Images courtesy of Megan Smith Ray and Emily Neville Fisher Photography
More than 20 years ago a friend of mine convinced me to give Pilates a try. Never did I realize back then just how important to my riding (and my aging body) Pilates would be.
Developed by Joseph Pilates in the 1920s, Pilates is a system of exercises geared towards improving strength, postural alignment, flexibility, and muscle elasticity.
And, these were all the reasons I started doing it (along with promises of a strong core and flat stomach.) What’s kept me going after all these years… well, that has to do with a keen desire to be more effective in the saddle while protecting my neck and shoulders from unnecessary pain and strain.
So when I came across Megan Smith Ray and her Pilates For Equestrians during one of my journeys down the internet rabbit hole, I decided to reach out.
As a horse enthusiast, Division 1 collegiate runner, and certified Pilates instructor with her own studio, Megan has a unique perspective on how Pilates can make a difference in your riding.
Here is what we talked about.
Q: Tell me a little bit about how Pilates and horses entered into your life.
Megan: Well, I guess I’ll start with Pilates because that happened first – about 18 years ago. In college, I ran division one and continued running competitively after school. When I was about 24, I had a knee injury. I did some physical therapy and because I couldn’t run, someone had recommended Pilates to me. I took a class and it took a few times for me to really get it.
The first time I just felt uncoordinated. But, after the third time, I remember leaving and thinking, “Wow, I actually feel taller and so much better.’
I was running probably 40 or 50 miles a week prior to that – high mileage. All of a sudden, I realized that I was getting more from Pilates than my physical therapy.
Because I really didn’t know how to move correctly from a biomechanics standpoint. I didn’t know how to isolate muscle groups. I wasn’t very flexible. Pilates taught me how to isolate movement and increase my core strength, flexibility, and balance.
A few years later while I was finishing up my Pilates teacher training, I managed to run my fastest time during a race in Central Park – faster than in college. Then I knew how truly amazing Pilates was for my body.
Q: So, when did you start riding?
Megan: After my family and I left the city we moved up to North Salem, NY. It’s prime horse country. I always loved horses even though I never really rode, aside from a trail ride or two. So once we got here, my daughter and I decided to start riding.
As soon as I got on the horse, I was floored by the parallels with Pilates. It’s like my core just automatically turned on. So I was able to feel balanced and very comfortable right away. I credit that to years and years of Pilates.
As I learned to ride, I’d figure out what I was doing right and wrong from a biomechanics standpoint.
For instance, at the beginning when I’d ask for a canter depart the horses I was riding would run into it, heavy on the forehand. It took me a little bit to realize that I have an anterior tilt to my pelvis. Every once in a while I’d get a ‘Tuck your tailbone’ from an instructor. But, it wasn’t until I really studied the correct seat position that I understood what was happening.
Once I figured that out, it changed things in a huge way. Suddenly, I had this beautiful canter depart. I could feel the horse under me and my seat follow.
Q: What problems do other riders have in the saddle that Pilates can help?
Megan: I have a client that actually has the opposite problem I have. One of her legs has a tendency to be medially rotated. She’s a little bit pigeon-toed, so her leg comes off her horse frequently. That means we work on a lot of lateral rotation to help her with keeping her calf on the horse.
A lot of ladies are working on sitting up tall in the saddle with their shoulders back. It’s easy to let your shoulders move forward especially when you’ve got a horse that’s heavy in your hands.
So, one of the exercises we do involves using the ropes on the reformer facing the back of the reformer. We’ll use these like reins and work to maintain position with arms back.
With my daughter, when I first had her do that, she was tipping forward, like in the saddle. So I kept reducing the weight until she could do it without tipping forward. Then we built the weight back up.
Q: And, what about helping body imbalances in general?
Megan: Definitely. You know we all have them. You may be a little stronger on one side. Your one shoulder may come a bit more forward than the other. If you’re doing that in Pilates, you’re probably doing that on the horse. So it’s nice to take the time to be able to look at your body and any imbalances you have so that you can correct them before you get on the horse. Because that’s not always possible when you’re in the ring.
Q: So it just becomes second nature. Makes perfect sense. Here’s something else I’m personally really interested in. Most of us know how critical a strong core is to riding, but I find that we often neglect our shoulders and the importance of our lats. How can we focus on strengthening those areas of our upper bodies?
Megan: There’s so much you can do for this in Pilates not only on the reformer but on the mat using a resistance band. It’s really important to work those muscles that stabilize the shoulder and know how to properly engage the back muscles.
When I started Pilates, my shoulders were terrible. Instructors would tell me to pull my shoulders away from my ears. Then, I would just use my traps to force them down.
What I see with kids a lot of the time when they’re told to bring their shoulders back are protruding rib cages and shoulders looking forced back and stiff. That’s when you lose an important abdominal connection.
Emily Neville Fisher Photography
So I do think the lats and an overall stabilization of the shoulder girdle are really important. And, by working on that, like you were saying, by training your body off of the horse, then you take that with you onto the horse.
Q: Are there any basic exercises on the mat that really help with working those muscles?
Megan: Yeah. The online workouts I’m putting together right now are all done without the reformer. The only things you need are a resistance band, 9-inch ball, and a yoga brick. One of my very favorite exercises uses the 9-inch ball placed between your shoulder blades while laying down. There are different versions from beginner to advanced. For instance, you can have your knees bent and feet flat or off the ground.
You can pick up one leg, then the other, alternating the one you tap down. And you can go as far as doing a teaser, where your legs come up to eye level.
This exercise really forces you to work your deep abdominal and postural muscles. Plus, you’re getting that stretch through the back and upper thoracic extension which is key. You’re not only strengthening those important muscles but you’re helping to keep your shoulders down.
Emily Neville Fisher Photography
Q: What’s the best way for riders to incorporate pilates based exercises into their fitness routine?
Megan: In an ideal world, it would be great if everyone could work with a private Pilates instructor. Although, I know it’s not always possible. But you can do exercises on your own. That’s why I’m working on these online workouts so riders can stay consistent. There’s a lot to be gained from doing mat workouts. 20 minutes, 5 days a week, you’d notice a big difference in your riding and core strength.
If even once a month, you can work with a Pilates instructor then you’d have another set of eyes on you. That way you can be even more productive and aware of what you’re doing.
Q: You mentioned you’re developing online Pilates workouts. Why did you decide to do that?
Megan: Seeing my clients travel so much I realized it was really hard for them to stay consistent. I came up with the idea to have these online workouts that you can do anywhere. Those three props I mentioned earlier are packable so if you are traveling it will be easy to do all the exercises on the road.
Also, the original mat work that Joseph Pilates developed was for his pupils who were doing machine pilates three times a week. Many of them were professional dancers and this was considered their homework. Most people just don’t have the core strength or hamstring flexibility to do those workouts.
I really wanted to devise a curriculum that’s accessible and focused on equestrians – no matter their fitness level.
And, there will be 10-minute exercises you can do before you ride. These you can just do at the barn in tall boots. It doesn’t need to be at a Pilates studio or in any special gear. The riding gear is pretty technical and flexible these days.
All the exercises will have easy to follow cueing instructions to help people do them correctly. That way riders can get stronger and become more effective in the saddle.
Key takeaways to improving your riding with Pilates
- You don’t need a reformer to do Pilates – You can do Pilates exercises on the mat with or without props. If you belong to a gym, you’ll find most of those fun bits of equipment like balance balls and resistance bands laying around. (Yes, using a reformer is great. And no, it’s not a repurposed medieval torture device.)
- Pilates exercises can help with position problems in the saddle – By retraining and isolating muscle groups off of the saddle, you can positively affect things like shoulder, leg, and pelvis placement. (If you’ve got balance issues and a highly sensitive horse, you may be surprised just how much working on yourself makes your horse happier.)
- It’s not just about your core – We like to focus on strong abs but there is so much more to Pilates. Learning how to properly engage your latissimus dorsi (the big muscle that stretches down the side of your back) helps to relieve some of the strain on your neck and shoulders. (I’ve found this important when riding a giant animal who may decide to yank the reins out of my hands.)
- You can do Pilates on your own but you’ll get more out of it with help – Megan recommends checking in with a good instructor even if it’s only occasionally to help with your form. (Pilates is so much like riding, it’s scary.)
- Consistency is key – As with any kind of exercise or activity, being consistent makes a difference. So make a commitment and stick with it. (Sounds a lot like advice from another expert interview.)
If you’re interested in finding out more about Megan and her upcoming online workouts, check out her website, Pilates For Equestrians, where you can sign up to be notified when they’re available. You can also follow her on Facebook and Instagram.
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