Biomechanics, Equine, Horse & Rider, Injury and Rehab, Injury Management

Horse Pilates: Encouraging core engagement through movement

In the run up and during lockdown my clients and friends have increasingly been using the words Horse Pilates to describe part of what I do to help horses move better. To the point that even the Daily Telegraph have used that term in an article published recently. So I thought a blog post about Horse Pilates was needed.

What is Horse Pilates?

Human Pilates was developed by Joseph Pilates. He develop it when in the UK to help injured soldiers from the War to recover. Pilates believed that mental and physical health are closely linked and this is something that can be taken and applied to horses. Pilates is a low impact set of exercises aimed at strengthening muscles while improving postural alignment and flexibility. Any fitness level can benefit and Pilates exercises should be part of any training or rehab plan for a horse.

The focus of Pilates exercises are on the core. However it should also include other areas such as the hips, abdominals, back, inner and outer thigh. The core is the foundation and these other areas are all connected and need to be able to function as a whole.

In regard to horses what we term carrot stretches were a series of movements developed by Hillary Clayton and Narelle Stubbs and can be coined as the first form of Pilates exercises for horses. These exercises help develop the deep core and spinal muscles. They are a combination of stretches, stabilising exercises and lifts which are the first port of call to develop core. However with any exercise caution should be taken that it is the correct exercise for your horse and therefore consulting a professional to help is really important.

Intermediate & Advanced Pilates

Hilary Clayton and Narelle Stubbs exercises could be termed your beginner Pilates for horses as with human Pilates beginner exercise should still be practiced by intermediate and advanced students as it makes sure the deep core muscles are functioning and that the global muscles have not taken over, which often happens in very athletic inviduals. If this happens then the individual is more open to injury and it would be the same in the horse. However a horse can be stretched further so including straight line pole work and walking backwards would be the next step up. The horse can be progressed further by introducing raised poles (cavelletis) and lateral movement such as stepping under. Pole work on circles and in trot would progress things even further, shoulder in from the ground all increase the demand and complexity of the movement.

By working with your horse from the ground you can also develop your partnership with your horse. You don’t want to be doing lots of reps. This isn’t about increasing cardio fitness but about developing finer movements that are controlled. As the horse is able to control their movement through the use of its core muscles then its ability to work under saddle will greatly improve. Their balance will be better and there will be improvement in dealing with a rider on board. This is also a key time to work on yourself and develop your core strength. Your horse will appreciate this hugely.

So every horse can benefit from Pilate type exercise being added to their exercise regime. However professional help should be sort to guide you as the owner as to what would benefit your horse. If you would like to discuss things further do contact Pollyanna.

Horse & Rider, Human

Balanced Rider

When we ride our trusty stead, we try and develop balance, straightness and suppleness in our horse so that they can carry us more effectively and efficiently. However, how often as a rider do you develop your own balance, straightness and suppleness? I would hazard a guess, not as frequently or diligently as you do your horse. With the winter almost over and spring on the horizon, now is a really good time to begin focusing and developing yourself for your horse. They will appreciate it!

We often hear the words “balanced rider” being banded around but what does this really mean? A balanced rider can encompass so many things. Here are just a few to consider when talking about a balanced rider

Force Balance

When the word balance is used, most people will automatically think of the ability to balance against gravity, for example, when standing on one leg or on a beam in gymnastics. This is balance and does play a huge part in riding a horse. If you are not balanced then gravity unfortunately takes control and a rider may fall off or come close to it. If this component of balance is something that you find difficult, think how that affects your horse’s balance. If you are carrying a child or small animal that keeps moving and wriggling around, you have to make adjustments so that you don’t drop them and sometimes this ultimately doesn’t work and a fall occurs. The consequences could be injury to both parties and a feeling of letting someone down. This is something that your horse could experience when you are not balanced and fall off. So to help your horse, working on your basic balance would go a long way to helping to make their job of being a ridden horse easier and less stressful for both parties.

Strength Balance

When I talk about balance of strength, I am referring to muscle strength. This can be left and right dominance. The majority of people are right-handed and are therefore stronger in their right hand or arm. Balance of muscle strength can also refer to agonist and antagonist muscle pairs. If there is an imbalance between these then injury can occur. While this is really important, for this blog it is not of focus but something that will be addressed in the future. So going back to left and right dominance, it is a natural occurrence but it is something we can decrease by working and training our non dominant side. This will even our strength out from one side to the other making our aids more consistent side to side when riding. By doing this a rider can further balance their horse out and be more supportive on their horse’s non dominant side.

Tension Balance

Muscle and soft tissue play a huge part in movement biomechanics for horse and rider. If an area is tight this will affect the body globally and also affect how your horse moves. You may not think this is so, however you may be shocked at how much you actually do influence your horse’s movement.

About 5 months ago, I injured my back playing field hockey. I had pain in the right side of my lower back which resulted in a huge decrease in range of motion, strength, force absorption and suppleness in my hips and back. However, I still attempted to ride and it was definitely an attempt. In walk I was not too bad, nor was my horse but going into trot was another story. My horse looked lame on both reins, feeling pretty low at being injured myself, having the prospect of my horse being lame as well, just would have been the last nail in the coffin. I was lucky enough to have my instructor present and being an equine bodyworker myself, we got to work straight away to fix him. Firstly we lunged him still with tack on and were happily surprised to see that he was not at all lame but instead moving rather well. It was therefore put down to rider influence. This surprised me hugely. While I know we influence our horses, I didn’t think by this much. Let me put this into a little bit more perspective. I am a small rider standing at 5ft2″ and 53kg. If my horse was small perhaps this would be understandable but my horse is 16.3hh, maybe a little taller and probably weighs near if not more than 700kg. So you can see that we can influence how our horse moves quite considerably, even minor things that we don’t realise could have an affect.

Soft tissue tension can affect mobility of the body causing decreased movement in various areas. It can also affect how different muscles activate, for instance, when there is a lot of tension in the iliopsoas muscle (hip flexors), this can affect your gluteus medius (one of your many butt muscles). The gluteus medius helps stabilise the lower back so will really kick in when performing rising trot. When the iliopsaos is tight it causes the gluteus medius to become stretched and it doesn’t like it. As a result it doesn’t activate as effectively, thus not stabilising through the lower back. No matter how much you try and strengthen the gluteus medius, it won’t make a difference until the iliopsoas is released and the gluteus medius is no longer stretched. Once this muscle can activate, then strengthening can occur and the body can function as a unit.

Anatomical Balance

Unfortunately, sometimes the way we are built means that we will have some differences from side to side or back to front. We were born like this and this is something we can’t always change, or we may have sustained an injury causing an anatomical difference. However, we can give ourself the best chance possible by being aware and doing something about it.

How do we develop ourselves so that we become the balanced rider that is talked about so much? Well there are many ways and here are some ideas below.

Massage

A massage is not just a luxury or something at a spa, a good sports massage will help with the following

  • Reduce muscle tension
  • Increase flexibility
  • Improve circulation and recovery
  • Help activate muscles
  • Reduce injury risk
  • Improve wellbeing

A good massage therapist will be able to help with improving posture off and on the horse. It is also good practice to be seen around the same time your horse receives bodywork so that one of you doesn’t undo the hard work put in. So when your horse is next scheduled for a session also schedule yourself in.

Pilates

Pilates was developed by Joseph Pilates to help rehabilitate soldiers during the war. It is used now to help people strengthen their core. However it is a bit more than this. Pilates does focus on your deep core muscles but it also develops better movement patterns by encouraging co-activation of deep core muscles and global muscles. I work with athletes and non athletes and while the athletes look strong, they tend to not use their deep core muscles but their global ones. They therefore find the more advanced Pilates exercises often easier but when you take them back to just using their deep core muscles they find this very difficult, unlike non athletes. Due to this, athletes that favour their global muscles will sustain injuries. Pilates teaches people to activate and use their body in a more functional and long lasting way.

Pilates is brilliant for horse riders as it allows a deeper understanding of one’s body. Equipilates™️ was developed specifically for horse riders by Lindsay Wilcox-Reid and is a combination of Pilates and other movement therapies to develop that body awareness and allow a rider to have a deeper connection with their horse. If you have an Equipilates™️ instructor near you, it is worth signing up to regular classes. Over time you will notice a difference. However, if you do not have an Equipilates™️ instructor close by, a normal Pilates class will still make a huge difference.

Things you can do when you ride

There are many things you can do without spending extra money or too much extra time. These include videoing yourself. This will highlight whether you are sitting evenly and what posture you adopt during all gaits and can be quite an eye opener. Often we are unaware of little things like this due to our bodies adapting and normalising them. It feels wrong when we correct them but in time your body will adjust to this being normal. The next step to really highlight any issues would to be to do regular no stirrup work. This will allow you as an individual to lengthen through the leg and hip and work hugely on balance force, especially when transitioning down. As you progress, using Franklin balls would further develop your awareness, balance and connection with your horse. Lastly, and this does cost a bit of money but having lessons with a riding instructor who understands core engagement is worth its weight in gold. Having someone tell you when and how you need to activate and seeing the results transfer to your horse in real time, is a huge learning curve and something you will then use throughout your riding, even when hacking.

So the above are just a few things you can do to become that balanced rider. There are others but the above would be a good first step in the right direction.