By Patricia McVary
With the show season winding down, riders and trainers are beginning to think about their training during the off-season. Those non-competition weeks and months are the perfect time to include goals for fitness of both horse and rider and Pilates is the answer to both needs. Stretching circle. Serpentine. Counter canter. These exercises are Pilates for your horse. Planks, hundreds, teasers. These exercises are Pilates for the rider. The key components of physical fitness, the so-called “pillars” of fitness, include flexibility, muscular strength, and cardiorespiratory endurance. As you age, balance also becomes increasingly important to maintain. Pilates creates a stronger, more flexible, and balanced rider, and it benefits your horse in the same way.
Pilates for the rider has been encouraged for many years. Yet, practicing Pilates long ago was difficult because it wasn’t readily offered in many locales, or riders weren’t exposed to the concepts. In those long-ago years, my riding instructor would occasionally mention the benefits of Pilates as it applies to riding. I was all for it, but I had no resources. Then, years later, when my daughter Meghan was in high school, exercise studios of all types opened. Together we practiced yoga and attended spin classes. Then we found the quintessential workout in Pilates, and just like that we became disciples of Joseph Pilates.
Joseph Pilates began to develop his system of exercise, originally called “Contrology”, while rehabbing wounded soldiers during WWI. By attaching springs to hospital beds, he helped patients increase their muscle strength through resistance training, while still bed bound. This was the origin for vital pieces of Pilates equipment called “the Reformer and the Cadillac.” After emigrating to New York in the 1930’s, he and his wife Clara opened a studio that taught awareness of breath to help focus on spinal alignment, and deep muscle and core exercises. They instantly became popular in the dance community by helping the dancers recover from and prevent injuries.
A Pilates session does not focus on just one muscle group, rather it develops your body with a special focus on the core muscle groups. Any structural imbalance will soon reveal itself, and this highlighting will open an avenue to address those weaknesses. It is such muscle weaknesses that commonly cause injury in your daily life and during exercise. With practice, you soon become more mindful of how you are using each muscle group to assist and support other areas of your body. Working harder or with more weight is not necessarily the goal of Pilates. Rather, at times less repetitions with lighter weight can work muscles more efficiently. There are exercises with no weight at all that can be the most challenging and require more core strength than by adding more weight – more weight may only function as a crutch, and won’t help you fix the intrinsic weakness. Do not be fooled, the next day you will feel every bit of your workout!
A qualified Pilates instructor will be able to identify and modify your workout to accommodate your needs and goals. My trainer has a deep knowledge of anatomy and kinesiology, and so she puts a lot of thought into what I need to work on as an equestrian. If you’re just starting, it is important to find a knowledgeable and certified trainer. They will have taken a comprehensive training program that requires many hours of lecture, observation, and apprenticeship. They are also required to pass written and practical tests in a rigorous certification process. When I travel, I always look for a Pilates studio and sign up for a class. I look at the type of equipment the studio uses, and the background of the instructor. The philosophy is the same no matter where you go, so it is easy to find a class suitable for your level of skill.
As a rider, you are already using the basics of Pilates: balance – you are centered on your horse; core – you can hold yourself in position; flexibility – you are moving with your horse. You have an awareness of where your body is in space, and you can use parts of your body independently. Pilates helps develop an evenness to your overall fitness. Each exercise is mirrored on both sides of your body. For example, if you work your right obliques, you then repeat the exercise for your left obliques – same movement, same number of repetitions. In riding, they call this “riding your horse on both sides.” Through riding, you develop a symbiotic relationship with your horse. All your physical strengths and weaknesses are felt and reflected in the way your horse moves. At the same time, all your horse’s strengths and weaknesses affect your riding as well. We are all human and, just like our equine partners, we need to work on all these areas consistently and more mindfully.
I have included some short videos that provide examples of some Pilates movements, along with the corresponding movement on a horse, and which muscle groups they target. My Pilates trainer, Kirsten Wright, is the co-owner of Pilates Studio of Springfield, IL. She is demonstrating some movements on the Pilates Reformer. My trainers from StarWest are demonstrating the movements utilized during a typical training session.
Kirsten is showing us how Pilates can work on stretching and strengthening your oblique muscles. Strong obliques help with rotation of the torso along with assisting your abs in supporting your spine. This improves posture and helps prevent strain/injury of the lower back. Kate Fleming-Kuhn is riding her horse, Franzsis HSR. They are demonstrating how a three loop serpentine stretches and strengthens both sides of the horse’s obliques through changes of bend. This exercise also helps strengthen the horse’s core muscles.
Kirsten is demonstrating a series of movements – like a burpee – that include a plank, then a variation of the mountain climber (bending both knees), into a balance movement set. This works many muscle groups. This exercise helps with shoulder stability, while working the glutes and quads. Balance is challenged when you move into the squat and proceed to slowly stand. All of this engages your core muscles. Chynna Gillman is riding my horse, Redeeming Grace. They are showing how counter canter is used to improve balance and straightness. This exercise also helps develop the hind end and work the core muscles.
Kirsten is showing the short spine exercise. This helps with spinal articulation and alignment by working your back muscles. It also helps with abdominal muscle control and strength when you slowly lower your body back to the reformer and straighten your legs. This movement also targets glutes and hamstrings. Martin Kuhn is riding his horse, Vholt, while demonstrating the stretching circle. Stretching is a reward for the horse after hard work. But there are other benefits to riding your horse in this way. This exercise helps stretch and align your horse’s back, while also engaging the hindquarters. They are encouraged to lower their head and neck and stretch forward and down. He must maintain balance in a lower frame. In order to do this, he must lift his abdominals and back resulting in a rounder, more supple frame.
When you understand why you do a particular exercise – at home or on your horse – it helps make it clear how you can work towards your fitness goals. You see how your posture or stability can affect your horse and his ability to respond to your aids. This also shows how his muscular weakness or body stiffness can block his attempts to work effectively. And imagine how your horse feels when he is back at the barn and experiencing the “post workout high”! That, along with a good shower and carrot, makes for a happy and content exercise partner.