Pilates riding exercises – How to improve your Riding

How to Improve Riding Posture

Just watch the top dressage riders in action. Its as if they hardly move during their routine, any movement appears effortless and ‘still’.  Their positioning is brought about by having a great deal of control over their bodies. That is to say, they have very good posture. (read and watch my video blog on Postural Assessment here

Pilates and Posture

You are probably either familiar with Pilates or have at least heard of it. Its far more than just ‘working the core’. In fact Joseph Pilates never ever used the term ‘core’.  You may probably not know that he did not even refer to his system as ‘Pilates’, but named it ‘Contrology”.

This Contrology best sums up what one is after by ‘doing’ Pilates. We are after controlling our bodies, dictating what our bodies do, rather than our bodies dictating to us and doing its own thing!

One simply does not ‘do’ Pilates. Joseph Pilates never referred to his system as ‘exercise’. He would instead use the term ‘movements’. Pilates is a system of planned and carefully arranged movements that focus on lengthening and strengthening – with control, the muscles and fascia of the body.

What his system brings about is what is considered – good posture!

If we have good posture then there is less stress on the muscles, tendon, joints and ligaments of the body. The fascia is freer to move without restriction. A person feels more relaxed, stronger and in control of their bodies. One can look, feel and actually increase their stature with good posture and alignment.

The body as a whole moves more readily and can respond more adeptly to changes in the bodies position – or that of your horse.


Pilates to the rescue?

There are a plethora of various exercises out there that can help with both posture and your efficiency at staying atop a horse. For me the genius of Pilates is that it can benefit just about everybody AND it is not just a one trick pony!

Try and find a good and knowledgeable  Pilates teacher (read my Blog, Pilates Class How to Choose the Right One)

Trust me whilst there are marketed as Pilates for Golf, Pilates for swimmers etc the truth is Pilates is for everybody. If you have a good pilates teacher and attend their classes, then it would not make much difference if you are a golfer or a swimmer – both would benefit.

Pilates treats the body holistically, as a whole. If you have a basic understanding of how fascia works and arranged in the body, you will understand that you can have an issues in your toe that can affect the head and neck!

Now that being said it is far better, if one can afford to, to invest in some one-to-one private Pilates. The difference being the Teacher will know your body, its issues and limitations, and also your goals and aims. Now some Pilates movements may be more beneficial to a certain sport or activity than others.


Pilates at Home – Gym balls / Physio balls / Swiss balls

One slight issue with mat based Pilates when dealing with horse riders is that the floor seldom moves as much as a horse does. And I am a great believer in matching your training to the actual events your sport entails.

When I teach any sports person I have one overriding principle – Specificity of Training. Now there is one big and to me, massive problem when others online advocate Swiss ball / Gym balls to aid your sport. That is – they inform you (as a horse rider) to ensure that you choses a ball that allows you to sit with hips at right angle, parallel to the ground with heels under the knees.

That’s me being slightly pedantic – you would still get benefit from this position, just not as much as being in a correct riding position. That position would, as I am sure you are aware – hip angle open, and a knee angle much greater than 90’. In other words you want a bigger ball or place the ball on a small platform so when seated you have the same or very similar position as when on the horse.

There are numerous scientific studies from the world of professional cycling, that even a slight change in hip angle can significantly affect which muscles fire, to what extent they fire, and the order that they fire. It is of little use a cyclist just performing ‘any’ leg exercise. It is similar with any sport or activity.

The benefit of the ball is that it is unstable. Believe it or not that is what we are after, whilst we are training; so that our bodies have a mild stressor to adopt, adapt and improve to! So we are better at controlling our balance, body and posture for the actual event we are training for.

Balance and control and our response to changing circumstances (the horse s movements) I shall refer to as proprioception (that is our spatial awareness and control). Being on a Gym ball trains our proprioception, making us more responsive and efficient to changes to our environment.

Within the world of Pilates there is some debate as to do Pilates movements from a neutral pelvis/spine or a more flattened back. I favour Joseph Pilates original ‘imprinted’ – flatter back. That is for some movements for the ‘average’ client. Things are slightly different for sports specific training. HOWEVER  I would still do a number of movements from imprinted – read my other blog for more detailed reason why I prefer imprinted.

The reason I say that is because people just spout off what they heard someone else say without asking questions as to WHY? Let me use an example. You come to me to improve balance. Do you think your best interests would be served by me training you ensuring you are perfectly secure and stable? No, I would have you unbalanced, wobbly and unsteady – whilst we were training, so that come the day of your event you would be more stable!

Likewise we want and are after good posture and a neutral spine – when competing or riding. That does not translate to always keeping it in neutral whilst training!


Pilates at Home


Gym Ball – Clock face

Sit on your ball and try and sit in the same position you should be in whilst on your horse. Ear,  shoulder, hip and ankle aligned; knees and toes pointed forward; spine tall/long chin up, head raised, evenly balanced over the neck, chin slightly tucked – spine erect and plumb. Joseph Pilates famously stated that we are after eliminating or reducing the curves in the spine – he was after a flat(ish) spine.

An arch (excessively curved spine) can physically hold more stress and tension; a plinth is physically incapable of holding that much stress and tension. A flatter spine is incapable of holding as much stress. View the posture of top dressage riders – they have lovely flat backs. I keep on cueing in class –you want a flat back just like a silver back gorilla!

So clock face. Our pubic bone is 12 o’clock position. The left sit bone is the 9 o’clock, the right sit bone 3 o’clock and the sit bones the 6 o’clock position. Sitting tall with spine lengthened neutral pelvis, alternate tilting pelvis to various clock positions – including 2 o’clock and 7 o’clock etc positions.

This is to be done whilst trying to maintain balance, control and stability – and maintaining correct upright posture.


 Leg Lift / De-Weighting

Sitting with a neutral spine simply alternate de-weighting one foot, then the other foot. De-weighting is just short of lifting the foot off of the ground, as if you were just about to lift the foot up. This still challenges balance and control and stability, even though the leg is not being lifted. The skill is in maintaining even pressure re sit bones and pubic bones whilst maintaining a  long, tall plumb spine. The key being the pelvic and core muscles move to accommodate the shift in weight – not the spine.

This can be progressed to actually lifting the foot just about off of the ground, say about 2 cm. Now for some people the de-weighting can be more challenging than actually lifting the foot off the ground, I would suggest that this is due to the fact we seldom pretend to lift our feet up, instead we have spent a life time of actually ‘lifting the feet up’. It therefore come much ‘easier’ to just lift it up – muscle memory. Ask the body to have to ‘think’ and do something different or odd and it is being tested and put under a good stress. The result being the body should adopt, adapt and improve to the new stressor.

Either way we should wish to go out of our comfort zone. Almost any of Pilates moves, including this one , can be made slightly (or greatly) more challenging by closing the eyes. I have read various statistics – as much as 75% of brainwave activity can be diminished by simply closing the eyes. We get the vast majority of our perception via the eyes. Close the eyes and the body has to do more ‘thinking’ for itself –which is good!

Alternatively to make this move more challenging, place a wobble cushion or board under the feet!


Pilates Half Roll Back

Now this can also be performed on a Gym ball with some slight adjustments.

In this YouTube video Paul has used a Pilates reformer Tower and springs, but this can easily be adapted for flexi bands whilst seated on a ball – just don’t articulate the spine back too far! I shall do a video on this shortly to demonstrate.

For more on Roll back with band click here for a video.

Pilates Seated Spine twist

For ia video on Joseph Pilates Spine Twist click here watch from 14:15.

Seated on a gym ball, in a riding position with a long, tall spine maintaining a neutral spine and pelvis, attach a flexi (rubber) band in front of you to act as a pair of reins.

Have the band so it is just about to be put on a stretch.  Treat it as if it were the reins holding the hands in the riding position several inches apart hands parallel to each other. Breathing in to prepare, as one breathes out rotate (twist) your spine (including the head – it is an extension of the spine) around its axis to the right.

The skill being to maintain the pubic and sit bones in position and not to shift with the spine. The extra skill being ensuring the bands do not stretch or alter or deform in any way the band. Neither should the hands bounce about but remain still and steady.

To do this requires a great deal of shoulder blade (scapula) control and movement. As the spine rotates the scapula must move to enable the hands to remain where they should. It may be worthy to note: is there undue movement one side than compared to the other. What is happening in the entire body as you rotate to the right, compared to what happens when you rotate to the left!

We need balance in the body. We strive for control of the body.

These are a few movements that can be performed on a gym ball. Sometimes the simplest movements can be of great benefit, try never to think them beneath your consideration. The de-weighting is one such example. Yes it looks and sounds too simple – but if you can record or watch yourself or better yet have a Pilates teacher coach you, and critique your own performance. Ask yourself ‘did anything move that should not have moved’ – then perfect the movement. Pay particular attention to the head and chin jutting forward. On almost any movement it is this factor that ‘lets people down’ re posture and control.

Happy Riding

Pilates & Yoga Teacher TrainingElite Pilates & Yoga Services Newton Abbot Devon – YMCA Level 3 Diploma in Teaching Pilates (Practitioner) Course YMCA Level 3 Diploma in Teaching Yoga (Practitioner) CourseTanja x

St Marychurch Road, (next to Plant World)
Newton Abbot
TQ12 4SE
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