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Pilates for Dressage Riders

Loni M. Gaudet My introduction to Pilates was a direct result of my experiences as a dressage rider. I began taking lessons with Virginia Davis to improve my riding and to address several physical issues. What I found took me on a new course in my riding and eventually led me to my Pilates Certification. For those not familiar with dressage, it is a systematic training of the horse to perform acrobatic, fluid movements with apparent ease and harmony. It is interesting to compare Joe's definition of physical fitness: "The attainment and maintenance of a uniformly developed body with a sound mind fully capable of naturally, easily and satisfactorily performing our many and varied daily tasks with spontaneous zest and pleasure." 1945 To the United States Equestrian Federation's (USEF) definition of dressage: "The object of Dressage is the harmonious development of the physique and ability of the horse. As a result it makes the horse calm, supple, loose and flexible but also confident, attentive and keen thus achieving perfect understanding with his rider." "Pilates is Dressage for the Human Body" is what I tell clients who are riders. While any exercise program can benefit riders, Pilates exercises specifically address some of the most pertinent issues they may have including core stability and strength, proper breathing technique, flexibility in the hips, shoulder girdle stability, asymmetries, and proprioception. All of these skills are required for the rider to guide the horse through the training that will lead it to the same state of physical fitness and mental capability. One of the greatest benefits of Pilates to the rider is that it offers them the opportunity to learn these skills without the influence of a large, moving, and sometimes uncooperative animal underneath them. Issues Commonly Found in Equestrians

A rider performing half-pass. The torso needs even more rotation in the direction of the movement (left) but overall shows good alignment. Photo by Ree Photo Graphics.

Most equestrians have a great deal of strength in their extremities ­ arms, shoulders lift hay bales, and sacks of grain, legs are used for mounting, posting the trot and pushing wheelbarrows. What they are often lacking is strength in the core. Riding requires that the lower back is able to follow the movement of the horse's back. To do this, the pelvis must swing between neutral positioning and a slight posterior tilt. The goal is to maintain stability in the core without rigidity. Riders talk all the time about the elasticity required in the horse's back - this elasticity is directly affected by the rider's back. The pelvic clock fundamental is the cornerstone of a supple back. With riders, and all clients, teach the movement without engagement of the glutes because tightening the glutes "pops" the rider off the saddle and reduces their influence over the horse. As the pelvis swings from neutral to posterior tilt, the abdominal wrapping must be strong to protect the back and to maintain the rider's upright balance. One of the better cues I have heard from a riding instructor was to "ride the horse between your belly and your back" which implies

maintaining your own core dynamics to allow the horse to develop theirs. Without this internal balance riders end up either pulling on the horse's mouth or sitting in a "fetal position" to maintain stability. Both of these actions cause a negative reaction from the horse. Exercises that teach the rider to maintain the engagement of the abdominals while moving through space are needed. Some of my favorite exercises for riders include short box (especially round back), the knee stretch series, spine stretch, cat and stomach massage. Thigh stretch is an essential exercise for riders because it directly tests their ability to maintain balance while having a feeling of holding the reins. It also teaches the stability and strength needed to return to an upright position without pulling themselves up from the hands. Breathing Technique Another issue that affects many riders is improper breathing technique. Improper breathing affects riders by reducing oxygen availability and disturbing the flow of energy throughout the body. Riding cues that exacerbate this problem include "sit up tall", "shoulders back" and a variety of others. While these cues may be sufficient for a naturally talented rider, for many riders the typical response is to disconnect the ribcage forward, elevate their shoulders and then try to pull them back using the rhomboids. This makes it difficult to stabilize the shoulders and to keep them hanging softly around the ribcage, which in turn makes it difficult to keep the arms and hands quiet ­ a hallmark of good riding. In Pilates, we teach posterior lateral ribcage breathing. With ribcage breathing the abdominal wrap and pelvic floor can be engaged without inhibiting the breath. We also use ribcage breathing to improve the suppleness of the intercostals, which allow for better rotation and side bending. Torso Movements Rotation in the torso is essential for a rider. Turning a horse, asking for lateral movements and flying changes (where the horse swaps leads at the canter) all require the rider's torso to be in line with the horse's body. An interesting observation is that if the horse is stiff on one side, typically the rider is too. Symmetry in the horse's body is an integral part of the dressage training, just as symmetry in the rider's body is an integral part of their Pilates training.

In this photo, we can see that the rider's shoulders are away from the ears and that the core is actively working.

Exercises that improve the rider's ability to breathe freely into the back of the ribcage both free the body and relax the mind. For breath flow, I like to focus on the breath in footwork and in the angel/ribcage arms fundamentals. To increase the suppleness of the ribcage, rotational exercises such as saw and mermaid are useful. One of my favorite cues from Virginia Davis is to "use your breath to make you taller" when stretching up in push through on the Cadillac. The next issue is flexibility and range of motion in the hips. When riders (and many clients for that matter) start Pilates, they often have poor differentiation between the movement of the legs and

movement in the pelvis. It is important while riding that the use of the legs does not disturb the position of the pelvis, or seat of the rider. Advanced or upper level riders appear to have a very long leg and open hip angle. Many dressage riders attempt to emulate this look by riding with stirrups that are too long for the leg. This position compromises the body by placing greater stresses on the sacroiliac joint and the lumbar spine, not to mention either tipping the rider forward or causing them to "water-ski" against the horse's mouth. It is important to educate your riding clients about these stresses to their bodies so that they can make changes to maintain their health. Knee stirs and folds, leg slides and prone hip extension help them develop the ability to move their legs independent of their seat. Footwork and legwork on the reformer are also very useful exercises. Riding develops strong adductors and hip flexors, but can leave the abductors and hamstrings weak and/or tight. The ideal leg position when mounted is to have the leg in a neutral to internally rotated position. Side leg springs maintaining alignment in the body using the core help develop the abductors, prone leg springs assist in the lengthening of the front of the leg and hip. Ballet stretches, Eve's Lunge and Front Splits develop not only flexibility but also challenge the rider's standing balance. The ideal rider position allows the shoulder girdle to float softly on top of the ribcage with elbows hanging down at the sides and at or slightly in front of the body. Because of the relationship between the rider and the horse through the reins, riders tend to develop very strong pulling muscles (pectorals, biceps) without developing the pushing and stabilizing muscles of the upper torso (serratus, lattisimus, triceps and lower and mid trapezius). It is very important to teach the shoulders to move through their range of motion through exercises such as supine arm push through (especially effective on the foam roller), seated chest expansion on the chair, arm circles on the reformer and basic stretching. Shoulder stabilization is key to helping the rider develop "quiet hands". One of the greatest compliments one rider can give another is "You have such quiet hands." As the horse's back moves, the rider's back absorbs some of the movement but much is still transferred through the body. If the shoulders are carried up around the ears, the arms and hands will develop a rigidity that is transferred to the horse's mouth. This is a very good example of where the rider has lost the "independent seat and hands" that they are striving for. If the shoulder girdle is allowed to settle on top of the ribcage, the arms can be released and the communication through the reins becomes clearer for the horse. Exercises that focus on stabilizing and strengthening the upper torso such as chest expansion, triceps dips, push-ups, swan and single leg kicks are all important. The long box exercises of T-Straps and Pull Straps give the rider the added benefit of working towards proper hand and arm alignment.

The rider's back has hollowed and the front of the hip has closed, stopping the flow of movement in the rider's body.

Conclusion Riders strive for "an independent seat and hands" and "a supple, following seat" but what does that mean and where do they begin? Pilates offers riders exercises intended to strengthen the core, develop body awareness and increase range of motion and flexibility. The concentration required by the work typically appeals to dressage riders. The exercises teach riders to maintain their alignment during movement through space, which requires elasticity, strength and good proprioception. Core stabilization allows them to develop a body whose extremities can work independently of their seat thereby allowing them to be quiet and communicate better with their horses.


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