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Pilates for Equestrians

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photo by Bob GoberBy Elizabeth Hanson 

As Pilates instructors we know that restoring balance, strength and flexibility in the body will help anyone improve in their favorite sport. For equestrians of all disciplines and levels this is particularly true, as riding can be hard on the body. Until recently, riders have not given much credence to cross-training as a way to improve their performance. Fortunately, this is changing and more equestrians are realizing that if they want to get the most out of their ride, they need to spend some time off the horse improving their physical condition.

Having worked with riders for many years, I have found that the best way to get their attention is to learn how to “speak equestrian” in Pilates sessions. They want to know how each exercise will help them with their particular riding issues. If you understand what the imbalances in their bodies cause them to do incorrectly on horseback, you can make their Pilates workouts more effective, and most importantly, give them big incentive to come back. You could even take a few riding lessons to learn how the sport requires them to move their body and feel what they feel while riding.

Alignment and Riding
The most important thing to convey to your riding client is that a balanced, flexible and strong rider creates these same qualities in their horse. I constantly tell my clients that the body they have off the horse is the exact same one they have while riding. Distortions in movement off the horse are usually exaggerated on the horse. Increasing a riding client’s biomechanical function and awareness off the horse is the first step in teaching them how to move better on the horse. A truly great ride—one in which the rider moves in tandem and grace with the horse—starts with proper alignment of the rider. 

In Pilates we talk about how improving the mind-body connection can greatly enhance physical fitness. For the equestrian, riding will improve dramatically when they begin to notice their own movement and which muscles they need to engage in order to use their “aids” properly. (If you are not familiar with riding, the term “aids” has two separate meanings:  First it means the signals that a rider gives a horse to ask him to do something and the second is the physical means by which this is accomplished. For example, natural aids are the seat, legs, hands, weight and voice, and artificial aids are whips, spurs, martingales, etc.)

The “Seat:” Pelvis in the Saddle
When a rider comes to me asking how she can improve, I start with a full-body assessment designed to quickly determine her compensation patterns and body mechanics—most importantly what is going on in their pelvis or seat. The term “seat” refers to the rider’s position in the saddle and how effectively they use their balance, weight and movement as a way to cue the horse. When this part of the body is out of alignment and/or can’t move in the way the rider intends to, it sends very confusing signals to the horse. Most often this happens unintentionally, making it impossible for the horse to know what his rider wants. Sometimes a confused horse will do nothing; other times he’ll try to figure it out, which might or might not be correct. Sometimes the horse will resist and throw a tantrum. Once we restore the balance and function of the seat, it allows the rider to communicate clearly to the the horse. As in traditional Pilates, once the pelvis/seat is in alignment the rest of the body more easily falls into place.  

What Posture Can Tell You
What do I do to assess a client’s seat?  First I look at their posture overall. While standing in front of you, does your client stand in good alignment?  Do they have hyperlordosis, hyperkyphosis, or more of a flat-backed position? Our goal is to get them standing, sitting and lying down in neutral spine. Sound familiar? To assist you in learning how to “speak equestrian” and educate your clients, here is a rundown of the problems these posture types can cause while riding:


Hyperkyphosis on horseback (above); Hyperkyphosis off the horse (right)

There is a tendency to carry the upper body weight in front of the hips, and it is likely that the horse’s motion will pull the rider’s body even more forward. The upper chest is often tight; it is more difficult to open the chest, sit up tall and keep the shoulders in line with the head and hips.

The back can become overstretched and weak, making it more difficult to keep the shoulders stable. There is a greater chance that the upper back is sore after riding. The ribcage is depressed and there is less space between the ribs. The hips and abdominal muscles could be weak as they are a bit compressed.


Hyperlordosis on horseback (above); Hyperlordosis off the horse (right)

The lower back is tight and it is more likely that there will be lower back soreness after riding. The shock of a bouncing horse will not be well absorbed. There is often a lack of abdominal tone, making it more difficult to sit up tall and more difficult to control the pelvis/seat.

The weight of the upper body is more forward, it is more likely for the body weight to push the horse onto its forehand.

Excessive Flat Back

Flat back on horseback (above); Flat back off the horse (right)
Again, the lower back could be tight and thus more likely sore after riding and less able to absorb the shock of a bouncing horse. There is often excess tension in the shoulders and chest, and it is more difficult to comfortably sit up tall. Also, there is often rigidity in the body and therefore a tendency to bounce around in the saddle and inhibit the horse’s movement.

In all three of these postures, the hamstrings can become short, making it more difficult to reach the legs long while in the saddle. It is also more of a challenge to move the legs freely without disturbing the rest of the body, and it affects the ability to open the hip angle.

Correcting Balance
The next test is designed to show the client which side of the body is the strongest and to determine their loading pattern. Everyone has a natural tendency to use one side of the body more than the other and put more weight on one side. Most of us are right-handed and load to the stronger right side. This is very important in the saddle; it means that the rider will have more weight on one side of his seat than the other. To the horse this feels like there is unequal pressure on his back. This makes it harder for the horse to stay balanced and in alignment as well.

I use this “Deep Squat Test” to assess a client’s loading pattern:

 Starting Position:  Have your client stand with her feet slightly wider than hip-width apart with her hands on her hips.

Starting positionThe most even deep squat I can make, if I try really hard.I am naturally a right-loader. See how my right hip is lower? (This photo is like a mirror—my right is on the left.)

Movement: Ask her to bend at the knees and squat as far down as comfortable. She can use her hands and arms for balance as needed. Ask her to repeat this several times so you have time to watch what is happening.

Notice: Stand behind your client and look to see if she has a tendency to load into one glute more than the other. One side will be visibly weighted or lower than the other side. She will load into her stronger side. 

Note: I don’t recommend this test for clients with knee problems or severe balance issues.

The Rider on Horseback

As straight as possibleThe rider “right loading.”The rider “left loading.” 











No one is perfect. In the first picture on the left the rider is trying to sit in the saddle with even weight distribution on each sit bone. Her natural tendency is to sit more into the right hip as we have exaggerated in the middle picture. Notice how even when she sits as straight as possible in the first picture, her feet are still not exactly in the same position on both sides. This is partly due to the fact that when you are stronger on your right side those muscles become stronger compared to the left, but also shorter. The left side is correspondently weaker and the muscle length can be a bit longer. The picture on the right is her pretending to be a “left-loader.” The consequences of her being a right-loader, or sitting more heavily in the right seat can vary and cause any or all of the following problems:

• When circling the horse to the right, the rider leans to the right and causes the horse to do the same.

• The right leg often feels longer than the left. In many riders the right leg is “stronger” but often more difficult to control.

• The left leg often feels like it swings around uncontrollably.

• When circling the horse to the left it is harder for the horse to round, and he often has his nose up in the air.

• The rider feels like her right seat is falling off to the right. It is difficult to find her left sit bone. This imbalances the rider, and to regain balance she often over compensates with the left hand.

• When posting, it often looks like the right hip is slightly ahead of the left.

• Left lead canter departures are harder than right lead canter departures.

• It often looks like the left ribcage is lower than the right.

Pilates Correctives
One single exercise will not take care of a loading bias to one side. Correcting that requires restoring balance throughout the whole body. The best way to get started is to make your client pay careful attention to her tendency to use one side more than the other. If you notice that your client is using one side more than other, ask them to engage the muscles on the weaker side a bit more to see if that restores balance. That attention to form and use of the mind-body connection will gradually bring the two sides closer in strength and length.

Here is a general formula to remedy a a loading pattern that is biased to one side:

  • Stretch the lower back: Some of the best exercises for riders are the fundamentals, such as pelvic clock, spine-stretch forward and push-through on the Cadillac. 
  • Stretch and strengthen both the right and left legs evenly: Do assisted leg stretches, leg circles on the Reformer and mat, footwork on the Reformer. 
  • Strengthen the abdominals: Basic mat abdominal exercises are often the most effective. 
  • Open the hip joints: Leg circles on the mat, Reformer and Cadillac.

Eventually, you’ll want to move to standing exercises and chair exercises as these better mimic the balance riders need in the saddle.

Be creative and use everything you have in your Pilates toolbox. Most importantly, do not let the rider sacrifice form: try to get them to notice what they are doing so they can make corrections more easily on and off the horse. Remember, the way to get the most out of riding is to move in tandem and grace with their horse. This starts with proper alignment and form, and a great mind-body connection.

Elizabeth Hanson is the creator of EQUESTRIAN PILATES®, a functional fitness program for all riders. She is an avid rider and Pilates and GYROTONIC® teacher. If you are interested private sessions, attending a clinic or getting certified in EQUESTRIAN PILATES®, please e-mail her at elizabeth@equestrianpilates.com. She lives in Westlake Village, Calif., and teaches private sessions at YogaWorks.


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Reader Comments (3)

As a rider in my youth, one day events, pony club, etc - I can definitely see how pilates greatly benefits the equestrian world.
I now have a client who is over the moon about how her pilates sessions are helping her with endurance,posture and an overall enhancement of her riding, she is a professional level showjumper.
Her Olympic level instructor has also noticed the improvements.
Hooray for pilates!

September 16, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterRachel Lotspeich

I as rider I tend to get really bad back pain and I dont like taking any medication that isnt natural because it'll make me drowsy and thats the last thing I need while on the back of a horse. I recently read in "kiwi drug" a article about a natural pain killer called green lipped mussels. I love this medication for pain it works great and Im not worried about being loopy on the back on my horse.

October 21, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSamantha

Hi This is such a great topic that is becoming very popular with riders. Reading your page i can see you are as passionate as i am about it. My Site Applied Posture Riding gives much the same information. I am A Physiotherapist and a Competitor and a back pain sufferer I can relate to the value of Pilates For Horse Riders

June 1, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAnnette Willson

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