Another Great Pilates Clinic

I just got home from another great Pilates for riding clinic with Kendel Pink and Susie Peacock. This one was out at Susie's place, Eastvale Equestrian Center. (I love going there; everyone is always so welcoming.) We worked through a lot of the same exercises from the previous clinic. But I got so much more out of it the second time around. I didn't have to spend as much time figuring out the "what" of the exercise and so could pay more attention to the details of "how" and "why" we do each of them.

The exercises for this series of clinics are all from Susie and Kendel's Level 1 course which focuses on body awareness. Kendel said that the set of exercises was chosen to teach you how to extend your spine and stabilize your core in various orientations: standing up, lying on your side, lying on your back, and on all fours. No matter what plane your body is in, the key is to breath in to lengthen your spine; then, leaving your spine extended, exhale to narrow your waist to form the narrow part of an hour glass.

When your spine is extended so you are not slumped, it is easier to rotate, bend, or fold through your torso. I can already tell how this idea is helping my riding. In yesterday's lesson, Red trotted a perfect 3 loop serpentine - two correct changes of bend right over centerline without changing his frame! Not changing his frame is a really big deal as Red has a tendency to hollow his back and come above the bit if he isn't 100% calm and focused on the work. (I guess "above the bit" should be in quotes since at the moment we are doing our lessons in a sidepull with no bit, but anyway…)

The new layer in all the exercises this morning was figuring out which muscles were working and learning how to do the exercises using internal and external torso muscles rather than using a lot of limb muscles. For the bridge exercise, Kendel demonstrated the difference between floating your hips off the mat using the muscles around your spine rather than grabbing with your glutes and scooping your hips off the mat. On a similar thread, she told me not to try for so much movement in the ball work. To get larger amounts of movement in my pelvis, I was involving my leg muscles (particularly my quads). The point of the exercise was to help my find and move my inner torso muscles - my stomach line and mid-back muscles so smaller movements done more correctly were the goal.

I am still trying to feel some of the diagonal opening and closing movements on the ball, but the same idea translated to the diagonal arm and leg lifts on all fours (having a diagonal line of support from the hip of the lifted leg to the ribs of the lifted arm) took all the weight out of my supporting arm. With my core muscles supporting my spine, suddenly I didn't need more arm strength and the exercise that at left me shaking in 2 reps last week was suddenly doable.

And we got to try the exercise that was on the handout but got skipped at the Hansen Dam clinic - the one Kendel calls sawing off your little toes. My hamstrings are a little tight so I'll have to work through the progressively harder variations she showed us before I can really tell what I think of it. I suspect it will be really good for learning how to maintain my length of spine while doing the counter-rotational twist Susie teaches as the correct way to ride bending lines. One thing that was really cool was the setup Kendel showed us for getting into the legs-out V for the start of the exercise: lifting your rear end off the mat by pushing up with your arms, then slowly settling back down onto your seat. Done just like that, it is OK but not amazing. However, if you release your hip flexors and hold instead with your abdominals as you sit back down, you can maintain your vertical position without introducing tension in your seat. This will be a great exercise to practice that feel because it is so clear when you do and do not release the hip flexors properly. I was excited about this because it ties into Erin asking me to do the same thing in my riding lesson.

I tend to be pretty good at following my horse's motion with my seat because I am quite mobile in my pelvis. However, I am not very good at subtly influencing my horse with my seat because I follow too much and end up using gross motor skills like moving my leg or closing my hands to change my horse. James Shaw had pointed this out to me when I cliniced with him out a Susie's a few years ago. His advise about which horse movements to allow and which to retard was helpful to get a more marching, less higgledy-piggledy walk from Ansel. But I had felt that I was carrying some counterproductive tension in my pelvis to achieve that. Erin's advice to release my hip flexors but tighten my abs and suspend my spine gave me the same influence but without feeling slightly stiff.

Susie had some riding related games she wanted to do with us and I am sure they would have been fun and would bring another dimension to the body work we had done in the morning. But my brain was full so I was just as glad to stop at noon. Hopefully by next clinic I will have had a chance to internalize the lessons from this morning's work and will have the space to add the next layer.

Published July 8, 2011