It all starts with the pelvis

A horse who allows the rider into his back is a dream to ride. That feeling of true connection between horse and rider is just magical.

How do we get there? By working on ourselves as riders first. Most of us would agree it is extremely unpleasant to sit on a horse who is bracing his back so it becomes stiff and tight as a board, right? But…for the horse, it is equally uncomfortable to carry a rider who has a tight and stiff back. In order to help the horse be supple, the rider’s body has to be flexible and elastic as well.

The challenge in horse riding is that you need to be flexible and stable at the same time. Flexibility is important for following the horse’s movement. Stability is needed to keep your body weight from being a discomfort to the horse. I call this “active sitting.” While you are in a seated position, you can’t be passive. You must work actively and dynamically in order to be efficient with your aids.

It all starts with the pelvis. It’s where the rider receives the horse’s kinetic energy. The pelvis is built from the sacrum and two bones that form the sides of the pelvis, called “os coxae”. The function of the pelvis is to provide support for the spine and protect the inner organs of the pelvis. In addition, the pelvis provides the attachment point for the legs via the hip joints.

The ability to move your pelvis will determine how well your spine moves. A tight pelvis will not allow spinal oscillation, the back and forth motion needed to process the horse’s energy within the rider’s body. The better your body is able to process the horse’s input, the more efficient your aids will be – leading to clear communication between horse and rider.

Your spine consists of 26 bones (24 individual vertebrae, sacrum and tailbone). In between each vertebra is a flexible cushion-like structure called the intervertebral disc. These discs protect the bones, distribute weight and absorb shock. Through misalignment, stiffness and improper usage, your spine (including the intervertebral discs) is prone to degeneration. Degeneration leads to pain, more stiffness, reduced proprioception, less oscillation, and discs that don’t function as well anymore. As a result the rider will lose the capability of using the seat correctly, which is going to negatively influence the horse as well.

”If your spine is inflexibly stiff at 30, you are old. If it is completely flexible at 60, you are young.” ~ Joseph Pilates

Isn’t that just the truth? But how do we keep our spine completely flexible?

The answer is easy: by strengthening our stabilizer muscles to support the spine, creating a balance of opposing muscles so none is “pulling” the body into misalignment. By mobilizing our fascia and nervous system to help all of our body parts stay connected and provide great feedback. By training our proprioceptive system to help balance ourselves, and by stretching tight muscles and creating length within joints to avoid compression. I know this sounds like an almost impossible task, but Joseph Pilates created a method that trains all of the above—and more. Classical Pilates has already become an important puzzle piece for many equestrians. It can help every rider make those magical moments of true connection with their horses become a reality.

Ok – it’s time to get to work: One basic exercise that I teach to all my clients (and which even my most advanced students  revisit on a regular basis) is called the Pelvic Clock. This exercise will increase awareness and mobility in the pelvic area. Riders will be able to follow the movement of their horses more easily with improved flexibility in their pelvis.

Not only does the Pelvic Clock help you achieve better mobilization, but like every Pilates exercise, it will give you feedback about your body. How well can you move your pelvis? Does it move better to one side than the other? If you practice on a regular basis, you will feel how the movement starts to become easier, more fluent, and how the range of movement increases.

To get started, lay down on your back on a mat, with your feet flat on the floor. Your knees should be comfortably bent, about a fist-width apart.

woman lying on a flat surface with neutral spine

Now visualize the face of a clock laying on your pelvis—number 12 of your clock would be at your belly button, number 6 of your clock at the tailbone. Number 3 would be on the left hipbone, number 9 on the right.

a clock superimposed over woman's pelvis

Start by tilting your clock toward number 12, and then tilt it back to the other direction all the way to number 6. As you go back and forth, you will feel that your lower back will touch the mat when you are at number 12 and that you have a bigger gap in your lower back when you are at number 6.
Start with small movements. As you proceed, the movement will automatically become bigger as the pelvis starts to loosen up. But don’t force anything—just let the moment flow without rushing it.
After a few repetitions, let the pelvis “rest” and allow it to fall into a comfortable position. Most likely, you will now feel a small gap between your low back and the mat —which is normal, since your spine is not straight like a stick but curved like an “S”. In the lower back, we do have one of those natural curves, so if your pelvis is in its neutral position, the lower back will have a small gap. I always describe it as a gap that’s just big enough to hold a blueberry.

Once the “12 to 6 movement” feels comfortable, you can proceed to the next part of this exercise.

Start with your pelvis in its neutral position. Now move your pelvis to number 3 (left side of the pelvis), and from there to number 9 (right side of the pelvis). You will feel that this movement is a bit more difficult to “find.” Just take your time and explore the movement. Be aware that it is a much smaller movement than the “12 to 6” one. Also, your knees will most likely try to “help” by moving sideways as well. Try to keep the knees still to really isolate the pelvis movement alone. Again, take your time for this and even if it feels at first like an impossible movement, just stick with it – everybody I taught has learned it so far.

Once you have mastered this movement, you are ready for another step in this exercise.

We are now putting all the movements together, to create a circular pelvis movement. Start at number 12. From there, go around the clock  to number 3, then to number 6, from there to number 9, and finish back at number 12. Do about 5 circles before changing directions and doing another 5 circles.

When practicing the Pelvic Clock, always start with the 12 to 6 movement, followed by the 3 to 9 and only then do your circles in both directions.

Through better pelvis and spinal mobility, your riding and ultimately the partnership with your horse will become more meaningful. Have fun playing with these exercises and enjoy the improvements they can bring!

Note: “While this exercise is relatively simple to execute it is recommended the exercise to be attempted for the first time with guidance from a certified Pilates instructor.”