Pilates For Horses

A Mind-Body Conditioning System for Strength, Mobility, and Performance

Pilates for Horses is for all people looking to build and maintain a solid foundation of strength and comfort for their horse, even if they are lacking professional dressage capabilities. As a Pilates teacher and studio owner, nutritionist, and certified personal trainer, I have seen firsthand how movement can heal. Consistent, quality exercise can prevent injury and when injuries do happen, these same exercises can be modified to help the body slowly and carefully recover in a mindful and safe way.

It is important to have a veterinarian’s approval before beginning any work after an injury. Use these exercises at your own risk and be sure your horse is healthy enough to begin.

When my five-year-old, off-the-track Thoroughbred named Mark, was diagnosed with extreme back pain and, eventually, a neurological disease called EPM, or Equine Protozoal Myeloencephalitis, I turned to Pilates—a method I’d used to help ease back pain and strengthen clients for years—for help. I went to work bridging the gap between Mark’s mind and body, using the same resistance bands and stability pads I had in my studio to help increase body awareness and core engagement for my horse. I had to consult many different books as well as multiple vets and equine therapists to find the stretches, groundwork, and under-saddle work that my horse needed. I used my knowledge of the human body and how it works to tailor each exercise for my horse and my abilities as an amateur rider.

This work in this book and included in this excerpt is meant to be a guide for everyone—amateur owners and professionals alike, from all disciplines. Pilates for Horses is for all people looking to build and maintain a solid foundation of strength and comfort for their horse, even if they are lacking professional dressage capabilities. As riders, we often warm up and stretch our bodies for exercise but forget our horses need that same time and attention as well—this book shows you where to start.

The exercises included here can be taken in parts or as a whole and can be seamlessly incorporated into an existing training program as a preventive tool to increase strength, balance, mobility, and stability, or as the framework for a new program to help ease a horse back into work following an injury or time off.

— by Laura Reiman MS PMA-CPT | excerpt from Pilates for Horses produced by Horse and Rider Books

The following exercises discuss the use of Incentive Stretches for horses. Please see our full article in the May/June issue, which outlines the proper way to utilize food and treats while motivating your horse to stretch.

Chin to Chest

WHAT 

Ask your horse to bring his nose toward the center of his chest using a treat, creating flexion and stretch in the upper neck muscles. 

WHY 

Increases mobility in the upper and middle neck muscles, including the trapezius cervicis, cervical rhomboids, and splenius muscles. 

HOW 

1. Stand beside your horse, facing forward. 

2. Offer a treat near the horse’s nose to get his attention. 

3. Slowly move your hand back toward the center of the horse’s chest, covering the treat so he cannot grab it. 

4. Make sure the horse’s neck is straight and his nose is pointing down. 

5. When using a clicker, activate it right at the center of your horse’s chest. 

6. Hold the stretch for 5 seconds to start, working up to 10-20 seconds over the course of several weeks. 

7. Repeat 2-4 times, changing sides each time so your horse’s head doesn’t begin to tilt to one side in anticipation. 

WHEN 

Every day, after your horse is warmed up. Hold for 10-20 seconds and repeat 2-4 times. 

COMMON ISSUES AND PRECAUTIONS

When you hold the treat too high, the neck and jaw will tense, and the horse will not get the full benefit of the stretch. Holding the incentive at the middle of the chest elongates the mus-cles down the neck and through the back instead of just the poll. 

Never hold your horse’s head down or force him into a greater range of motion 

Nose to Girth

WHAT 

Ask your horse to laterally bend and stretch as he reaches for a treat at his side. 

WHY 

• Encourages lateral bend and stretches the muscles on the side of the neck and back, including the splenius, multifidus cervicis, serratus ventralis, trapezius, serratus thoracis, latissimus dorsi, longissimus dorsi, scalene muscles, intercostals, and obliques. 

• Strengthens the pectoral stabilizer muscles and obliques. 

I am supporting Mark’s neck as he stretches around me. This is the most gentle form of the stretch. You can also accomplish this stretch standing slightly farther away from your horse, as I am (below). This encourages the inside scapula to draw backward and the obliques to engage, but increases the risk for compression if you ask for too deep of a stretch.

HOW 

1. Stand next to your horse’s shoulder, facing away from him. 

2. Offer a treat with your outside hand near the horse’s nose to get his attention. 

3. Slowly move your hand around your body and toward the horse’s hip, asking for a stretch. 

4. Support the outside of the neck lightly with your inside hand and maintain a consistent neck height no higher than the hip. 

5. When using a clicker, activate it at the back half of your horse’s trunk, halfway down the side. 

6. Make sure your horse is not tilting his head and is standing square if possible. 

7. Hold for 5 seconds to start, working up to 10-20 seconds over the course of several weeks. 

8. Repeat 3-4 times, changing sides each time to give the muscles time to recover (fig D and E) 

WHEN 

Every day, after your horse is warmed up. Hold for 10-20 seconds and repeat 2-4 times.. 

NOTE 

• If you think your horse may potentially lose his balance or bite you, stand a few feet away from the shoulder and ask the horse to stretch directly back. Avoid too tight of a bend as this can cause lower cervical spine compression. 

• Keep in mind that horses can and will use their teeth to scratch their hind end naturally, espe-cially during fly season. By standing next to the trunk and asking the horse to stretch his neck around you, you can encourage the horse to shift his shoulder out, engage the core, and hold a deep lateral bend of the opposite side of the body. 

Tail Pull Back

By gently pulling backward on your horse’s tail, you can put his spine in traction, allowing for spinal decompression and pressure relief. The horse may also shift his weight forward against the pressure, elongating the spine and engaging the abdominals. 


Remember the tail is an extension of the spine. You can see Mark’s hindquarters engage, stabilizing against the backward pull of his tail. In most cases, it is helpful to have an assistant; however, Mark is familiar with this stretch and will stand still without an extra person.

WHY 

• This isometric contraction stretches the stabilizing muscles along the spine, freeing the back and relieving tension in the topline muscles, including the longissimus dorsi and latissimus dor-si, as well as the gluteals and trapezius thoracis. 

• Engages the abdominals if the horse shifts his balance away from your pressure. 

HOW 

1. Stand behind your horse and gently lift the dock of his tail until it’s lined up with the spine or just below it. 

2. Hold the tail steady until your horse releases tension/clamping feeling. 

3. Slide your hands down the tail and take a few steps back. 

4. Slowly pull the tail directly backward. Your horse may shift forward against you, which will in-crease the stretch and engage his stabilizer muscles. 

5. Hold for 10-20 seconds to start, working up to a minute if your horse allows, over time (see below). 

WHEN 

Every day, before or after work. Hold for 10 seconds to a minute. 

NOTE 

• If your horse refuses to unclamp his tail, try placing three fingers where the dock meets the body and pressing down gently. If that doesn’t work, raise the tail only halfway and spend time gently massaging the dock with the pads of your fingers, and/or moving the dock slowly in small circles to release tension. 

• If you cannot get your horse to release his tail, move on to Lacrosse Ball Release (see full text), and if the tail is still tense afterward, this may be an indication that a chiropractor or veterinarian should look at your horse. 



Laura Reiman, MS, PMA-CPT, has been practicing Pilates since 2007. She completed her Comprehensive Teacher Training Course with BASI Pilates (Body Arts and Science International) in New York, then spent six months in Brisbane, Australia, teaching and continuing to learn from BASI faculty members before opening her own studio in Alexandria, Virginia, The Pilates Powerhaus. Laura is a certified personal trainer and holds a master’s in nutrition. She has been riding on and off for 22 years, and is an avid
eventer (pilates4horses.com).

This material was printed with permission from www.horseandriderbooks.com

Learn more stretches and pilates for horses by reading our May/June Issue.

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