Pilates & the Equestrian: A Unique Combination

Pilates & the Equestrian: A Unique Combination

julie driver bio picEquestrian sports are unique. With a horse and rider, you have two species with their own individual asymmetries and biomechanics combining together in partnership.

In order to get the best from this partnership communication between horse and rider needs to be clear, quiet, calm and precise.

This communication begins with the riders seat, their legs and their hands and body weight. Some riders would say minds too, but for the purpose of this article we are focusing on the physical aspect of this relationship.

When a partnership is perfectly in sync, riding appears smooth and effortless. The rider appears almost weightless in the saddle and the horse gait is fluid and unhindered by the rider. This synchronicity takes years of practice and a depth of horsemanship skills.

With Pilates we can begin this journey of developing our riders and helping them to find this deep and rewarding relationship with their horse.

Importance of good riding skill and fitness.

It is now widely acknowledged that riding and rider fitness have a direct impact on equine function. The asymmetries and compensatory patterns of the rider affect the horse performance and over time can lead to veterinary/equine osteopathy intervention.

Pilates increases the capabilities of the rider and can improve the performance of both partners as well as the partnership itself, potentially reducing the need for Equine medical call outs.

The simplest way to think of a riders influence on a horse is to consider the impact of carrying the rider. How does the distribution of their bodyweight affect the horse? Have you ever carried a backpack with uneven straps or uneven weight in it?

Unbalanced distribution of rider bodyweight in the saddle is not only uncomfortable for the horse, it can make the use of leg and rein aids harder to execute correctly and lead to confusion.  The horse cannot determine what is an aid being applied or simply incorrect balance and shifting of bodyweight. This promotes frustration for both partners. The rider thinks the horse is being disobedient when the horse is actually doing what the rider has unconsciously asked it to do.

No matter what the level of rider the areas we need to focus on are many and varied. To discuss this further, please enjoy this video:


The importance of neutral and the rider seat

The rider seat in the saddle is the foundation of good riding, as this is where the majority of the communication with your horse comes from. Being “secure’ in the saddle means the rider is balanced and able to use their leg and rein aids independently of each other.

In the saddle, as in all sitting, when in a neutral position, you’re balanced on your “sitting bones.” These are effectively the base of your pelvis. Therefore, t

he rider needs the following:

  • The pelvis to be able to move freely around the head of the femur (thigh bone), while the thigh itself is still
  • To be able to move the head of the femur in the socket while your pelvis is still
  • To be able to keep everything stable when required. ,
  • To allow your thigh and pelvis to move at the same time.

The rider may not remain in neutral spine/pelvis for the duration of their session (ex: jumping position) but the understanding of it’s relevance to their body is paramount.

The mid back connection

We need to encourage mobility in the thoracic spine to improve spinal movement in this area and breathing. This is a common area for stiffness across all levels or riders and impacts the horse greatly. Horses can sense the tension this stiffness causes through the spine to the seat and up into the rider shoulder carriage, arms and hands.

Horses are sensitive to breath holding as a sign of nervousness and fear. Encouraging a good breath pattern is a way to prevent tension being unknowingly transmitted.

Exercises which improve the riders self carriage without developing/creating unnecessary tension will all combine to reduce the reliance on the reins for balance and develop a lightness of hands and gentleness in the connection to the horse’s mouth. Therefore the more supple, strong and balanced we are in our own bodies, the easier it is for us to communicate our desired movements effectively when in the saddle and build a stronger relationship out of the saddle.

Ideally, we want to the rider to develop their own self carriage to enable riders to reduce their reliance on the reins for balance and therefore develop a lightness between their hand and the horses mouth.

Pilates is an accumulative discipline, that when practised regularly, develops these skills to become unconscious habits. The rider skill deepens and becomes quieter and subtler. The team improve in the saddle and in the arena, allowing for a deeper bond in the stable.

This depth of change requires consistent practice, repetition and familiarity so these physical skills build fluid movements and confident posture to improve your seat, build a deeper partnership with your horse and potentially reduce both the horse and riders need to for medical interventions.

Julie believes passionately in the power of Pilates. She has been teaching for over 18 years both in the UK and also internationally. Her own experience of rehabilitation after serious injury deepened her commitment to continue studying. She considers herself an eternal student and continues her own education with weekly 1-1s and studying regularly with her own mentors. A ski accident in 2008 resulted in serious damage to her left leg. Surgeons predicted a yearlong 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. By 2014 Julie had 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 Pilates the perfect way for riders to improve their technique and create a stronger relationship with their horse. Recently Julie has published a series of three articles for ‘Horse and Rider” and ‘Intelligent Horsemanship’ and had the honour of being invited to record classes for the Monty Roberts Online Equus University.



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