Fit to Ride: Pilates

By Kim Harries

No matter what style of riding you prefer, having a strong core, and balanced muscles will benefit both you and your horse.

What happens when your horse spooks? Are you able to stay in the middle of the tack or are you suddenly scrambling to try to stay mounted? When you see pictures of yourself riding is one shoulder or hip consistently lower or higher than the other? Do you have one heel that comes up while the other stays down? All of these things affect our horse’s balance and thereby the ability to perform the job that we are asking of them. Strengthening the correct muscles and keeping them long is a must for any rider who wants to sink down into the saddle a little deeper, stretch up a little taller or wrap that calf around their horse, with more weight in their heels. If you are a rider who would like to be more independent with their hands and increase your connection to your horse while in the saddle, Pilates may be for you.

Pilates can be practiced on the floor, using a thick mat for comfort, and also on various apparatus such as the Reformer and Cadillac.

Pilates Mat work is generally done in a group class and can range from using body weight only, with no props, to the use of bands, magic circles and light hand weights.

The figure above illustrates the many muscles used during one such Pilates Mat exercise called the “Single Leg Stretch”. This is a great body-weight only exercise that can be done anywhere, with no additional equipment needed. When properly executed, this exercise strengthens the entire core from front to back while lengthening and strengthening the legs from the top of the thigh down through the calf muscle. A one-hour mat class will get your heart pumping and your body moving, working arms, legs, back and abs. Whichever equestrian discipline you prefer, the condition of your core can mean the difference between ability to stay connected and in balance with your horse or being something that your horse has to “work around”.

The Pilates Reformer is one of the more popular pieces of Pilates apparatus due to its ease of use and ever-evolving repertoire of work that is able to be accomplished. The reformer boasts straps and pulleys, a spring-loaded carriage and a padded foot bar. A one-hour session will challenge you from head to toe, working and stretching your body to be more flexible and vibrant than you may have thought possible. Both group classes and private sessions are available to learn the work on the reformer. One of the greatest things about the reformer for riders is the use of the straps. While executing the movements your arms and legs must work independently and since most of us are stronger on one side than the other, these inconsistencies becoming very obvious. Does your horse regularly land on one lead more than the other? Does your horse have a more fluid shoulder-in going one direction than the other? Does one canter depart seem smooth and effortless and the other seem like you are suddenly riding a different animal? Most horses, like us, favor one side naturally, but if we as riders, are equally balanced and strong on both sides of our bodies, then we will be more able to effortlessly follow our horse’s movements, aiding our horses when they are learning or when asking them to perform difficult movements. This will enable any rider to develop a more harmonious partnership, whether in the show ring or out on the trail.

If you prefer a one-on-one setting, most Pilates studios are happy to oblige. This is a more expensive option but well worth the investment. Working individually with a Pilates instructor will enable you to focus on where your body needs to work the most. Many clients start out with back pain, locked hips and stiff joints. Through the consistent work of the progressive spring tension and wide variety of exercises and stretches, you will find Pilates to be a revitalizing experience that will leave you feeling strong in a whole new way.

One famous quote by the founder of the Pilates Method, Joseph Pilates says, “Pilates is designed to give you suppleness, natural grace, and skill that will be unmistakably reflected in the way you walk, the way you play, and the way you work.”

Just as we ask our horses to be supple and graceful in their bodies, we can also ourselves to be in ours.

All the best in Health, Kim Harries.

Photos © Rita Good

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2015 print edition of The Plaid Horse.