“If you are dedicated to a true partnership with your horse, then you have to look at yourself and your posture.”Janice Dulak – Founder of Pilates for Dressage®
As an advocate for the betterment of the lives of horses, I go around the world teaching Pilates for Dressage®. Having been a professional dancer and a Master Pilates instructor since 1993, I clearly see the role the rider plays in how happy the horse is under saddle and my mission is to educate the rider.
In my clinics, I find many riders can’t define “seat” nor can they tell me much about how to use it. Without a proper seat, even a great saddle (and I can tell you from personal experience, NHS saddles are the BEST!) will not be enough to allow your horse to move with optimal natural balance and harmony. So, if you are dedicated to a true partnership with your horse, then you have to look at yourself and your posture.
Posture isn’t just the old-fashioned notion of standing up straight balancing a book on your head as you walk across the room. Just as a horse’s posture changes with training, a rider can and must change the way she/he holds the skeleton in their muscles to create a posture conducive to an independent seat and legs. To understand posture as skeletal alignment, one has to consider the spine. The spine connects the pelvis, rib cage and head. Each one of these segment “blocks” are carrying weight. So, in order to stand up straight, we usually counterbalance these blocks. The pelvis tips forward at the waist, (creating a hollow back and the tailbone to point backward.) The rib cage, then, juts forward and the ribs splay causing the shoulder girdle to fall behind vertical. This, in turn, causes the head to displace forward. The spine, while having natural gentle curves, becomes rigid and fixed with unnatural curves, which not only creates poor posture but also creates back, neck and hip pain.
A further note about the photo above: The rider’s posture is improved greatly on the right, but the horse’s back remains sunken in the center, which indicates that the saddle is not an NHS saddle, which would be generously shaped enough underneath to encourage him to round up. In a good saddle, the horse would strike a more elevated, rounded posture with vertebrae in better alignment, even while just standing there!
In Pilates for Dressage® I define the rider’s seat as “The pelvis and ribcage connected by a lengthened and stabilized spine.” So “wow” you might say! “That is a mouthful!” Yes indeed. But just as a horse learns to stretch his topline, so must the rider! If your spine isn’t stretched out and lengthened and then stabilized in order for your hips to mobilize, well then, it’s going to be hard for your horse, who mirrors you, to really travel with ease, even with a good saddle!
So, the first place you must start once you have your saddle fitted to you and your horse is to understand skeletal alignment and how your core abdominal muscle works to lengthen and stabilize your spine. Simply put, you must pull your stomach in. Most of us have had the situation where the jeans come out of the dryer and you ate too much at dinner the night before. What do you do to get the jeans zipped up? You suck your belly in. When you do that, you literally pull all of your internal organs back up against your spine. When that happens, your spine lengthens and voila! Your posture improves!
Doing exercises that require you to pull your “stomach in” activates your Transversus Abdominis, your core abdominal muscle. This muscle runs like a corset around your spine and when activated, works with the small muscles in your spine to lengthen it. Your horse has a Transversus Abdominis also! Hmmm….what I do in my body the horse does in his? Right? Well then, that is the first step to improving your seat, which will in turn, help your horse stretch over his topline! This is why Pilates for Dressage® is the perfect exercise for riders. It starts with this basic postural principle and then of course, moves on from there to help riders understand where to sit in the saddle and on to teaching rider biomechanics.
Using my method along with the help of great trainers such as Jochen Hippenstiel, Sarah Martin and Linda Parelli, I have trained my homebred gelding, Rubaiyat, up to 4th level. Now, looking toward PSG, I have been doing a lot of reflecting. The interface between the rider’s seat and the horse’s back is where 50% of communication between horse and rider develops. In the sequence of “aids” the “seat” is first, “leg” is second and “hands” are third. So, it is not unwise to focus on the “seat” when wanting to communicate more effectively with your horse in order to ride with more harmony, especially if you want to move up the levels in dressage! Each level in dressage requires more specific use of the seat and in more and more nuanced ways.
The first step towards developing your seat and learning about the interface between horse and rider is to look at your saddle. Often riders love the way their saddle feels to them, as a rider. And while it is important to have a saddle that you like, it is even more important that the horse likes it! As a dressage rider, I have been through 5 saddles in 12 years. Each saddle, I loved and at the time, my horse Rubaiyat seemed to love it also. I came to realize, that when I tried a new saddle, Ruby loved it because it didn’t hurt him in the places the previous saddle hurt him. So of course, I would buy the new saddle, but in the end, it began to hurt him in other ways. I would notice he would get spooky, or unconfident. So hence, I would search for a new saddle in approximately 2 years. When I finally acknowledged that the saddle had to be made to allow the horse to move and not just for my comfort my search ended. I had known about the saddles Letitia Glenn (Natural Horseman Saddles) had been making for Linda Parelli and knew how well horses went in them, but I was unsure it would work for my dressage horse.
This past spring was the turning point. Ruby was not going well. We had stalled out at 4th level dressage. He was unable to lift his withers and was getting spookier and spookier. When I finally put the Glenn dressage saddle on, the interface was complete because Ruby could actually move. It was rather astounding. And his training has progressed to where he is able to be in self-carriage more easily and FEI is now closer than ever. Saddles are such an important piece of riding and in my opinion, there are no other saddle makers like Letitia, with the horse’s comfort and biomechanics considered first and foremost.
It is without a doubt, what Natural Horseman Saddles are to the saddle world! “Let’s make life more beautiful for the horse” by giving them a saddle AND a rider capable of giving them freedom to move!
If you are interested in learning more about how to improve your seat once you have selected the best saddle for your horse, don’t hesitate to find me www.pilatesfordressage.com or on Facebook
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