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Pilates for Horse Riders – Part 1: The Importance of Breath

Numerous horse riders are beginning to use Pilates as part of their goal to improve their horse riding.   Pilates and horse riding have many similar aspects and compliment each other very well.  Horse riding, and particularly the ‘classical seat’, promotes good posture, a strong core and flexibility of the spine as well as balance and mindfulness.  All of these are improved with the Pilates method.  Horse riders have the added complication of working with a living, breathing, moving animal and therefore have to ensure that they can stay in balance at all times regardless of what is going on beneath them.

Our horses feel and react to every movement we make in the saddle.  Often they will seemingly react to just our thoughts too.  Pilates trains us to recognise what our body is doing and allows us to correct any imbalances or crookedness.  It encourages us to be more mindful – concentrating on the ‘now’.  This is so important for horse riders as our horses instinctively sense when our mind has wandered!

Breathing is a fundamental part of the Pilates method.  It teaches us how to inhale fully and then rid ourselves of the stale air; using each breath cycle to fully oxygenate our blood and get our circulation moving.  In Pilates, we synchronise the breath with the exercise, inhaling as we lengthen the body – which is often the effort of the exercise – and exhaling on the release.  This matches what we do with our horses.  For example, horse riders are often taught to say ‘whoa’ to slow a horse.  Whoa is a very difficult word to say whilst inhaling, it is far more natural to say the word on an out breath.  And how many of us will make a short, sharp, ‘hup-hup’ noise to encourage a horse forward?  It is said in a more upbeat, urgent manner, one which would be difficult to say whilst exhaling.

Pilates teaches us how to make each breath more effective by breathing laterally.  In lateral breathing we breathe deeply, with the emphasis on expanding the breath into the lower back and sides of the ribcage without allowing the shoulders to lift.  This allows us to keep our abdominal muscles engaged which in turn, protects our spine and organs; acting like a corset to support our whole trunk.  This strengthens our core.

When we concentrate on something, we can often be found holding our breath.  Usually this isn’t a problem in itself as our reflexes take over and we inhale.  However as horse riders we need to become more aware of our breathing as our body becomes tense and rigid when we are holding our breath.  The horse will feel this immediately and will mirror us by also tensing.  It must be very disconcerting for a horse when his rider stops breathing, as a flight animal they will instinctively prepare to flee from danger.  Little does the horse realise we are simply concentrating on that elusive perfect half pass!

Above all, learn how to breathe correctly.” Joseph Pilates

How to Breathe Laterally

If you have a sensible horse or someone to hold your horse, you can do this exercise in the saddle:

  1. Sit tall, lengthening the spine.  Have the feeling of your weight dropping down your seat bones and the crown of your head lengthening upward.  Let your weight sink down your heels but do not force them down.  Place your hands around the lower portion of your ribcage towards the back.
  2. Inhale through your nose, focusing your breath to your back and the sides of your ribcage.  You will feel your hands being gently pushed out as the sides and back of your ribs expand.
  3. Exhale through your mouth ensuring there is no tightness through the jaw.  As you exhale, you will feel your back retreat away from your hands as the ribs compress.  When you exhale, ensure that you expel every drop of air from the lungs and try to keep the abdominal muscles contracted.
  4. Continue to breathe laterally.  Think about taking your breath toward the lower back and sides of the ribs.  Your breath will move to wherever you focus it.