Pilates Exercises for Horseback Riding

If you think about it, cross-training with Pilates exercises for horseback riding makes perfect sense. Key elements of Pilates, like pelvic and shoulder stability, core strength, and flexibility, are essential for the equestrian. And, the body/mind integrative aspect of Pilates reinforces the important and fascinating body/mind (and horse) aspect of horseback riding. The Pilates principles: centering, concentration, control, precision, breath, and flow are directly translatable to horseback riding. No wonder there has been a significant rise in interest among equestrians in the benefits of Pilates training. 

Inside a Pilates for the Equestrian Workshop

Strengthening her core
PeopleImages/Getty Images

My Pilates for the Equestrian Experience

In the summer of 2010, on a bright morning after a huge rainstorm when it seemed everything but the fresh blue sky had turned to mud, I showed up at Cappaleigh Farm in Northern Colorado to join a Pilates for the Equestrian workshop. Never mind that I had not ridden a horse in 30 years. Our workshop leaders, Pilates instructor Pam Harrington of Good Life Pilates and riding instructor and Cappaleigh Farm owner Patty LeBlanc, seemed to think they had a horse that would put up with me (bless you, Sammy). I was excited to find out how Pam and Patty were using Pilates to train for horseback riding—I figured I had the Pilates part going for me.

Pam Harrington led the first part of the workshop which was held in a little Pilates studio built right into the Cappaleigh barn! She started us off with Pilates mat exercises to get our cores strong and warmed up. Then we added exercise bands, Pilates rings, and the equestrian favorite, the exercise ball (about as close as Pilates equipment gets to simulating a horse).

Equipment like balls, bands, and rings seem particularly appropriate for the equestrian because there is that relationship between oneself and something "other"; where we increase awareness as we gauge resistance and release, and our alignment with regard to something resisting or destabilizing us like a band or a ball—or a horse perhaps.

What I've done on the next few pages is create a photo and commentary series for you that I hope will show you some of the direct applications between Pilates exercises and equestrian training I experienced at the workshop.

As the Rider Goes, So Goes the Horse

pilates exercises for horseback riding
Marguerite Ogle

If there is one message I got from Pam Harrington and Patty LeBlanc in their Pilates for the Equestrian workshop, it was that the responsibility for what is going on with the horse lies with the rider. There is a connection between the horse and rider that is deeper and ultimately much more fulfilling than a rider dominating a horse with commands.

Horses are intelligent, highly attuned animals. They sense subtle shifts in a rider's demeanor and body positions and often take them as directions. Imagine what it feels like to a horse when riders have poor posture, lacking awareness about how shifting their weight affects the gait and direction, or how their body position creates tension on the reigns? Maybe you are giving your horse cues you don't know you are giving.

In this part of the workshop, Pam had us directly experience the effects even small changes in our posture might have on a horse's comfort and interpretation of our instructions.

Yes: We actually sat on each other and got a feeling for what it's like when a "rider" hunches their shoulders or leans this way or that. Once you feel it, there is no doubt about how strongly imbalances translate through to the horse.

In the photo on the right, we are on exercise balls, feeling how much information travels right down the reigns when one of us makes a change in our alignment.

Exercises for Head and Shoulder Placement in Horseback Riding

exercise balls for horseback riding
Using exercise bands and balls in equestrian training. Marguerite Ogle

This Pilates for the Equestrian workshop was focused on the head and shoulders. Poor alignment affects the connection between the horse and rider as well as the comfort of the rider themselves.

In the Pilates band exercise on the right above, Pam is taking advantage of the shape and core stability challenge of the exercise ball to simulate a little of what it might be like to be on a horse. At the same time, she is using the fitness band in a way that will develop the strength and length in the back and neck extension muscles. This helps place and maintain the head over our shoulders as you can see when Pam took this training onto a demonstration on the horse later.

By the way, this exercise is great for computer posture as well.

Learn 3 shoulder and upper back warmups we did on the ball

Further Reading:

A Balanced Body Is a Balanced Ride

horseback riding
A common problem in horseback riding. Marguerite Ogle

Since this workshop was focusing on shoulder and neck issues, Pam gave us a demonstration of a common problem with posture that horseback riders carry onto their horses: unbalanced shoulders.

Can you imagine the difference in messages the horse gets between the right and left photo? If you want a horse to be focused and in alignment with you but have a bunch of weight tipped to one side, is that going to work well?

Pilates brings tremendous attention to issues like this. Balanced alignment promoting muscular symmetry and shoulder stability are part of the focus of every Pilates workout.

One of the images you might expect to see in Pilates is that of a box where we work toward maintaining length between the pelvis and shoulders, and symmetry across the shoulders and pelvis. In the image on the right, you can easily imagine a box like that with the top across Pam's shoulders, two long and even sides, and a straight line across her hips. You can no doubt imagine how helpful training like that could be to a rider with unbalanced posture as Pam demonstrates in the image on the left.
Learn to use the box image

Finding a Proper Seat on the Horse

horseback riding
Too Much Arch to Just Right. (c)2010, Marguerite Ogle

The power of the pelvis, a balanced seat and a core strong enough to support a flexible but controlled spine cannot be underestimated in horseback riding. These also happen to be key elements of Pilates training and among the main reasons equestrians are turning to Pilates as exercise for horseback riding.

Here, with Patty giving a helping hand, Pam demonstrates moving from a hyperextended spine (too much arch) into a more neutral placement. You can see that with a strong core, Pam is able to leave her shoulders down and relaxed, and extend a nice long neck up through her midline—and she will be able to maintain it.

Here are a few articles that will give you more insight into how Pilates works:

Horse and Rider: Calm, Cool, Connected

pilates on horseback
Taking Pilates onto horseback. Marguerite Ogle

You can see in this photo that, when we took our lessons into the arena, one of the other workshop participants was truly enjoying the results of spending time pulling herself together with Pilates exercises before getting on her horse. Several people there told me that Pilates was the best thing they ever did for their horseback riding, and remarked on how quickly it worked.

Pilates for the Equestrian workshops are offered at Cappaleigh Farm. Pam Harrington and Patty LeBlanc, creators of the workshop you've just taken a peek into, are also traveling to other places sharing this work with all kinds of riders.