Rider Pilates: Whats it all about?

Pilates and core strength are terms that has been used and plugged for years. In recent times it has become a huge industry with millions of people taking part. Joseph Pilates, born in 1883, is said to have first created  what is now known as ‘Pilates’ in 1912 in England. He went on to write booklets and teach, what he called ‘Contrology’, to his students, until he died aged 83. After this it became known as the Pilates method.

Core strength, stability and balance are all important in helping maintain a healthy posture and preventing injury. Although it should not be used in isolation, Pilates can be a incredibly helpful tool for riders and non-riders. Posture, especially as a rider is really important. Being able to sit straight and have the control through anterior and posterior muscle groups aids us in having a stable, but independent seat and having control over our horses. Pilates and rider fitness can help with injury prevention in rider and horse, improved safety, improved performance and confidence.

When we talk about Pilates, it is important to understand the principles behind it and the different muscle groups, or slings, as they are known. Pilates principles include, centering, concentration, control, precision, breathing and flow. All these can be difficult to master in a class all in one go, and so may take several weeks to become comfortable with them all. The slings are sets of muscle groups which work together and cover our bodies. Examples of slings are the ‘primary sling’ (Vleeming et al. 1993), this is the basic but most important sling, and although important to get right and working, it isn’t the most functional. The primary sling consists of the diaphragm, transverse abdominal, pelvic floor and multifidus and is the sling referred to a lot during classes. Other slings are the ‘superficial front line’, ‘lateral lines’ and ‘superficial back line’ (Myers, 2013). Overall, most riders tend to be strong into the front line, mostly because of all the heavy lifting we do, lugging hay bales etc. However, this often means we are hunched forwards and overly strong into pectoral muscles (among others), and can rely on the reins and horses mouth too much, especially if our balance isn’t too good either.  The ‘superficial back line’ however tends to be neglected and weak, closely followed by the ‘lateral line’. In rider Pilates classes, depending on each individual, these are the two slings that people struggle with and what we focus on for improvement.  There are several other slings, but we wont go into them today. As well as strength we also need to consider fascial tension. Fascia is an incredible tissue which has become a real buzz word recently. In a basic description it is a connective tissue which covers everything, lays between muscles, skin, tendons etc etc and helps connect all structures together. It can become restricted and limited movement. It responds well to manual therapy and can be changed with exercise, but these long-term changes can take time.

Research has shown that rider fitness and strength can affect the horse and performance. There are differences between amateur and experienced rider in terms of balance, strength and dissociation between arm and leg movements (Legarde et al, 2007). A horses gait pattern is also related to rider experience (Lagarde et al, 2005). In addition, rider injuries are greater in amateur riders (Singer et al, 2003). We all have to start somewhere with riding, and to a certain degree, to become a better rider we just need time, practice and help from others. A huge area with riding however is ourselves, we can improve our performance and our horses performance without even touching them. This we must understand and start to make changes, if we want to help our horses and ourselves. This will consist of core strength, stability and balance, an ability to dissociated one body part from another, while maintaining a stable seat. It also, however consists of our fitness levels. Overall cardiovascular fitness is another element to riding. Rider fatigue causes decreased rider and horse coordination (Virly et al, 2014),  which will affect performance. This doesn’t mean we all need to start running, going to cross-fit, spin and the gym 7 days a week! (although you can if you want). It does mean though a little more exercise to help our cardiovascular fitness (that is, your heart rate has to be raised), maintaining a healthy weight and improving our core stability and balance will make riding more enjoyable, fun and above all help your horse.

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