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Parker is my Pilates instructor and I work with her once per
week to ensure my strength, balance and flexibility are available
for riding. I asked Maggie to write an article about Pilates
for equestrians to help you understand how effective and important
this work can be to the sport of riding. I hope this article
will inspire you to purse Pilates in your area of the country.
As one of those girls crazy about horses, Maggie Parker has
ridden for much of her life, all the way from barefoot and bareback
on a spotted pony to the art and discipline of dressage. Her
other lifetime passion, dance, was cut short due to injuries.
While teaching riding, and coming from a background of dance
that uses a careful and methodical development of movements
to develop a dancer, Maggie felt that the same was lacking for
riders to some degree. Wanting to keep her dance viable as well
as finding some biomechanical applications for riders, Maggie
studied and certified in Pilates. She has found that Pilates,
while having positive applications to anything related to human
movement, is particularly effective for riders. Her combined
(formal) riding and Pilates experience of 34 years has borne
this out for her as well as for her clients. Maggie Parker is
also a sculptor who creates bronze sculptures in, what else,
horses and dancers.
Riding Longer and Better with Pilates
By Maggie Parker, Certified Pilates Instructor, Boulder, Colorado
As riders following different disciplines, we may have different
goals, however, we all have one goal in common. A better partnership
with our horse that is comfortable and productive for us both.
Our lifestyles may not contribute ideally to these goals, including
limited time, stress, and the amount of sitting we do on a daily
basis. Our bodies ache, get tired, become tense and sore, and
generally do not perform very well to our bidding. Joe Pilates
addressed these exact things in some of his writings over seventy
years ago that are still valid today.
Often when we ride, we feel like we are struggling with the
same issues in our body over and over with no change. We hear
the same instruction over and over and can’t seem to integrate
it into ourselves when we ride. Instructions like “Sit up straight,”
and "get your shoulders back” or “heels down,” or one of
my favorites, “relax and stop bouncing.” It is not just a matter
of riding better that will do away with these frustrating problems
that elicit these commands. How one’s body functions off the
horse can have everything to do with how the body functions
on the horse. We naturally develop imbalances in our body based
on our lifestyles; things like rounded shoulders, too much curve
in the lower back, tight, ineffective hamstrings, and others
that affect our movement and alignment. If it seems difficult
to address these off the horse, it is certainly harder to address
them on the horse while you are trying to affect the horse.
Pilates has the answers. First, what is Pilates? Many people
who have heard of it have also heard the term “core strength,”
but it is much more. Joe Pilates was an expert on biomechanics
and movement. He developed his work over the span of his adulthood,
constantly developing it until his death in the 1960s. He didn’t
call his work “Pilates.” He called it “contrology.” However,
that name did not stick the way his name, “Pilates” did to describe
his work. Pilates said “Contrology (Pilates) develops the body
uniformly, corrects posture, restores vitality, invigorates
the mind and elevates the spirit.” That sounds like an overstated
promotional spiel. Those who have experienced Pilates to some
degree would agree with the statement and not feel that it is
exaggerated at all.
Let’s take that statement of his and elaborate on it and see
how it can apply to riding. First, there are the words “uniform
development.” What is that? It means just what says. Muscles
move our joints to engage in any desired activity. The muscles
must work in a balanced way to cause our joints to do it in
an aligned and efficient way. If one set of muscles involving
the joint is weaker or tighter than the other, the work is unbalanced
creating tension. Uniform development also includes the breath
and circulation as well.
One can’t be uniformly developed unless the whole body is involved.
The more in tune we are with our body, the more control we have
over it, the better we can ride our horse. We can feel more
connected with our horse when we are more connected with ourselves.
How does this happen doing Pilates? How is it different from
other methods? First of all, the exercises or movements are
done in a specific sequence. Second, how the movements are done
are the real key to the difference. That is one of the reasons
it is possible for Pilates to be carried over into other activities,
like riding. The following are the Pilates principles that make
the work different. As you read these, think about how they
can relate to riding well, too.
Concentration and Awareness: One concentrates on the
specifics of a particular movement being performed while being
aware of the whole picture. Awareness translates to where your
body is in space and how it moves in that space. It helps you
be “present” in your activities. Being present enables you to
sense the changes that occur in what you are trying to achieve.
At first, it may seem hard, but with practice you’ll find that
it develops in you. Your body and mind have a more complete
partnership in your activities. The concentration and awareness
that one develops doing Pilates gets carried over to riding
helping one to focus on a particular aspect of the horse’s movement
while maintaining the sense of the whole horse.
Centering or using the Core: The core is more than just
the abdominals. It includes all the area encompassed by the
abdominals and the accompanying back muscles. It is not about
crunches or sit-ups. Strength and energy emanate from the core
and flows outward through the extremities. A correctly strengthened
core has several benefits. The spine is better supported and
decompressed contributing to better movement of the spine. The
internal organs are supported. Breathing is improved because
some core muscles are used in breathing to better inflate and
deflate the lungs. One has more energy because movements become
more efficient, using less energy. One has better control over
all movements leading to better balance, posture, and grace.
Correct use of the core will help keep the spine of the rider
from being adversely affected by the concussion of the horse’s
gaits. It helps us maintain neutral pelvis and gives us the
ability to follow the horse easily. It is the key to riding
from our center and not from our extremities.
Precise Control: Every Pilates exercise is designed to
produce a specific benefit. Performing the movements as precisely
as you can according to the teacher’s direction gives the most
possibility for the intended result. Its premise is to help
the mind develop control of the body and respond the way one
wishes it to. When the body and mind work well together, it’s
easier to recognize the limits one body has therefore lessening
the possibility of injury. When muscle movement is precisely
controlled, it’s easier to lengthen tight muscles, strengthen
weak one, and release tension in overworked ones. In riding,
precise control can help one create subtlety and timing of the
Flowing Movement: The Pilates movements are meant to
flow from one to the next. Even though each exercise has a specific
benefit, each is a whole body exercise. One wants to maintain
a rhythm and flow, working with the breath that is neither too
slow nor too fast. This is not unlike when we school our horses.
We look for a consistent rhythm where we can feel the horse
working through his entire body in an easy manner in spite of
the effort involved. We want to feel that his movement flows
easily from transition to transition within the gaits and from
one gait to another.
Oppositional energy is a visualization skill to increase the
benefits of a movement. One visualizes two opposing points of
a body stretching apart, but maintaining a central connection.
It is best understood with an example. Imagine you are sitting
in your saddle. You want the feeling of a well grounded, deep
seat as well as a correctly lengthened spine. By visualizing
the effect and activating the correct muscles that can do this
leads to a better result. The spine deepens or lengthens from
the waist down to the saddle, and from the waist up through
the top of the head. Keeping the connection to center keeps
the action from feeling or becoming disconnected. This does
take some work to begin to feel, but is well worth the effort.
An analogy in riding is the horse in collection. There is a
lengthening or stretching within the horse’s body that helps
lead to collection, as opposed to compression, which develops
as the horse does.
Breathing Well: We are all familiar with lung capacity.
We know that we can take deeper breaths than the ones we are
taking as we read this. Since we don’t breathe deeply on a regular
basis, the “breathing apparatus” gets “tight” just like a muscle
that isn’t used in a full range of motion. When one part is
tight, we continue to breathe into the easier parts perpetuating
the tightness in the unused parts. When doing Pilates, each
breath is developed to its full capacity. Each movement in Pilates
has a breathing pattern with it. It can be surprising to discover
that it can be hard to coordinate the breath with movement,
or even remember to breathe! Breathing correctly will actually
help stretch and strengthen muscles that affect our posture.
Breathing well helps remove toxins from our system and helps
the heart work better. How often do riders hold their breath,
breath shallowly or erratically when riding? How many are even
aware of it? Breathing well with a rhythm that works with the
horse’s rhythm helps us to connect better with the horse and
helps keep us from becoming tense.
Remember those instructions at the beginning of this article?
The ones that meant well, but may have gotten less than optimal
results in your body? After tuning your body with Pilates, when
you are told to sit up straight, put your shoulders back, you
will have the awareness tools, and a better understanding of
how to achieve these, and what they really mean in your body.
I hope this gives you a better understanding of what Pilates
is and how it can enhance and improve your riding.
Pilates Teacher and Equestrian