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Women & Horses by Mary D. Midkiff - horseback riding fitness techniques for women

Women & Horses, knowledge for the female equestrian; female equestrian fitness training and riding tips

The Women & Horses Newsletter - December 2004

Riding Longer and Better with Pilates

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Dear Reader,

Maggie 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.

Sincerely, Mary Midkiff

Author Bio

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 aids.

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.

Maggie Parker
Certified Pilates Teacher and Equestrian
Boulder, CO

female equestrian fitness training and riding tips

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