Like in all vertebrates, a healthy spine is crucial for healthy movement. In fact, many healing arts start with the backbone and its alignment before other treatment can be performed: massage, chiropractic care, physical therapy, Pilates, etc.
In traditional human Pilates, we aim to improve the mobility of the spine by treating each vertebra--- emphasizing sequencing of the vertebral bones to stack on top of each other in the correct alignment. From there, we focus on stabilizing the healthy spine and pelvis before movements of the limbs. The same is true with Equine Pilates.
Because the horse is a quadruped and a human is a biped, we need to think a bit differently when it comes spinal movement and coordination of the two species when doing either Equine Pilates and/or traditional Pilates for Humans. While the horse's core is important, it is not as developed as the human’s core; in fact, the oblique muscles in an equine are thinner than that of a human’s.
So, with Equine Pilates, we start with the spine too, but in a different way. Building muscles off of a misaligned spine does not lead to any benefits. The horse must have a straight spine with good muscles so that it can support the rider. To do so, the horse needs the lower back muscles, the core muscles and the pelvic girdle muscles. But Equine Pilates it isn’t JUST about the core; it’s the whole horse.
Unlike a human, the core isn’t everything to the horse; horses don’t get six-packs (and frankly, neither should humans but that’s another blog). When the horse is contracting the core, you should only see a slight contraction – you should not see a hard-solid or sharp muscle line. When you see a hard-solid or sharp muscle line in the core of a horse in work, your horse is not “working” the core. Rather the hard-solid or sharp muscle line is demonstrating the muscle hypertrophying or hypertonic. An overdeveloped core indicates more of a biomechanical issue. When a horse has a nicely engaged core, it should not present hard-muscle lining. Rather, it should look as one solid, smooth unit.
So essentially, Equine Pilates enables the horse to convert the forces on the spine so that it can maintain integrity and the range of motion.
Here's the technical explanation: The spinous processes of the thoracic spine lean backwards and the spinous process of the lumbar spine lean forward. The longissimus muscle runs from the lumbar to the cervical spine. So, when the horse lowers his head, the pull from the longissimus can straighten the thoracic spinous processes, but that stretch forward and down of the head has the same effect in the forward-facing spinous processes of the lumbar spine-- therefore, putting the lumbar spine in extension. When the lumbar spine is extended, it causes the lumbar sacral joint to counter lever making it very difficult for the hind end to engage. Sometimes, the function of the core can be to flex the lower back. But, we should actually think that the function of the horse's core is to limit lumbar extension. The opposite is true for the longissimus. It's purpose isn't to create extension but to limit flexion.
So, with Equine Pilates, we assist the horse to engage the right muscles in the right way, stabilizing the spine against external forces, thereby establishing the correct range of motion.
If your horse has a straight back, then your horse is able to contract the core as it should. To learn more about Equine Pilates and Pilates for Humans here in Aiken, head to Pilates Mastery. If you’re looking for Pilates near me, Pilates Mastery also offers virtual Pilates sessions. You may book an Equine Pilates session at: pilatesmastery.org