Pilates for Equestrians: Improve your Seat, Strength, Self-Carriage and Finess your skills.

With almost 20 years of Pilates teaching experience and a lifelong passion for equine studies, Julie Driver was the obvious choice when it came to the Windrush Equestrian Foundation choosing a Pilates tutor for their riders.

Considering that Pilates is the perfect way for riders to improve their technique and create a stronger and deeper relationship with their horse Julie will guide you through some Pilates exercises to help improve your seat, strength, self-carriage and finess your skills.

Introduction

As Equestrians, we all know that schooling sessions play a key part in developing our horse’s skills.

Serpentines, transitions, 20 metre circles and shallow loops all help to improve a horse’s suppleness, balance and freedom of movement. Preparing the horse for the work to come as well as relaxing both partners these exercises bring us together as a focused team.

In the same way your horse needs time to prepare and work on its skill sets, so do you as the rider. Just like a flatwork schooling session, Pilates is an accumulative discipline that improves rider alignment, suppleness, stability, stamina and balance.

For example, learning to use your leg and rein aids independently of your seat is a key riding skill, necessary for mastering lateral work but it can be devilishly difficult to learn – it can even feel a bit like learning to pat your head and rub your tummy for the first time.

Your horse may be responding exactly to the aids, but you as a rider may remain unaware that your intended instructions are indecipherable amongst the white noise of both your and your horse’s involuntary movements. This can lead to both partners becoming frustrated.

Pilates exercises can lessen this frustration by focusing on improving symmetry, cross body co-ordination and deepening the riders seat. This can lead to you developing an understanding of how to control your intentional instructions and at the same time help prevent your unwanted unconscious movements that can be a distraction for the horse.

Pilates has been proven to improve rider self carriage which in turn encourages a lightness of hand and a quiet confidence that you are able to communicate effectively.

So, whether you are a once a week rider or an elite athlete looking for that 1% difference between placing and the podium, Pilates can help you build a deeper connection with your horse by effectively improving your ridden communication.

What is Pilates

In 1940 German born Joseph Hubertus Pilates published “Return to Life”, a sequence of 34 mat-work exercises, designed to be performed seamlessly with one exercise flowing directly into the next.

Joseph also developed large apparatus that is still in used in Pilates studios all over the world today. After his death in 1967 the exercises became known simply as ‘Pilates.”

Why does it work for your horse?

The Equestrian industry is increasingly recognising the benefits of Pilates for rider fitness and equine wellness. The asymmetries and compensatory patterns of the rider can affect the horse’s performance and may over time lead to veterinary/medical intervention.

Pilates can also be used to increase the capabilities of the rider and in doing so, improve the performance of both partners, as well as the partnership itself.

The Basics

Alignment, Neutral Pelvis and Spine

 “Neutral’ and the Riders seat.

Finding a neutral pelvis and spine is the starting point for body alignment in Pilates exercises, a little like starting a car in neutral gear. It gives a sense and place of balance.

However, we don’t ‘live’ permanently in neutral, as there is a constant assessing and re-assessing within our posture due to gravity and other external effects.

Neutral pelvis acts as a bridge between your thighbones and spine, helping to create the mix of stability and mobility needed when you’re riding.

Finding Neutral Pelvis

Think of your lower body as a compass.  You need to align your pubic bone (South) with your hip crests (East and West). If you’re lying down, neutral pelvis is achieved when the bones of your hips and your pubic bone are level with each other horizontally. When your body is vertical, such as sitting, standing or in the saddle the bones of your hips are level with each other horizontally and with your pubic bone vertically.

If your hip bones shoot in front of your pubic bone, your back will arch. If your pubic bone curls underneath and forward of your hip bones your back will round.

Finding Neutral Spine

The spine is naturally curved like the letter S (when viewed from the side), which gives it its shock-absorbing quality. When the bones of the spine are stacked correctly, the weight of your head and ribs are distributed down through the spinal column.

When viewed from the front or behind, the spine should be a lengthened straight line with no bending or collapsing at the waist.

The better you become at finding alignment and balance in your spine and pelvis, the better you can organise and co-ordinate your limbs. This will help improve your aids and make you a better partner for your horse.

Breathing

“Above all, learn how to breath correctly” – Joseph Pilates

Breathing plays a large part in our spinal stability, posture and alignment.  Horses can also sense how we are feeling via our breath patterns, particularly when we are nervous or hold our breath.

Breathing awareness exercise

  • Place your hands around the base of your ribcage and feel the ribs expand as you breath in.
  • Focus on breathing into the back, sides and bottom of the ribs.
  • When you breathe out, really focus on expelling the air and feeling the lower ribs drop and move together as you exhale.
  • When we allow this to happen then there will be a natural intake of breath that expands the bottom of the lungs.

Team Windrush executing a spine curl

The Exercises

  1. Spine Curl/Bridge

Aims and Benefits

Focus on lifting the spine “bone by bone” from the mat. This encourages mobility and strength in the muscles of the spine, hips and buttocks, vital for maintaining a good riding posture.

Start Position

Begin lying on your mat with your feet hip width apart and parallel. Check your pelvis is neutral before you begin.

Movement

Breathe in to prepare

Breathe out to lift the spine, bone by bone, away from the mat, lift as high as the tips of the shoulder blades

Breathe in to keep the spine lifted

Breathe out to roll the spine back to the mat

Reps

5-10

Tips

As you begin to lift the hips away from the mat check that your hips remain level and you do not ‘drop’ to one side. Imagine your spine is a wheel you as peel each vertebra away from the mat.

Variation: The One legged Bridge

Aims and Benefits

Challenges balance, one sidedness, spinal stability and independent leg movement.

Start Position

As above in the lifted position for spine curl

Movement

Breathe in to lift the left leg into the air.

Breathe out to quickly lower leg

Breathe in to kick the leg back up.

Reps

Repeat 3 times on each leg.

Tips

As you lift and lower the leg focus on keeping the pelvis lifted and aligned.

  1. Rollback

Aims and Benefits

This exercises builds stamina into the abdominals and encourages spinal mobility. It also helps to feel where the spine is vertical and neutral so you can learn to self correct your position.

Start Position

Sit on your sitting bones with your legs straight. (If you cannot sit with a straight back. Bend your knees and place your feet flat on the floor and hold behind your thighs)

Movement

Breathe in to prepare

Breathe out and begin to roll your body backwards to the mat bone by bone.

(If your knees are bent and you are holding the backs of the thighs, roll back as far as you can until your arms straighten)

Breathe in

Breathe out to roll back up. When your shoulders are back over your hips realign your spine to neutral.

Reps

5-10

Tips

Try to roll backwards evenly so your body curls under you.

  1. The Curl Up

Aims and Benefits:

Improves spinal mobility in the upper body and stability in the lower body.

Start Position

Lie on your back in neutral pelvis. Hands are behind the head.

Movement

Breathe in to prepare

Breathe out lift your head away from the mat and lift the bones of the spine until the tips of your shoulder blades are just touching the mat.

Breathe in to return your upper body and head to the mat.

Reps

5-10

Team Windrush preparing to “curl up”

  1. Single leg Stretch

Aims and Benefits:

Builds stamina into the abdominal muscles and lengthens the hip and legs. It works on the asymmetry of the body and cross co-ordination of the limbs whilst keeping the rest of the body still.

Start Position

Lie on your back with your knees bent feet flat on the mat.

Breathe in to bend both legs into your chest, keeping your tailbone down on the mat.

Breathe out to curl the head up off the floor and then place your hands on your shins.

Movement

Breathe in to prepare

Breathe out to you extend your right leg out at about 45 degrees from your body. At the same time as you do this draw your left knee closer to your chest but do not lift your bottom off the floor

Breath in to exchange legs

Reps

8 on each leg

Tips

Keep your body still as you move your arms and legs.

  1. Double Leg Stretch

Aims and Benefits:

Challenges spinal stability as the arms and legs move away from your centre.

Start Position

As above

Breathe in to bend both knees into the chest keeping your tailbone on the floor.

Breathe out to curl the head up off the floor and then place your hands on your shins.

Movement

Breathe in and reach the legs out to 45 degrees from your body, at the same time as you lift your arms up alongside your ears.

Breathe out and pull your legs back in and circle your arms back round to your sides.

Reps

5-10

Tips

Keep your body still as you move your arms and legs, as you take your arms over head keep the height of the curl up the same. Do not let your lower back arch.

Team Windrush perfecting their leg position for double leg stretch

  1. Swimming

Aims and Benefits:

Improves Balance, stability and cross body co-ordination.

This exercise requires you to keep your upper back lifted while the arms and legs move in diagonal pairs, building stamina into the muscles of the upper back.  All skills needed for a stable seat and independent aids.

Start Position

Lying prone.

Arms are on the mat reaching overhead.

Legs are slightly wider than hip width apart.

Breathe in to lift your head and upper back away from the mat.

Movement

Breathe out and lift your left leg and right arm away from the mat (diagonal pair)

Breathe in to replace them on your mat.

Breathe out and lift your right leg and left arm away from the mat  (the opposite diagonal pair)

Breathe in to replace them down on the mat.

Reps

10 on each diagonal

Tips

Keep switching the opposite pairs of arm and leg while keeping the head and upper back lifted and still.

  1. Spine Twist

Aims and Benefits

This exercise works on developing symmetrical rotation and length in both sides of the body.

Start Position

Sit with your legs straight out in front with feet flexed and hip width apart.

Arms out to the side shoulder height.

Movement

Breathe in to turn to the right

Breathe out to turn back to the centre

Breathe in to turn to the left

Breathe out to come back to the centre

Reps

3 times each side

Tips

Turn from the ribs not just the arm movement, let the eyes lead the movement and keep the lift and length in both sides of the spine.

  1. Side Kick

Aims and Benefits:

Improves Spinal stability, hip mobility and works the legs independently.

Start Position

Lying on your side with your head resting on your hand. (If you have any neck issues the head is resting down on the arm.) The other arm is on the floor in front of your chest as a support.

Bring the legs forward to about 45 degrees to the spine.

Lift the top leg to hip height.

Movement

Inhale as you sweep the leg forward

Exhale as you sweep the leg backwards.

Tips

Keep the leg at hip height as you imagine you’re sweeping it backwards and forwards on a glass coffee table.

Keep the spine and the rest of the body still while the leg moves.

Reps 8-10

  1. Cat

Aims and Benefits:

This exercise requires you to keep your thigh bone still as you move your pelvis around it and improves spine and hip mobility as well as shoulder stability.

This helps to build awareness of neutral spine and pelvis in the saddle to help you maintain your position.

Start Position

Kneel on all fours, with your knees underneath your hips and your hands under your shoulders. Your spine is lengthened, with your head in line with your neck.

Movement

Breathe out and begin to curl your tailbone down between your legs.

Try to move vertebra by vertebra, curving each bone and allowing your upper back to gently curve.

Allow your head to nod forward so you can see your pubic bone.

Breathe in to hold the lengthened curve

Breathe out to uncurl your spine to the start position

Start from your tailbone, moving vertebra by vertebra

Reps

6-8 times

Tips

Imagine you have headlights on your sitting bones and, as you curve your spine, try to shine the lights downwards towards the backs of your knees.

Focus on creating length in the spine.

About the Author

Julie is a passionate believer in the power of Pilates and has been teaching for nearly twenty years

A ski accident in 2008 resulted in serious damage to her left leg.  Surgeons predicted a year long recovery and a permanent limp. Using the expert guidance of her teachers, complemented by her own knowledge of Pilates and the apparatus, Julie was walking unaided and without a limp within less than 9 months.

Julie considers herself an eternal student of the method, continuing her own education with regular 1-1 lessons and studying with her own mentors.

Her North London studio provides a learning environment that nurtures continued growth and progress for both Pilates teachers and Pilates enthusiasts.

In 2014 Julie won the prestigious international  ‘Pilates Anytime Instructor of the year” competition and continues to record online classes for them as a returning visiting Instructor.

With a lifelong passion for equine studies, Julie considers that Pilates is the perfect way for riders to improve their technique and create a stronger and deeper relationship with their horse.

Julie presents workshops both in the UK and internationally.

www.juliedriverpilates.com

IG: @Juliedriver-pilates

FB: Julie Driver Pilates

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