Pilates For Equestrian Athletes And How It Can Improve Your Dressage Posture
Using pilates for equestrian training out of the saddle is a powerful way to improve your core, not just for dressage and is a must for all horse riders to improve overall stability in the saddle. In this article, I share some pilates exercises for equestrians that you can do at home today.
As a trainer, I like to use some pilates for equestrian athletes to help them be a stable, balanced and supple rider because it’s not just about brut strength. It’s a combination of both stamina, stability and suppleness that creates balance in the saddle.
It’s, for this reason, I include some pilates training within our Dressage Rider Training program, alongside functional stability work as well as improving mobility and overall fitness and stamina with exercises specifically targeted for dressage riders.
You see it’s this unique combination of all 4 elements that get results. Stamina, stability, suppleness and your mindset. No one thing is the magic formula. Our body is a system of systems and everything is connected, by working on each area equally you can really take your riding to a new level.
I don’t rely fully on just pilates though, I also include a lot of functional stability work, use of resistance and of course yoga and mobility work to really help you fine-tune your position and be the best rider you can be. Over the years I have trained in many different modalities and it’s in this program I pull it all together to bring you what really works.
For now though, I wanted to share some of my favourite pilates movements that are incorporated into the program and explain why I have chosen these pilates exercises for dressage riders, but of course, these can apply to all equestrians, no matter what discipline you do.
Why Pilates For Dressage?
Pilates is a fabulous tool for improving posture and alignment, all of which are crucial within dressage and all equestrian disciplines. Plus, good posture is also vital in everyday life to keep you injury free. My philosophy is about taking care of your body today, so you have many years of riding ahead of you.
Posture and balance are built from the ground up and our body works as an entire unit. No one muscle works alone. So alongside correct posture, pilates is also big on correct breathing, which is important as dressage riders to not only remain “relaxed” in the saddle, but also to not carry around excess tension or stress.
Balance & core strength pilates exercises for horse riders
By bringing some pilates into my training method and the DRT program it not only helps improve your posture and alignment, but also your overall position. Both in and out of the saddle which is crucial for all horse riding, no matter your discipline.
Within our program we have barrel racers, endurance riders, eventers, show jumpers, western riders and just casual riders as well of course dressage riders all benefitting from the unique combination that is applied to the program. You can read all the reviews here
Why Do We Need Strong Lower Abs For Riding?
When it comes to correct position in the saddle, your lower abdominals are the most important abdominals for you to recognize. Often the laziest to wake up and the hardest to recruit, however, once you have woken them up they play an incredibly powerful role in the stabilization of your pelvis.
The reason they are often dormant is that too often people rely heavily on their rectus abdominis to do all the work (6 pack) and unfortunately, these guys aren’t the most efficient at stabilizing your spine and pelvis.
This is why we focus on your core, front back, middle, inside, outside and side to side. If you chop off your head arms and legs, this is what is left. Your core. The entire centre of your body and getting it to work as an entire functional unit every single muscle.
The base of this core is where it all stems from, if your lower abdominals aren’t switched on correctly this will pull everything out of alignment. Alignment is critical on your horses back, you want to be correctly balanced on your sit bones so that your seat can move effectively with the horse.
If it is tilted too far forward you will have an arched weak lower back, and you won’t be able to correctly move your seat with the horses back. Also if your seat bones are too far back you will be leaning forward and tipping the horse on the forehand.
Our balance effects the horse’s balance. So the more even you are balanced through your core the more evenly balanced the horse will be. A strong core is required in order for you to be able to sustain correct posture while you are riding.
The best place to develop this core and posture is off the horse doing correct core and alignment work with the help of specific exercises designed for riders.
It doesn’t have to take hours of your time, in fact, once you have built up strong core maintenance is easier than you would think, you just have to put in the effort to establish that base.
When working on your entire core as a complete unit you build up your strength from the inside out. You develop all the little solar muscles that support your spine and pelvis.
When your lower abdominals are working correctly within the core unit you are also able to create more alignment from hip to heel. This will allow you to have more strength for half halts, collection or to help bring a horse up off their forehand.
When building your core strength you want to be creating strength from the inside out. Developing your lower abdominals as well as your entire core, so that it can work as a functional balanced rider on the horse.
Pilates for equestrian athletes
Here is a great workout using pilates for equestrian athletes. Its a selection of 6 pilates exercises specific to dressage ruders that will really help target your lower abdominals. Great for all horse riders and these type of exercises are all part of the program, of course, there are much more than these 6 alongside many more exercises to really help your riding, but for today, here are some to get you started to help develop that core strength.
1. Pilates the hundred
The hundred is a classic Pilates mat exercise. You will be asked to perform it during the beginning of almost any pilates class. The exercise is named after the 100 beats of your arms made while holding your legs extended and your head and shoulders off the mat.
Begin lying on your back and raise your legs. Begin with a bend in them so your shins are parallel to the floor.
Exhale. Bring your head up with your chin down and, using your abdominal muscles, curl your upper spine up off the floor to the base of your shoulder blades. Keep the shoulders sliding down and engaged in the back.
Hold your position. Take five short breaths in and five short breaths out. While doing so, move your arms in a controlled up and down manner.
Do a cycle of 10 full breaths. Each cycle is five short in-breaths and then five short out-breaths. Keep your abs scooped, your back flat on the floor, and your head an extension of your spine, gazing down. Breathing big is important. Breathe into your back and sides.
To finish, keep your spine curved as you bring your knees in toward your chest. Grasp your knees and roll your upper spine and head down to the floor. Take a deep breath in and out.
2. Pilates roll up
The roll up is another one of the classic Pilates mat exercises. Roll up is a great challenge for the abdominal muscles. Roll up is traditionally done after the hundred.
With the roll up, you mobilize your spine and strengthen your abdominal muscles, putting them through a wide range of motion. With a slow and attentive pace, you practice the control that is one of the cornerstones of Pilates.
Lie on your back on the floor with your legs straight. Let your belly drop down toward the floor and make sure your shoulders are relaxed and away from your ears.
Take a few deep breaths as you check your alignment and tune into your body. When you are ready, leave your scapula anchored in your back and your ribs down as you bring your arms straight up over your head and back so that your fingertips are pointing to the wall behind you. This will be your beginning position.
Inhale: Leave your scapula down as you bring your arms up overhead. As your arms pass your ears, let the chin drop and the head and upper spine join the motion to curl up.
Exhale: Continue in one smooth motion to curl your body in an “up and over” motion toward your toes. This is the “moment of truth” for many. Pull in your abs in and deepen the curve of your spine as you exhale. That’s what gets you up (not momentum).
Reach for your toes keeping the head tucked, the abdominals deep, and the back rounded. Ideally, the legs are kept straight throughout this exercise with energy reaching out through the heels. However, a modification would be to allow the legs to bend, especially as you come up and reach toward the toes.
Inhale: Bring the breath fully into your pelvis and back as you pull the lower abs in, reach your tailbone under, and begin to unfurl—vertebra by vertebra—down to the floor. The inhale initiates this motion until you are about half way down. Be sure to keep the legs on the floor and don’t let them fly up as you roll down.
Exhale: Continue to set one vertebra after another down on the floor. Keep your upper body curve as you roll down slowly and with control. The arms are still outstretched and following the natural motion of the shoulders as you roll down. Once your shoulders come to the floor, the arms go with the head as you continue to roll down to the mat.
Do up to 6 repetitions.
3. Pilates single leg circles
A great exercise for challenging your core strength and pelvic stability. The abdominal muscles must work hard to keep the entire torso controlled despite the circular movement of the leg in the hip socket.
Along with the core, single leg circle strengthens the quadriceps and hamstrings. It also promotes a healthy hip joint. It’s a great opportunity to work the abdominals while keeping the pilates principles of centering, concentration, control, precision, breath, and flow in mind.
Start on your back with your legs extended on the floor, arms by your sides. Take a moment to feel the weight of your body on the floor and activate every body part. The legs are taut and held together. The arms press into the floor energetically. The abdominals are pulled inward and upward.
Engage your core. Anchoring the pelvis and shoulders. Draw one knee in towards the chest and then extend it straight toward the ceiling.
Inhale and cross the extended leg up and over the body. It angles up toward the opposite shoulder and over the outstretched leg.
Exhale and lower the leg down towards the center line in a circling motion. Use control as you carry the open the leg out to the side and then sweep it around back to center at your starting position.
Do five to eight circles in this direction, then reverse, starting your circle by exhaling and then reaching your extended leg out to the side and then circling back toward and over the body.
Stretch, before switching legs, by climbing the hands up the outstretched leg to hold the ankle. Hold the position for three full breath cycles, gently pulling the leg closer and closer to you. Then repeat steps 1 to 4 on the opposite leg and finish with another stretch
4. Pilates single leg stretch
Single leg stretch is all about learning to move from center. Many people find it especially helpful in targeting the lower abs. Note that this exercise is different from single straight leg stretch, which stretches the hamstring muscles of the back of the thighs.
Single leg stretch trains the abdominals to initiate movement and to support and stabilize the trunk as the arms and legs are in motion. There is an element of coordination to this exercise as well.
Start on your back with your knees bent and your shins parallel to the floor. This is the tabletop position for the legs. Take a few moments to breathe deeply into the back and lower abs.
Pull your abs in as you exhale, taking your belly button down toward your spine as you curl your head and shoulders up to the tips of the shoulder blades. As you curl up, extend your left leg at a 45-degree angle. The right leg remains in tabletop position with the right hand grasping the right ankle and the left hand moving to the right knee. You will maintain your upper-body curve throughout the exercise. Be sure to keep your shoulders relaxed and your abdominals deeply scooped.
Switch legs on a two-part inhale. Bring air in as the left knee comes in, and bring more air in as you gently pulse that knee toward you. Now the left hand is at the left ankle and the right hand at the left knee.
Exhale and switch legs again. Bring the right leg in with a two-part exhale/pulse and extend the left leg. The hand-to-leg coordination continues with the outside hand of the bent leg going to the ankle and the other hand moving to the inside of the knee.
5. Pilates single straight leg stretch
The single straight leg stretch is an intermediate Pilates mat exercise that challenges abdominal endurance and stretches the back of the legs. This is a different exercise than the Pilates single leg stretch.
This exercise stretches the hamstring muscles of the back of the thighs. You may also feel a stretch in the upper back. It challenges the abdominal muscles as they are contracted in maintaining the body position during the stretch and the scissoring motion as you switch legs. This exercise also will train you in controlling your core and coordinating movement and breathing.
Begin by lying flat on the mat but with your legs extended toward the ceiling. Legs and heels are together in Pilates stance, rotated slightly outward from the hips.
Lengthen your spine, pull in your abdominals, and curl your chin and upper body up off the mat. The tips of the shoulder blades touch the mat. You will maintain this upper body lift throughout the exercise.
Grasp your right ankle (or below the knee if you have tight hamstrings).
Stretch your left leg out at a 45-degree angle. You can adjust the angle of the outstretched leg to make the exercise more or less difficult. The lower the leg, the harder the abdominals have to work to maintain alignment.
Inhale: Gently pull your right leg toward you. Pulse the leg toward you twice, increasing your stretch.
Switch legs quickly.
Exhale: Pull your left leg toward you. Pulse the leg toward you twice, increasing your stretch.
Switch legs quickly.
Repeat six to 10 times.
If you begin to feel a strain in your neck, it is time to rest and then begin again.
6. Pilates criss cross
Criss cross is a Pilates mat exercise that focuses on the abdominals with a special emphasis on the obliques. The obliques aid in posture stabilization to some degree, but they are more involved in flexion and rotation of the spine. One benefit of working the obliques is that they help define the waist.
The obliques are two sets of abdominal muscles, the internal obliques and the external obliques. They run in a diagonal along your sides from the lower ribs to the tops of the hip bones. They are put to work in compressing the abdomen and forward bending (flexion) but also in bending to the side and twisting your torso.
Lie on your back in neutral spine.
Bend your knees and bring your shins up so that they are parallel to the floor.
Place your hands behind your head, supporting the base of the skull. Keep the elbows wide.
Use an exhale to pull your abs into a deep scoop, and leaving the pelvis in a neutral position (not tucked or tipped), curl the chin and shoulders off the mat up to the base of the shoulder blades. Ensure your shoulder blades are kept down.
Inhale:Your upper body is in a full curve, your abs are pulling your belly button down to your spine, and your legs are in tabletop position.
Exhale: Reach your left leg out long, and as you keep the elbows wide, rotate your torso toward the bent right knee so that your left armpit is reaching toward the knee.
Inhale: Inhale as you switch legs and bring the trunk through center
Exhale:Extend the right leg. Rotate your upper body toward the left knee. Keep your chest open and elbows wide the whole time.
Start with six repetitions and work your way up to 10.
Do these exercises as a circuit of 10-12 reps and repeat through 2-3 times to really target those lower abdominals. You can combine this with other workouts you may be doing or do it as a stand-alone workout 2 times per week.
I hope you found this useful, using pilates for equestrian athletes as a training method out of the saddle is a great way to build strength and stamina, thats why we incorporate it as part of our 12 week online program.
Remember the more balanced and stable you are as a rider, the more the two of you can shine together in the arena.
Get yourself started today by downloading our free guide here.
Want more ideas on core for dressage riders? Check these out.