Rider Alert: Self-carriage is not just a horse issue!
Have you ever wondered why some riders always look centered and stable no matter how creatively their horses try to disrupt them? Flexible and strong core muscles--the deep supportive groups of the lower back, abdominals and inner thigh, are key to rider stability. They're the same ones we encourage our horses to use, especially in dressage work, and human or equine, the results of conditioning them are the same.
To a Pilates instructor, these muscles are The Powerhouse and working them is the foundation of every exercise. Pilates (pronounced puh-lah-tees) is a trademarked fitness regime originally created by Joseph H. Pilates of Germany to rehabilitate soldiers injured in the First World War. Until recently, it's been an obscure discipline pursued primarily by dancers and actors. But Pilates has come of age: Classes are appearing in health clubs, private studios and YMCAs across the country.
Dancers credit Pilates for the balance, lean muscling, and flexibility it promotes--benefits, as riders are discovering, that are also ideal for performers with equine partners."It could have been developed for riders!" says Olympic show-jumper Tim Grubb, who was introduced to Pilates by a non-riding friend. He's become a huge fan, making time in his busy showing and training schedule for weekly sessions. "I'm stiff in all different places--it really makes me limber. It just helps you feel like you're in better balance all the time--whether you're on a horse or not."
The workout itself consists of a series of exercises performed on mats or using spring resistance machines intriguingly named The Reformer, the Barrel, and the Cadillac. Students work individually with an instructor or in small groups. Low repetition and high variety make Pilates sessions fun and engaging, but according to New Paltz New York instructor Elise Bacon, Pilates offers even more: "There's increased mental focus that goes along with it," says Elise, a fifteen-year teaching veteran who's worked with several amateur riders. "Like riding, or dancing, the focus helps you get full benefit."
With Pilates classes suddenly appearing everywhere, how do you find a good instructor? Certification is the first thing to look for, Elise says. She also recommends asking how long the person has been teaching and if they've worked with riders before. If possible, observe a class before taking one. Does the instructor clearly describe what to do? Can s/he constructively help when the student has difficulty? When you take a class, pay attention to how you feel afterwards. A well-trained Pilates instructor has an almost physical therapist-like ability to work with a students stiffness and injuries. According to Elise, it's normal to feel a little sore after a Pilates session--but you shouldn't be hurting.
Some instructors may even be willing to watch you ride and tailor your regime accordingly. But most of all, Elise says, the best instructors are able to help you visualize your body from the inside out.
Whether we like it or not, carrying ourselves is the quickest route to coaxing our horses to carry themselves. And when your flexible, strongly supported body sits on a horse with the same attributes, an amazing thing happens...it's called balance.
FEI dressage rider Betsy Steiner shares her perspective on Pilates in the May 2003 issue of Practical Horseman magazine. You can find more information about Pilates and a directory to certified Pilates instructors by checking out the website of the Pilates trademark holders, Pilates Inc.: www.Pilates-Studio.com, or calling 1-800-474-5283.