The international dressage competitor, clinician, and author explains why Pilates is her go-to for rider fitness, strength, and flexibility
By Betsy Steiner with Jennifer O. Bryant
You don’t have to be Arnold Schwarzenegger to be able to ride competently. You do, however, need a certain amount of basic body strength—the strength to stay aboard a walking, trotting, and cantering horse; to apply seat, leg, and rein aids; to keep your upper body upright in the saddle; and to maintain your form and apply corrections if your horse pulls with his head and neck or makes an unexpected move.
If you lack this basic strength, you’ll have difficulty sitting correctly and giving aids that are effective enough to establish and maintain a correct rhythm and tempo. You may feel insecure in the saddle, as if you’re being bounced around like a rag doll. And if your horse spooks or bucks, you may have a difficult time staying on or you may run the risk of falling off entirely. Not only are you unable to use your aids to influence your horse effectively; you also run the risk of injury from stressing weak muscles, not to mention the bumps and bruises you may accumulate if you fall off.
Assess Your Basic Strength
Ask your instructor or a knowledgeable helper for input if you’re not sure of the answers to the following. Be honest with yourself—and take heart: If you’re lacking in any of the following areas, I’ll give you exercises that can produce results that you’ll notice and appreciate in a relatively short period of time.
- Can you ride at a trot or canter for 15 minutes or more without becoming winded?
- Can you sit the trot without feeling as if you’re being bounced all over the saddle?
- Can you walk, trot, and canter without balancing on the reins? (Riders who use the reins for support tend to lean back in a “waterskiing” posture.)
- If your horse speeds up, slows down, or breaks gait, can you use your position effectively to adjust his gaits?
- Do you often feel tired, sore, and stiff the day after you ride?
If you answered no to questions 1, 2, 3, or 4 or yes to question 5, you’ll benefit from the exercises that I’ll give you in this article.
My Exercise Regimen of Choice
If you’ve ever picked up a fitness magazine, you know that there are practically unlimited exercises, programs, and approaches. I’ve tried many of them, and I’ve found that the Pilates method is the best all-around way for riders to develop the strength and flexibility that they need for our sport.
One of the biggest advantages to using the Pilates method is that it is a cross-training system that strengthens and supples the body in much the same way that we want to strengthen and supple our horses’ bodies. Pilates exercises emphasize core strength, flexibility, alignment, and total body control.
Of course, these exercises should be done only by riders who are in good physical health and who have consulted with a physician before beginning the program. Check with your physician before beginning any type of physical-training program. Should you experience any pain or discomfort during exercise, stop and consult your physician immediately.
Exercise: Axial Elongation to Promote Functional Strength
In Pilates exercises, as well as when you’re in the saddle, your core functional abdominal muscles need to be engaged, not contracted. The key to accomplishing this is axial elongation (lengthening of the torso), which creates a leaner, longer, firmer silhouette and helps your body to become functionally strong. By achieving this, you’ll be better able to control your body movements and to give more precise aids to your horse. As a rider, you need to be able to sit tall and to feel your horse’s strides. The exercise that follows will help your body to become a conduit to feel his tempo and rhythm.
Try this: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Inhale and imagine that a string is attached to the top of your head. Then, as you exhale, imagine the string pulling you upward, drawing energy from your pelvic floor up toward the crown of your head. As you do so, visualize the string drawing you tall and erect; you may even “grow” about a quarter of an inch during this exercise! Lengthen your midsection between your ribs and hips (this draws in your core), and “funnel” your lower ribs to your hips without collapsing your upper body. Allow your sternum (breastbone) to lift as you slide your shoulder blades down toward your back pockets, as shown in the photo to the right.
This exercise may seem difficult at first, but with practice, it should become very easy. Start in standing position; next, try it in the saddle at the halt. After you feel as if you have the hang of it, try it while you walk and ride in all three gaits.
At first, you will need to concentrate on maintaining this new body position, but after a little practice axial elongation will feel more natural. You may even feel as if you’re not standing erect when you’re not doing it. At this point, axial elongation will have become a habit and will require less conscious effort. You’ll begin to integrate it into your everyday activities and movements.
Compare your progress in the axial-elongation exercise with your progress in the saddle. Are you finding that your riding improves as you master the exercise?
Use the checklist below to gauge your improvement. When you can answer yes to the following questions (get a second opinion from your instructor or a knowledgeable helper if you’re not sure), you’re ready to move on to other Pilates or Pilates-based exercises.
- Do you feel secure as you sit the trot and canter?
- Does your seat remain still yet is able to follow your horse’s movement?
- Can you extend first one, and then both hands forward as you ride without losing your balance or your position in the saddle?
- Can you drop your stirrups for a few strides and maintain your balance and position?
- If your horse doesn’t respond to a light leg aid, can you give him a stronger squeeze and get a response?
- If your horse “roots” or pulls on the reins, can you close your fingers on the reins and tighten the muscles in your arms (without pulling backward) to resist him until he softens?
- Can you keep your body aligned in all three gaits, with your ears, shoulder, hips, and heels all in a line?
If you’re intrigued by what you’ve read here and want to give Pilates a try, know that you’ll get optimal results by working with a qualified instructor at a Pilates studio, where you’ll learn the full regimen of exercises with attention to correct form, for maximum benefit and to minimize risk of injury. Studios also offer access to specialized Pilates equipment for additional exercise options. For more information about Pilates or to find a Pilates studio in your area, visit Pilates-Studio.com.
Betsy Steiner is an international dressage competitor, trainer, and clinician based in New Jersey and Florida. She co-owns and operates Steiner Dressage with her daughter, the FEI-level trainer and competitor Jessie Steiner. Betsy’s book, A Gymnastic Riding System Using Mind, Body & Spirit, holds the distinction of being the only US dressage text to be translated into German and approved by the German Equestrian Federation.
Betsy is the founder of Equilates, a Pilates-based system for the equestrian athlete. Learn more about Betsy and Equilates at SteinerDressage.com.
Jennifer Bryant is the editor of USDF Connection.