Pilates In Motion Clinic Report
Buckle up everyone, this is a long one! This clinic was taught in a style that I'm not used to - complete brain-melting information overload - so this post is essentially a brain dump to help me process what I learned. Hopefully someone else gets something out of it, too!
A few weeks ago I saw an event advertisement that one of my friends had posted on Facebook for a type of clinic I'd never heard of before; one that combined Pilates and dressage. The instructor, Brooke, was not only certified and experienced in teaching Pilates, but was also a Grand Prix level dressage rider and trainer. The idea of using concepts from the Pilates method of exercise in the saddle intrigued me, and the price was right at $85 for an exercise class AND an hour private lesson, so I signed up pretty much immediately! It seemed like just the kind of low-pressure thing that would be perfect for where Dino and I are right now - not really competing, but still trying to grow and improve. Plus, one of my hunt friends would be there, which made it all the better!
The clinic began with a group Pilates workout. It was a small group of riders - 6 total - each with varying backgrounds ranging from dressage and eventing to distance riding. We were all looking to improve the straightness and strength of our bodies, and the small class size gave the instructor a chance to really customize the movements for each person's needs.
We moved rapidly through the hour class, learning Pilates movements that simulated how our bodies should feel while we were in the saddle. The over-arching focus of all of the exercises was lengthening from a point of strength in our core - lengthening our legs from the hip joints, lengthening our arms from our shoulders, just making ourselves LONG in every way. There were quite a few times during the workout where I was pretty sure I was stretching as long as I could get, but then Brooke walked over and made some modifications to my posture and WOW NOW IT HURT. OKAY. THAT'S LONG. It was an excellent kinesthetic illustration of how my body is supposed to feel when riding!
Another big theme of the workout was finding a place of strength and solidity in our torsos which would then allow us to use our aids independently in the saddle. Brooke described it as "being a LEGO person" and that mental image, while hilarious, really helped me understand the concept. We practiced turning our upper bodies (as if asking for bend or a turn) while keeping our seatbones plugged in to the ground and without lifting one side of our seat or the other in order to accomplish the turn with our upper bodies. This exercise really made things click for me, and would come into play later in my dressage lesson when I asked for help specifically with the right bend that seemed to have totally vanished as of late.
After being stretched and lengthened and having my abs worked out thoroughly, I grabbed Dino off the trailer and got ready for the ridden portion of the clinic.
As I mentioned above, I was really hoping to get some help with the right bend in this lesson. In our schooling rides at home lately, tracking right had become a frustrating exercise in over-using my right leg and twisting myself into a pretzel to attempt to get Dino to bend with little to no effect. I knew the issue likely lay with my own position, so I was eager to get Brooke's feedback on how I was blocking Dino from being able to do his job. I told her as much, and with that she began our lesson with some stretching.
With feet out of the stirrups, Brooke had me "walk" my legs back and forth from the hip joint to the rhythm of Dino's walk. This helped loosen and lengthen my legs before we stretched my hips by rotating my thighs in and out, also a movement from the hip joint that I learned should not involve my glutes. Then she totally turned my world upside down and re-positioned my leg entirely with thighs rotated out and lower legs rotated in.
This was not an easy feat to accomplish.
In the past, I'd been taught to put my entire leg on the horse by rotating the whole thing in towards the saddle from the hip joint. Brooke went against all of that muscle memory and put me in a really challenging position, but I could understand the thought behind it - Thighs rotated out and away from the saddle gave Dino's back room to come up under me and released him from any pressure I could be inadvertently putting on him with my upper legs that might prevent him from going forward, and lower legs rotated in kept my heel and spur out of his side completely, requiring him to actually respond to correct aids instead of my incessant poking. All of this was supposed to happen while my legs also simultaneously lengthened down as much as possible.
It was a hard positional change to make, but a logical one I could understand and practice on my own.
We then worked to establish Dino's go button with a fun little tool that I'd never tried before - using taking my legs completely off to signal Go Time. If Dino didn't start to scoot forward when I took both legs off, I was to boot him a few times in rapid succession until he did. He caught onto this reverse forward aid REALLY quickly, and after a few repetitions was marching forward with enthusiasm each time I took my legs off. I was tickled with this new trick for my toolbox - it got Dino thinking about the forward aid in a different way, and the novelty of it helped him sharpen up and pay attention to what I was asking.
And then once we had a forward pony and a correct leg position, Brooke totally re-built my aid for bend.
This whole clinic was a complete information overload, but this is the point where my brain cells really started smoking.
Brooke had me halt Dino next to her, and after tweaking my leg position, she grabbed my lower leg and pushed it into Dino's ribcage right at the girth with quite a lot of force. For perhaps the first time ever, I felt his entire barrel make a dramatic move away from the strong pillar of my inside leg without having to poke him with my heel or spur. It was, honestly, eye-opening to have such a simple thing re-taught to me in a slightly different way. It was as if I felt how a horse ought to respond to the bending aid for the first time, and it was mind-blowing! From there we really dug into shaping my bending aids to be more correct, as well as shaping Dino's understanding of them.
Brooke stood right next to us and at times assisted with helping me find a better feel of the reins or more forward in Dino's walk as we worked through what was perhaps the most difficult lesson on bending I'd ever had in my life. I was to keep my thigh out, lower leg in, press HARD at the girth with the bit of my leg right above the ankle, keep my seatbones and hips plugged into the saddle LEGO-style and STRAIGHT, but rotate my shoulders to the inside independently without changing anything in my seat. My elbows anchored at my side, the inside rein was to open slightly to encourage softness and bend in the neck and poll, while the outside rein remained steady, but not without some 'talk' - a slight sponging of the rein to prevent the feel from becoming dead or resistant.
It was very, VERY hard for me to resist the urge to cross my inside rein over the withers to the outside instead of opening it away from the neck, hard for me not to poke Dino with my heel or spur, hard not to put my leg way behind the girth to ask for bend, hard for me to rotate my torso without popping one seatbone or the other off the saddle, and hard for me to keep my legs long and to not collapse my ribcage to the left. This simple, basic thing was so, so difficult to learn to do properly!
Dino, throughout all of my bumbling and Brooke's foreign instructions, was incredible. He tried so, so hard for me and was really working overtime to understand what we were asking. He got frustrated a couple times and either swung his haunches out or stalled out and broke gait while he processed things, but all in all he was mentally engaged and really working hard to figure it all out. Brooke encouraged me to reward him liberally with my voice when he responded, but not to release the rein too much - she totally saw him for the pony'tudinous beast he is and understood that if I gave him an inch, he'd take a mile!
Once we had correct bend mostly figured out at the walk, we took the concepts to the trot. This is where things really started to click for me!
In the trot, we worked hard on keeping the straight sides of the arena straight - this meant level, forward-facing shoulders connected to a strong torso and no leaning to one side or the other. This was, unsurprisingly, challenging for me. I was constantly tempted to get crooked or collapse or suck my leg back up into my hip socket instead of remaining long and straight in my own body, and it took a considerable amount of mental fortitude to focus on just riding around on the track. We also worked on asking for bend properly in each corner, preparing by lengthening the inside leg down, asking with a strong lower leg at the girth, opening inside rein, and shoulders rotated to the inside LEGO-style, and then going right back to Straight Mode once the corner was over. Brooke was firm about being very clear with Dino what was straight, and what was bend. I am pretty much always at least trying to ride in a slight bend, so this was challenging for me!
But the more correctly I rode, the better and better Dino went. This will surprise no one. He got steadier in the contact, more uphill, more through, more engaged, and was easier and easier to bend and straighten as the lesson went on. Brooke essentially "rode" him for me via her rapid-fire instructions that placed my body parts where they needed to be at the right time, and helped me out with forward by following us with my whip so that I could really focus on the new position and aids I was working on. Both Dino and I were working HARD, and the good moments were really, really good. I practiced half-halting by connecting my ribcage down (think Magic Suction Cups) and WOW was that subtle and effective! I could actually feel Dino rocking back and putting more weight on his hind end, like a horse ought to do when you half-halt.
We also worked a bit in canter, and I have to say again that I am so. damn. proud. of how Dino handled himself here. Our warm up had not been what he's used to, although he had been wearing his BOT sheet for several hours at that point, I didn't feel from him that he was "ready" to canter when I asked. The indoor we were riding in was tiny, only the size of a small court, and he had already done a lot of very mentally challenging work.
But, with minimal protest, he cantered. And he let me work on the canter. He didn't shut down, he didn't throw an epic tantrum, he just bucked once and then got to work. For maybe the first time ever, I wasn't worried about Dino making a scene at a clinic when it came to canter work.
The canter, of course, came with its own set of problems. Brooke identified right away that I want to try and maintain the canter and carry Dino's entire body around the ring with my upper body. This is not correct, or helpful. The habits I've picked up over the years in order to keep the canter going at all costs do not, actually, help train my pony to carry his own self in the canter or put my body in a position where I can effectively influence it. So, we worked on a lot of the same things we did in the walk and trot - long legs stretching down from the hip, thigh off, lower leg on, upper body not leaning, core very strong and a solid connection from armpits to waist.
Dino at first interpreted this new position as a signal from me to break gait, as I wasn't flailing about trying to maintain the canter any more, but once we both started to get the hang of things he rewarded me with a lovely, balanced, through canter that was just delightful to ride. It was a glimpse of what we could have all the time, and motivated me to keep working on the concepts we learned at home.
We ended the session soon after getting some good work in the canter, and Brooke topped it off by placing me in a totally correct position at the halt, giving me an excellent feel for what I'm working towards achieving in my riding on a daily basis.
I am so, so glad I decided to go to this clinic. After getting some great instruction, I feel so much more motivated and focused in my riding. I'm excited to put the concepts I learned to work this winter, and to come out swinging at First Level again in the spring! And as a bonus, Brooke is also local to my area, so a follow-up lesson or another clinic session to continue to build on what we started are very doable possibilities.
Below is a short-ish video for anyone interested in seeing a bit of what we worked on:
And Dino, my amazing little old man, just keeps getting better and better. He's the absolute best.