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!”