In a normal year, Natalie Righetti would be spending several months leading horseback riding and Pilates retreats in the Spanish countryside, learning about the local history and culture, enjoying gourmet food and mountain views. Of course, this past year hasn’t looked quite like that – instead, there’s been a lot less riding and much more time spent in front of a computer keeping her equestrian clients fit.
In March 2020, Natalie, a STOTT PILATES® Certified Instructor and owner of Vita Sana Pilates in Glasgow, Scotland, transitioned her Pilates business online, and later launched a Pilates for Equestrian series, attracting riders from Scotland, Ireland, England, Spain and even as far away as South America.
“After various discussions with my equestrian friends and contacts, it was clear that many riders had some concerns about losing their ‘riding fitness’ during the pandemic due to not being able to go out riding as often or at all. There is a difference between having good general fitness and being riding fit (e.g. being comfortable in the saddle for long periods) and riders are very much aware of this,” she says.
In her Pilates for Equestrian classes, she focuses on improving riders' alignment, symmetry, balance and stamina to improve their performance. This involves focusing on spinal stability and mobility; isolating the pelvis and spine during movements, and also limbs; shoulder stability and mobility; and the coordination of all of these together, which is exactly what Pilates offers.
“STOTT PILATES has so many benefits for riders, the list is endless. Some of these include: Improved posture and comfort on the horse, better horse and rider alignment, improved flexibility, core stability and balance to advance the rider’s form and reduce the likelihood of injury, to name just a few.
“In fact, Pilates is used as a complementary exercise for many competitive riders, including the great Olympic Gold Dressage Rider, Charlotte Dujardin,” Natalie says.
Keeping equestrians fit while out of the saddle
Maintaining a good level of riding fitness is important for all keen equestrians.
“Like anything, it can be easily lost during long periods of non-riding and can take time to build back up. Loss of riding fitness can also make riders, and subsequently, their horse, more prone to injury when they do return to riding. So being able to maintain and improve good muscle and joint function is very important.”
Pilates can help correct impediments, such as rounded shoulders, tight hamstrings, mid-thoracic tightness, and tightness and curving in the lower back— a common symptom among riders of all levels.
One of the misconceptions about horse riding is that it requires little effort on the part of the rider.
“Of course while the horse bears a lot of the stress and load, so does the rider. As an equestrian, it’s important to develop a strong core and build strength in the legs, glutes and back, which Pilates does. The muscle groups most affected by horse riding are those around the pelvic and hip joints,” Natalie says.
Pilates exercises and tips for equestrians
Here are some of Natalie’s favorite Pilates exercises for her equestrian clients:
- Hip extension exercises: Riders often suffer from tight hips and this affects their leg alignment and the leg signals they give their horse.
- Balance and oblique exercises: These can be used to help identify muscle imbalances and if collapsing into or shifting to one side is occurring during riding. Seek to correct these through awareness and technique.
- C-curve exercises: These help extend the hip joint while working the abdominals.
- Shoulder and hip exercises: Focus on improving mobility and stability.
- Plantar flexion exercises: Riders often struggle with that foot position and associated leg muscle engagement due to having their feet/ankles dorsiflexed in the stirrups for long periods.
- Work in neutral alignment (when possible): This helps riders with their positioning in the saddle.
A new horseback riding retreat and Pilates experience in Spain
Natalie’s retreats in Spain have been rescheduled for later in 2021, as long as local health guidelines permit them.
“My retreats are run by a reputable agent, Zara's Planet, who ensures that COVID-safe measures and guidelines are adhered to.
“At our retreats at Los Olivillos, in the Sierra de Tejeda, Almira and Alhama National Park in Andalusia, guests stay in separate accommodation spread across the grounds, dine outside and can do so in separate areas, and Pilates classes are limited in size and are all outdoors. Guests have their own Pilates mat and equipment with antibacterial wipes and hand sanitizer available at all times, and horse riding, by its very nature, allows guests to stay physically apart outdoors.”
Natalie’s retreats usually draw a mix of clients, from beginner to advanced riders, regular Pilates practitioners and complete novices, most of whom become Pilates converts upon returning home.
“I believe that retreats such as these are great for self-improvement and also self-challenge. The majority of our guests develop a deeper understanding of Pilates and its practical application during our retreats and it then helps them in their day-to-day activities back home, whether that be riding or other forms of exercise and movement,” she says.
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