when we ride, if for example, we have a tendency to overarch our back, then we will continue to overarch our back, even after it has been pointed out to us, because that is the way our body feels correct. To make the corrections in our riding we need, we first have to make the changes in our body.

This is where Pilates can help. Pilates helps to teach us body awareness and overtime helps us hold ourselves more correctly. Whilst I appreciate that for many riders trying to fit Pilates into their busy lives can feel like a mammoth undertaking, finding 15 to 20 minutes to do Pilates once or twice a week is hugely beneficial. 

As a whole, the Equestrian industry seems at long last to be recognizing the benefits of Pilates for both rider fitness and equine wellness with magazines like BHS, Horse and Hound and Your Horse frequently publish articles about the benefit of Pilates and why, we as riders need to work on our own bodies as well as those of our horse’s. It is now acknowledged that rider fitness and posture has a direct impact on the ability of the horse to perform and riders are aware that their asymmetries and compensatory patterns affect the way their horse moves and can over time, lead to the horse needing either veterinary or equine osteopathy intervention.

So how can Pilates help? Basically one of the main reasons for horse riders to do Pilates is to ensure that when we are in the saddle we have as much mobility of the hips and pelvis as possible, along with the necessary spinal stability and core strength to balance our body weight, so that we don’t have to hang on either with hands or legs to keep our balance or get left behind or in front of the movement. The simplest way to think of how a rider’s balance can influence a horse is to consider the impact of carrying a backpack with uneven straps or uneven weight in it. It’s difficult. If our weight is not equally distributed on our horses back then it will influence the way the horse moves, which is why weight aids work. We need to be able to sit in balance and use our weight to influence the horse in the way we want, not necessarily in the way it does. If our horse cannot determine when a ‘weight aid’ is being applied it can lead to frustration for both us and our horse. We think the horse is being disobedient when in fact the horse is doing exactly what we have unconsciously asked it to do. We also want our body to allow the horse to move freely and not inadvertently block the movement. We want to be able to move with the horse and not be behind or in front of the movement.

Both horse and human spines need flexion, extension, rotation, and lateral flexion. By improving our proprioception, core strength and suppleness, along with our balance, alignment, and stamina, we are able to use our body to influence the movement of our horse in a far more efficient way. The mixture of alignment and self-awareness that regular Pilates imparts improves both the rider’s seat and confidence. Our riding becomes quieter and subtler and our horse starts to respond better.

Taking Pilates classes or following an online course allows these skills to develop and become unconscious habits. The depth of change and skills required comes from repetition, practice, and familiarity. It pays dividends to practice regularly.

So it is time to stop thinking: “I get fit by riding” and to start thinking “I need to get fit to ride!”

One of the most common problems I see with riders when I am doing Posture Assessment and Awareness Clinics are tight hips. This can manifest itself as an inability for the rider to turn their upper leg at the hip, toes turned out, problems with adjusting their pelvis to implement weight aids or just downright pain or discomfort in their hips or lower back. 

Weak and tight hips are not limited to riders either. Modern lifestyle, such as sitting for long periods of time at an office desk, driving a car or just sitting down to watch TV can cause our gluteus muscles to weaken and our hip flexors to shorten and become tight.

As riders, our hips are a part of the body that we really need to keep in shape. However many of us pay them little attention until they start to hurt. Tight hip flexors not only lead to problems with our riding but potentially can cause problems to our posture as a whole, such as an anterior pelvic tilt which can lead to lower back and knee pain.  Hip problems also tend to develop as we age, so if we want to continue to ride and get the most out of our horse, we need to start looking after our hip flexors.

Several muscles cross the front of the hip and create hip flexion, but one of the most important of these muscles is the iliopsoas, comprising of the iliacus and the psoas, which lie deep in the back of the abdomen. Other important hip flexor muscles include the periformis, the tensor fasciae latae (TFL), the rectus femoris (one of the four quad muscles) as well as the gluteus maximus (which is on the back of your hip or buttocks) and the gluteus medius, which is the primary muscle on the side of your hip.

While each muscle functions slightly differently, their overall combination allows them to flex the hip joint, anteriorly rotate the pelvis, and extend the lumbar spine. Due to its’ attachment on the vertebral bodies of the lumbar spine, the psoas also plays an important role in lumbar spine stabilization. 

While the primary function of the hip joint is to provide support for the torso it also needs to be able to facilitate movement of the legs.  As riders we need maintain a healthy range of motion at the joint as we need to strike a balance between strength and flexibility that allows for safe and efficient movement.

The most common problem that riders have with their hip flexors is lack of flexibility. Incorporating a few simple exercises in to a daily regime will not only improve your day-to-day mobility, but also help your riding.

Here are two stretches that are simple to do:

Piriformis Stretch

Lie on the floor with both legs straight. Bend one leg and place the foot just above the opposite knee.

Use your hand to increase the stretch by pulling the crossed knee toward your opposite shoulder, stretching the piriformis muscle.

Remember to go gently into and out of the stretch, and use a little pressure from your hand to resist against the muscles you want to stretch.

Frog Stretch

Get on your hands and knees, so that you are four square. Slowly widen your knees out as far as they can go and bring your feet in line with your knees, so that your lower leg forms a right angle or 90° bend at your knee. Your shins should be parallel with one another.

Flex your feet so your toes are also at right angles and your heels are pointing towards each other and ease yourself forward onto your forearms. Hold for a count of 30.

During the stretch try slowly moving your hips forward and backward to bring the stretch to different parts of your hips.

It doesn’t take much to get your hips working. Join an online Pilates class to get you motivated, ten minutes a day can make all the difference to your flexibility and really help your riding. It can also make the difference between needing a hip replacement, or not!

For those of you who prefer to watch and listen to “how to do” exercises, there is a class on exercises for painful hips here.