Good Horsemanship

Pilates by Maggie Parker

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By Maggie Parker, Pilates Instructor/Practitioner

Sitting "deep in the saddle" has always been sound riding advice. Such good advice, in fact, that the phrase actually means a number of things that have become lost in the simplicity of the statement.

Sitting "deep in the saddle" gets translated by our bodies based on the way we carry ourselves in standing, walking, etc. Nearly all of us are "collapsed" to some degree in our spine. This can mean that "sitting deep in the saddle" means trying to make ourselves heavy from the shoulders or head down without the alignment from ear, shoulder, hip and ankle. This is more the "sack of potatoes" approach which generally puts us out of sync with the horse.

Sitting "deep in the saddle" occurs first and foremost from the correct alignment of the skeleton supported by properly functioning muscles (Not always easy when the muscles aren't used to the effort.) When this is in effect, then gravity becomes our friend, not our enemy. The "sitting deep" effect comes from the navel down, or your center of gravity. (This may vary slightly from person to person, but is negligible in this particular alignment of riding.)This is what gets our heels down when our feet are in the stirrup; The relaxed weight of our leg "falling" out of our hip to the ground, supported by the stirrup.

Conversely, from the navel up, we lengthen our waistline, and the front and back of the body. This part is much easier said then done, and actually requires another discussion. The ribcage, front side and back should have a feeling of floating above the hips, not dropping down to try and meet the pelvis.

The horse appreciates this, because, when aligned, your center of gravity has the opportunity to "blend" with the horse's, it's easier to follow the horse's movement, and it's easier to cue the horse. You will appreciate it, because it's good for your own body, and you will be able to ride longer with less pain.

Denise Austin, the exercise instructor, has a Pilates video tape. It is interesting to note that she uses the same terminology as references to the horse: the abdominals being the powerhouse; the neutral pelvis, concave or convex back, lengthening, aligning the spine, stretching, etc.

Therapy Ball Exercises

By Maggie Parker

I have selected a few ball exercises to begin with. I think you should understand that when I design a session, I never just use the ball, even for people working on their own at home. I assess each individual and work with their body, and their ability at that time to access their body. The fundamentals remain the same, but the approach and variations of the movements will vary somewhat depending on the person's previous movement experiences and physical ability.

Consider all movement originating from the center of the body to affect extremities. The breath is of utmost importance, and should not be considered secondary, or auxiliary. I have chosen these exercises based on a beginner body, and because I am not able to provide pictures that might be necessary to make many of the exercises more understandable. I recommend a 55cm ball, in general.

1. The "ball nap": used to help people develop and feel the breath in the back of the ribcage, and stretches muscles in that area. Helps to understand the "pulling inward" of the abdominal muscles on the exhale.

Position: Kneel in front of the ball and "drape" yourself over it, stomach on the ball. Roll forward enough so that your hands can rest on the floor. Your knees may or may not be off depending on your size. Turn your head to lie on one cheek for 5 full breaths, then the other cheek for 5 full breaths.

Action: Inhale deeply without pusing your abdominals into the ball. This help make the breath expand the back ribcage better. Think of breathing into a circle about the size of a paper plate, the center of which is between the shoulder blades. Feel breath in the lower back ribs as well. Exhale, pulling the belly up into the body.

At first, you may feel that you can't get a full breath. This is tightness in the back and shoulders. People tend to compensate for this tightness by breathing only in the belly. Keep at it, and in time, you will feel a difference. As you breathe, feel a longitudinal lengthening of the spine as well as the expansion mentioned above. When you ride, practice the sensations you get at the walk at first. Breathe!

2. Side Breathing: Many of you may be familiar with this. This puts the breath into the side of the ribcage,as well as the back when done properly, and stretches those muscles.

Position: Kneel next to the ball close. Keep the leg next to the ball bent. With your hands on the ball, extend the other leg in a straight line from the body. Let the bottom arm stretch to the floor, and the top arm reach over your head.

Action: Inhale and exhale 5 times. Imagine you are wearing a shirt with buttons in front that is too small, and don't thrust the lower front ribs out, or you will pop the buttons. This helps to keep the breath in the lower back ribs. Try to keep your spine from twisting, allowing your chest to turn towards the floor. Change sides.

3. Pelvic Moves: Helps to loosen pelvic/lumbar region. Develops awareness of the area. A very beginner lumbar opener. Good to do in front of a mirror.

Position: Sit on the ball, arms hanging like scarves on each end of a coathanger, fingers touching the ball lightly. Feet are flat and parallel about hip width apart. The abdominal muscles should be "turned on" and the waist lengthened front side and back. (apply what you are beginning to learn from the first 2 exercises in relation to ribcage position and breath.) Pelvis should start in neutral. (Neutral will be when the top hipbones..the ones in the front, are in line with the pubic bone)

Action: Part 1)Inhale to prepare (remember the breath in back ribs, and don't "mound" the belly out) Exhale to pull the pubic bone forward with the contraction of the abdominals that happens when you exhale. Inhale, return to neutral. Exhale, pull the pubic bone backwards. Still feel a pulling in and a lengthening of the abdominals. Repeat 5 times. Imagine there is a window in front of you from the waist up, and someone looking in the window wouldn't know you were moving anything. To do this, you must keep the spine stretched, even when the pelvis moves, and don't "schlump."

Part 2) Now you move the pelvis side to side, inhaling for the side move, and exhaling returning to neutral. Remember the window. In this one, the tendency is to move the shoulders. Keep them very still by thinking of the movement happening below the belly button.

Part 3) "round the clock" Just what it sounds like. Use your pelvis and carefully go round the clock to each number. Keep breathing, and don't let the breath become shallow, or hold it. 5 times each direction. Don't forget the window! Notice where, on each side, you cut off part of the circle, or it feels tight.

For variation, you can reverse the breathing. For more challenge you can do the following. Arms out to side, arms in front (easy to arch the back, be careful.) Arms straight up (really easy to arch your back, keep the front ribs in, and remember the back breathing.

On all the seated ball exercises, you should stretch your waist up more than you usually would just sitting on, say, a kitchen chair. You want to begin to stretch your muscles in movement to begin to decompress the joints.

Perhaps you noticed a progression and "layering" of the first 3 exercises. That means that each exercise builds onto the skills the previous one introduces, and that you continue to apply them to the subsequent ones. Not unlike training a horse, right? That continues here. These exercises are not classical Pilates exercise (The balls weren't invented when Joe Pilates was alive, but he would approve.) However, the next 3 exercises are adaptation of classic Pilates exercises with the same name.

Even though the ball exercises aren't classic Pilates, the principles of Pilates are applied. These are: 1. Concentration and awareness. Using the "powerhouse" or the core, or the area between the lower ribs and the hips as the "foundation" of the movement (In horses, think of the difference between a "leg mover" and the horse that uses the "muscular ring" in movement. The whole body is involved, not just the extremities.2. Precise Control 3. Flowing and Natural Movement 4. Oppositional Energy 5. Proper Breathing.


4. Spine Stretch Forward: Stretches the spine.

Position: Sit on the ball as in previous exercises, feet hip width apart and planted evenly. Remain in neutral pelvis (explained previously) throughout. Belly should feel activated.

Action: Inhale to lengthen the waist front, side and back. (Remember the breathing into the back) Exhale to roll the spine down from the head "one vertebra at a time." The belly should pull in more than you think it can to keep the pelvis in neutral. You should not roll onto the pubic bone, or "schlump" and collapse as you roll forward. Imagine that porcupine that you have to curl over. Inhale while still curled forward to inflate the back ribs, and exhale to roll back up, stacking the vertebrae back on top of each other. Repeat 5 times. 5. The Saw: For the spine, breath and posture.

Position: Sit as before, feet are in line with the knees and hip width apart. Reach arms to the sides, holding with muscles that feel like they are behind the armpits, not with the top of the shoulders.

Action: Inhale and rotate to the left. Rotate with the belly button. Exhale and curl forward like the previous exercise, but now there is a twist in the body. Inhale to fill the back ribs, and exhale to roll the spine back up. Don't square the shoulders until you are all the way upright. This is NOT a toe touching exercise, but a twist and curl of the spine. Keep the pelvis square and in neutral, not tipped forward as you curl and twist. The knees should remain aligned with each other, and the ball shouldn't move. Repeat 3 times on each side.

Spine Twist: Spinal rotation, posture.

Position: Sit on the ball as above. Place finger tips on shoulders with elbows out to the side. Inhale to lengthen, keeping lower front ribs from jutting. (remember the tight shirt with buttons mentioned in the earlier breathing exercises. Breathe into the back.) Exhale to rotate the spine. Get taller like spirals on a barber pole. Return to center on the inhale, and exhale to the other side. Do 3 sets. Think more about getting taller than twisting. Keep the knees aligned and the pelvis square, the pelvis does not twist. Notice if you twist better on one side.

Side Bend. Side bending and breath.

Position: Sit on ball as above in neutral pelvis. Make sure to wear your "tight shirt with buttons" that you don't want to pop off. Have your fingertips on the sides of the ball.

Action: Inhale, floating one arm up next to the ear, exhale keeping tall. Inhale to side bend the spine keeping your ear close to the arm that is up. Exhale to return to upright, bringing the arm back down to the ball. Other side. Repeat 3 times. Do not let the ball roll even the tiniest little bit, and keep the belly and the lower front ribs pulled into the body. There is a tendency to twist the side of the ribcage that's closest to the ceiling forward. Try not to. Breathe, and don't hold the breath at any part of the movement.

Can you begin to see how this will help your riding, not to mention your everyday posture? When you finish the exercises, try not to go into your everday slump afterwards. Be aware of your breath in your back, and the "alive" feeling in your abdominal muscles. Be aware of trying to maintain some length in the spine to keep the vertebrae from being compressed.

Maggie Parker
Pilates Teacher

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