Horse riders spend so much time and money worrying about our horse’s soundness, shoeing or trimming, getting their backs checked, looking at their teeth. We invest in the best fitting saddles we can find, and trial 20 different bits; we buy jumping boots, brushing boots and tendon boots. We pour effort and time into our horses to ensure they are in the best possible health, then we swing on top and ride perfectly. Or do we?
With the best will in the world, a wonderful riding trainer and a deep and comprehensive knowledge of riding techniques, we can still be our horse’s biggest problem. If we are unbalanced and stiff, our horses cannot move freely and with balance. If we have overly tense muscles or sit unevenly, our horses may fall in on a circle, be heavy on the forehand, or land badly from a jump. Our horse's backs, legs and overall health can be damaged; or they can be dealing with constant discomfort from their rider being unbalanced - or simply not fit enough to ride fluidly.
As an adult returning to horse riding, my skills needed a refresh, and I want to become a more intentional rider - rather than relying on natural balance and instinct. One of my core goals is fine-tuning my riding position and centre of balance. Riding lessons with some fabulous coaches have given me lots of insight – thanks Ken Dromgool, Sue Pennington, Dorne Nelson!
I’ve become aware that although some muscle groups have become super strong (helloooo obliques!), some are less fit, and others are too tense (looking at you, glutes!). This unbalanced strength phenomenon is pretty common for equestrians. Visit any stable and you’ll see 5ft tall women swinging hay bales like they are pillows, and gripping 17hh horses between knees of steel. But naturally we all use some muscles more than others, and often, horse riders' muscles involuntarily spasm to protect joints, creating a tense, inflexible seat, or inhibiting balance and breathing.
So, how can Pilates make us better riders?
Researching exercise for riders I found that equestrians worldwide are increasingly looking to supplement their horse riding fitness with other forms of exercise that add strength, balance and flexibility – and make them an asset to their horse’s performance rather than a load the horse must cope with.
When we rode into a recent riding lesson the instructor pointed at a very competent rider and said; "You need pilates!" Pilates is becoming more and more recognised as one of the most effective fitness options for riders.
Because Suna Pilates is a client of mine, I hear a lot about whole body strength, balance, core strength and flexibility – all of which are the fitness holy grail for horse riders! I had to find out more, and was lucky enough to get a one on one session with Pilates Master Trainer and Kinesiologist Susie Cleland.
Perfect posture is priceless in life, and in the saddle
Susie began with a postural adjustment. Right away she noted how my (once broken) left ankle pointed my foot out, and worse; my sway-back-lock-kneed stance. Yes, that stance in the photo above. No wonder my horse looks unimpressed.
Susie explained how posture and balance are built from the ground up, so that sticking my knees back meant that my entire body kinda kinked back and forward from one level to the next. I have always stood like this, and it means that my ankles fall inwards, my leg muscles are disengaged and my knee joints locked, my pelvis tilts and my stomach pokes forward, so my back sways and my upper back is less curved than it should be and my neck tips backwards. No biggie, right? Add to that a stiff sacrum with pain on the right side, and you can bet I was zig-zagging from side to side too. Yowza, my poor horses. What a wonky load I must be to carry.
“When the horse and human are both balanced, they become like one bio-mechanical creature.” – Susie Cleland
Susie explained in detail how to tilt the insides of my upper thighs out… aha, same thing my trainer Dorne said last week in a jumping lesson! … and pull up my kneecaps to engage my leg muscles. This pulled my ankles straight, and immediately I felt the need to move my back into a better position... aha, my trainer Sue’s advice to “breathe down my back”. Then Susie put her finger on my belly button and asked me to breathe away from it… aha, Dromgool Horsemanship’s Ken reminding me to “use your abs!” Susie asked me to lengthen the back of my neck. “Look up!” … yes, every trainer ever. Finally, she pointed out how I was tilted forward, and asked me to move my weight back. Yes, that’s the “shoulders back!” right there. As horses bear the vast majority of their weight on their forelegs, a rider who has their weight forwards adds to this, and can make the horse heavy on the forehand, or at worst result in the horse becoming unsound.
I could feel clearly how much more engaged my body was, and how every aspect of this new posture would benefit my horses when I am in the saddle. Susie explained about the different sets of abdominal muscles and how if they are all equally fit they form a net across the stomach, delivering that incredible core strength that the best equestrians use so effectively. She also demonstrated how the spot between the belly button and pubic bone is our centre of balance and how correct posture helps us find that.
Correct breathing is key to flexible riding – and effective Pilates!
Susie showed me the Suna Pilates breathing technique and explained how using this will strengthen my weakest set of abdominals which were (no surprises) the ones right down the front that are always disengaged when I stand sway-backed, and have not completely zipped up after my pregnancy over 10 years ago. I was astonished when Susie explained that using the active breathing exercise will help these muscles close permanently, as well as strengthening my core. Talk about a win-win!
Add a dose of kinesiology insight for a balanced, well body
I’m no stranger to kinesiology and first had a session which resolved my health issues 20 years ago. My talented chiropractor, Angela Steventon, uses kinesiology each time I see her to check for internal and psychological wellness factors. I’m a big fan despite not understanding why it works, because I know it does work – who cares why! So, I was quite excited to see what caused all the hype about Susie’s skills in kinesiology. It didn’t take long for me to find out.
With quick, smooth movements, Susie tested my body for various mysterious things and within seconds was ‘turning things back on’. All I understand is that she asked me to resist as she gently pushed down the back of on my extended legs. I literally couldn’t. Your hamstrings are switched off, Susie says. She touches me once, asks me to repeat, and my muscles work. What?? My immediate thought was “I wonder how this will affect my riding posture – I have been basically riding without hamstrings!”
Next Susie picked up on my sacrum pain, and with one gentle pressure from both palms, it’s gone. Imagine how much better I will be for my horse to carry without a twisted and tense pelvis.
Susie explained that my body needed a tune-up, and made an analogy about restarting a computer. It made perfect sense, as she had correctly picked up on a number of physical issues and corrected them. I felt great.
Super flexibility, balance & core strength with pilates for riders
Practicing Pilates helps us become more mindful, balanced, stronger, flexible, and get cardio fit. Add and kinesiology to iron out your body and get it working well, and you have the physical basis for becoming an excellent rider and partner for your horse.
As equestrians have limited time, I recommend Suna's online workout videos which are short and effective; surely the best Pilates for riders! If you are lucky enough to have time, get in to Suna and spoil your body with a Pilates class each week. At the very least, make a session to go through the postural principles and have a one on one pilates session with one of the Suna Pilates Instructors so you can get even more out of your video.
Okay, that’s enough from me on Pilates for equestrians – I’m off to try out the effects of this Pilates session in the saddle! Have fun!