Pilates for horses - enhancing performance and reducing injuries

By Nicole Rossa

Pilates is increasingly used amongst professional athletes as a method to enhance athletic performance and to reduce injuries. It is also used frequently as part of a post-injury rehabilitation program, as the exercises are performed in a slow and controlled manner, targeting specific muscle groups - the core stability muscles.

An important aspect of fitness training is ‘cross-training' – so as not to only concentrate on developing the key muscles used for the sport, but also in developing the stability muscles required for postural strength. The Pilates Method was established more than 50 years ago by Joseph Pilates (1880-1967) and was designed to help the quality of movement.  One of the key principles of Pilates is ‘centering,' which refers to the concept that all movement of the human body originates from the center or core of the body.  The Pilates method endeavors to strengthen the core muscles.  Research in human athletes has shown that strengthening these muscles enhances athletic performance and reduces the incidence of injury.  It has also been shown to be a very effective exercise program in accelerating the post-injury rehabilitation process in humans.
 The principles of Pilates exercises are relaxation, body alignment, coordination, centering, concentration, breathing and good quality of movement.  It is therefore, strictly speaking, not possible to apply the word ‘Pilates' to any equine exercises.  More correctly, when referring to horses, it is more appropriate to equate Pilates to exercises to improve ‘core stability,' ‘flexibility' and ‘coordination.' 
 The presence of incorrect movement techniques can result in the inability to undertake a movement with maximum efficiency or with the least expenditure of energy. 
Muscles can be categorized by their role either as stabilizers or mobilizers.  Muscles with a stabilizing function are usually mono-articular (moving one joint), have broad insertions, provide leverage for static holding and joint compression, and with a postural role.  Muscles with a mobilizing function are usually bi-articular or multi-segmental (moving two or more joints), superficial, have tendinous insertions, provide leverage for range and speed and joint distraction, and have a repetitive or rapid movement role.

Form follows function, and horses in their natural environment travel long distances, often sustaining a trot for hours.  The horse's spine is designed to aid efficient locomotion.  So while trotting is a very efficient gait with minimum movement through the back, much more flexion of the back is required in canter and gallop.  This demand, especially if over a distance, can sometimes strain the system.
 The spine or vertebral column forms the core structure of the horse.  It consists of cervical vertebra (7), thoracic vertebra (18), lumbar vertebra (6), sacrum (5 fused vertebrae) and the coccygeal vertebra (18 to 20).  The horse's spine acts like a suspension bridge, a connective structure between the uprights of the front and the hind legs, rigid but somewhat flexible.  At the front is a highly mobile neck, and at the rear a highly mobile tail.  The horse's spine operates like a ‘bow string.'

A substantial portion of the neck musculature is located above or next to the cervical spine and includes splenius, serratus ventralis cervicis and trapezius.  These muscles act to raise or extend the neck.  The muscles of the lower neck, located beneath the cervical spine, are the brachiocephalic and sternocephalic. 

 Overdevelopment of these muscles is undesirable and will result in an ‘upside down' neck.  Neck movements affect the horse's balance and weight distribution, and its position and length directly affects the biomechanics of the back.
 In the front of the horse the forelimb is attached to the vertebral column, ribs and sternum by way of a muscular thoracic sling.  The muscles of the thoracic sling suspend the trunk between the shoulder blades.  These muscles include the pectoral muscles, serratus ventralis, trapezius and subclavius.  
 The pelvis is attached to the vertebral column at the sacrum (at the sacroiliac joint), with the stability of the pelvis and hip being controlled by the pelvic stabilizing muscles.  The hindlimb attaches to the pelvis at the coxofemoral joint.  The pelvic stabilizing muscles are the powerful hindquarter muscles – biceps femoris, middle gluteal, superficial gluteal and tensor fascia latae.  The hindquarters are an area of great propulsion, and any instability in the pelvic region will result in a loss of power and balance to the hindquarters.

The spinal musculature is important for movement, posture and flexibility.  The superficial spinal muscles are usually more dynamic and play a role during regional vertebral motion, energy storage and force redistribution during locomotion.  Deep, short spinal muscles have more of a static function and are active in segmental stabilization, proprioception and posture.
 There are numerous muscles that provide stability and flexibility to the spine.  They are divided into superficial and deep muscles.  The longissimus dorsi and the iliocostalis (long back muscles) are the most superficial of the epaxial muscles (the muscles that lie dorsal to the transverse processes of the vertebrae).  The superficial muscles span large regions of the spine and ensure coordinated back movements.  They produce spinal extension and lateral flexion.  The deepest of the epaxial muscles is multifidus.  It has short fibers that span two to four vertebrae and act to align or stabilize each individual vertebra.  
 The hypaxial or sublumbar muscles lie ventral to the transverse processes, attaching to the front of the pelvis and the femur.  They produce spinal flexion and lateral flexion, and also assist in flexing the hip and stabilizing the spine and pelvis.  They include the iliopsoas muscle and the psoas minor.  
 The abdominal muscles stabilize the trunk. When actively contracting, the abdominal muscles also lift the back.  The abdominal muscles include rectus abdominis, tranverse abdominals, internal obliques and external obliques. The function of these muscles is to protect and stabilize the spine.  These muscles together with the sublumbar muscles control the posture of the horse.

Core stabilization exercises help to stimulate and strengthen the postural muscles and to stabilize the spine and pelvis.  
 Withers or thoracic lift – by applying pressure with your finger starting at the sternum, sliding back over the pectoral muscles to an area to behind the girth.  The horse will respond by lifting through the withers.  This will activate the thoracic sling and the abdominal muscles.  The lift should be held for about 5 seconds, then released.  Can be repeated 3 to 5 times.  
 Lumbar or lumbosacral lift – by applying downward pressure along the horse's center line, starting immediately above the tail, continuing forward towards the tuber sacrale.  This will stimulate flexion of the abdominal and sublumbar muscles, causing lifting of the lumbosacral joint and through the lumbar spine.
 Again the lift should be held for about 5 seconds to give a sustained isometric contraction.  Can be repeated 3 to 5 times.
 The above static exercises can be compared with going to the gym and doing abdominal curls in a Pilates session.

Neck flexibility exercises can be carried out with simple carrot stretches to facilitate the neck musculature.  This would include neck extension and lateral bending of the neck.  These mobilizations activate the deeper neck muscles.
 Exercises on the lunge, especially with the aid of a Pessoa lunging aid, can also help to stimulate collection and abdominal strength. 
 During ridden exercise the use of transitions (walk to trot, trot to canter, canter to trot, trot to walk) can also be effective in strengthening the abdominal and back muscles.  If these ridden exercises are to be effective, then the horse must be ridden with normal to low neck positioning.  
 A Thera-Band can also be applied in a loop or figure of eight pattern from the girth to behind the hind legs.  The stimulus to the back of the thighs (compare with the Pessoa while lunging) helps to stimulate collection and abdominal strength.
 Hill work carried out in a collected gait will also strengthen the abdominal and back muscles.  
 If exercises are to be carried out as part of a post-injury rehabilitation program then it is important that these should be approved by your vet or your physiotherapist.

Research into back pain in humans by Moseley-Hodges (2002) identified that the multifidus muscle plays a key role in the stability of the lumbar spine.  Hides et al (1994) showed a reduction in size of multifidus in back pain patients, and also an alteration in functional activation patterns.  Restoration of multifidus function and muscle bulk is an important factor in the prevention of recurrence of back pain in people with acute back injuries (Hides et al, 1996).
 Back pain in horses and associated epaxial/hypaxial muscle dysfunction, imbalance and atrophy often results in loss of performance.  However, back pain syndromes are difficult to diagnose in horses due to the variability of signs – pain on palpation, lameness, gait alterations and behaviour changes.  Chronic back pain can prevent proper use and development of both the abdominal and back muscles, and recent studies using ultrasonographic measurement have shown asymmetry of the epaxial muscles in horses with back pain (Stubbs et al, 2006). 
 The use of ‘Pilates' type exercises for horses to strengthen the core stabilizing muscles can therefore not only be used as part of a regular training program to enhance performance and reduce injury, but may also help to prevent the recurrence of back pain in some horses.