I’ve been riding since I was 12 years old and that was a long time ago. For first ten years or so, I danced at the same time. The dance teachers would beg me to give up riding because it was interfering with my dancing. And the riding teachers would plead with me to give up dancing because it was wrecking my riding. Eventually, I gave up dancing.
There was a period when I didn’t ride for about ten years as I didn’t have the time or the money. But I did return to my first love – horses and riding. Then I became a massage therapist and then a Pilates instructor. What a great marriage Pilates and riding is!
Since I danced, I already had some body awareness or proprioception. One of the great things about Pilates is that it helped me to develop even more body awareness. Body awareness is knowing where various body parts are in space and what they’re doing. But this only comes about because the core is strong and stable. Once the core is strong and stable, my other body parts can be under my control.
So what is Pilates? According to Wikipedia, “Pilates is a body conditioning routine that helps to not only build flexibility, but also strength, endurance, and coordination in the legs, abdominals, arms and back.”
And Pilates is all about the “core”. In fact, lots of exercise professionals talk about the “core”. But what is the “core”? Generally speaking the core of the body is all the muscles of the torso without the head, the arms, or the legs. It does, however, include the butt muscles (gluteals). Some would even include the thigh muscles. But the important muscles of the core are deep inside where you can’t touch them and most people don’t know their names or even that they exist. The most important one being the transversus abdominis (TA) muscle. This muscle wraps around your midsection like a girdle. The reason that it’s important is that it must activate BEFORE you can move your legs in any direction to be effective and efficient in your movement. It’s the muscle that stabilizes your spine, ribcage, and pelvis so that your limbs have a solid base to move from.
Going back to how Pilates helped my riding – I can’t really answer the question very well because the dancing, the riding, and Pilates are all so integrated with each other and the deepening of the skills happened gradually over time. The only outside, objective evidence I have that Pilates has helped me as a rider is that my instructor is rather diabolical in what she has me do on the longe line. I accused her of making me do things that she didn’t make other people do. She readily agreed that she did do that. But she did it because she knew I could do it while others couldn’t. And I can do those things because of Pilates.
Here are some of the things she had me do:
- Legs out of the stirrups and arms out to the side.
- Twist facing my instructor AND open my legs out to the side in a split.
- At the trot!
Or these (at the trot of course!):
- With my arms straight out in front of me, I had to bring my knees up.
- With my arms out to the side, I had to bring my knees up.
- With my arms over my head, I tried to bring my knees up.
I laughed because I couldn’t do that one! But I sure had to go find out why and work on it.
If you’re brave enough, you could ask your instructor to do that to you and see how successful you can be at those exercises.
And the reason I couldn’t bring my knees up with my arms over my head? Once I raised my arms that high, I had let go or opened up my core too far to be able to lift my knees.
How did Pilates help me do these things? Because my core is fairly strong and stable, I could stay centered in the saddle and use my torso, arms, and legs independently of my seat. And isn’t that what we’re all trying to perfect – an independent seat?
Laurie Higgins is a life-long rider, a massage therapist, and a certified STOTT PILATES ® instructor. She also certified in EQUESTRIAN PILATES ® and loves to combine riding and Pilates to help riders improve their riding so their horses can be happier. Your horse knows if you do Pilates.
Her website is: