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Rider Fitness

Fit Rider: Pilates for Equestrians

Whether you’re a novice rider or a passionate and experienced equestrian, riding is physically demanding and requires a considerable degree of core strength and endurance in order to ride safely and productively. Pilates can be an incredible tool for equestrians to gain strength and increase agility.

Photo by Shelley Paulson

As a lifelong equestrian and certified instructor at Club Pilates, I know firsthand that embracing Pilates as part of your fitness program can make a big difference in the quality of your riding. Pilates can improve your posture, thus preventing pain and soreness. This fosters a healthier relationship with your horse.

Here are five classic Pilates moves that focus on the key muscle groups that can elevate your performance in the saddle.

1. Leg Pull Front

This plank variation is a whole-body exercise that targets the abdominals, back muscles, hamstrings, glutes, and shoulder girdle, and as a bonus, it gets your heart rate up!

Begin in plank position. Photo courtesy Club Pilates
Lift one leg to hip height with toe pointed. Photo courtesy Club Pilates

◆ Start in a plank position on your hands and the balls of your feet. Check your plank position to ensure your navel is continuously pulling in toward your spine, your shoulders aren’t hiked up toward your ears, your hands are in line with your shoulders, and your pelvis is neutral (think of tucking your tailbone slightly to help maintain that neutral pelvis).

◆ Lift one leg off the mat to hip height, keeping your leg straight and pelvis stable. Point your toe, then rock forward a few inches, flex your foot, then rock back to the starting position, placing your foot back on the mat, always keeping that perfect plank position.

◆ Repeat on the other side. Do 8 reps of each set. Feel your whole body working here!

2. Kneeling Side Kick

Another key move in pilates for equestrians is the kneeling side kick. This series targets your glutes, core and hip flexors.

Kneel on the mat with hands at your forehead. Photo courtesy Club Pilates
Extend one hand and tip toward the mat. Photo courtesy Club Pilates
Lift your opposite leg to hip height. Photo courtesy Club Pilates
Lower your straightened leg back to the mat. Photo courtesy Club Pilates

◆ Start kneeling on the center of your mat, hands at your forehead (see photo). Extend your right hand to the side and tip your torso to the right side, reaching your hand to the mat in line with your shoulder.

◆ Lift your left leg to hip height; fully extend the leg and point your toe. Keep your core engaged by drawing your navel in. Kick your leg forward, flexing your foot, then kick the leg back behind your pelvis, pointing your toe. Try to keep your torso level and navel pulled in. No arching of the back here!

◆ Keeping your leg lifted, point your toe and lower the straight leg to the mat, then back to hip height.

◆ Keeping your leg lifted, circle it 5 times, repeating in the other direction.

◆ Do 8 reps of each variation. Repeat on the other side. Your glutes should be on fire!

3. Teaser

This is another classic move tailed to pilates for equestrians that develops core strength and has an added balance challenge.

Lift your torso and legs off mat in a “V” position. Photo courtesy Club Pilates
Lower legs and roll spine down to mat in unison. Photo courtesy Club Pilates
Try a variation with legs in table top position. Photo courtesy Club Pilates
Extend legs to 45 degrees and lift torso off mat. Photo courtesy Club Pilates

◆ Start out lying on your back on the mat with your arms and legs fully extended.

◆ Initiate by reaching your arms forward, lifting your head, then simultaneously lifting your torso and legs off the mat into a “V” position on your sit bones.

◆ Roll down by flexing your spine as you articulate each vertebra back to the mat, all while lowering your legs in unison.

Variations not only require tremendous core strength but also target balance and coordination.

◆ Variation 1: Start with your legs in table top, then extend your legs out to 45 degrees as your torso lifts off the mat.

◆ Variation 2: To increase the challenge, maintain your torso in teaser while your legs lower and lift.

◆ Variation 3: Now try maintaining your legs in teaser while your torso lowers and lifts.

◆ Do 8 reps. Now you’ve discovered your deep abdominals!

Regularly incorporating Pilates into your workout routines can make a big difference in the performance of your riding by achieving a more proper, secure, and effective posture. This helps build a trusting relationship with your horse and can take your riding to the next level.

Go to to try a free intro class and see and feel the difference in your body and riding.

This article about pilates for equestrians appeared in the July 2021 issue of Horse Illustrated magazine. Click here to subscribe!

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