Betsy Steiner is an accomplished dressage rider; she’s represented the United States at the World Equestrian Games, she’s competed successfully at Grand Prix for longer than I’ve been alive, and she’s trained a number of horses to that level. She’s also an incredibly kind and positive woman who graciously allowed me an interview after she’d spent a long day coaching and showing. I was eager ask her about Equilates, the Pilates-based exercise program she developed specifically for equestrians.
SP: Can you tell me about Equilates? What is it?
BS: Equilates is a Pilates-based system of fitness training for the rider. It’s sports-specific (for dressage, jumping, any kind of rider) exercises off the horse. It’s unmounted exercises for the most part. We’ve also developed different exercises and used the Pilates-based exercises for mounted exercises as well. In my lessons, I always refer to the different Pilates terms and the exercises that we’ve done in Equilates. So if somebody, for example, learns some of the exercises on the ball, I can say, “Remember how it felt on the ball when you rolled back and forth, how it worked your abs? That’s your canter transition.” So it really helps the rider identify something when they’re not worried about the horse and everything that’s going on: keeping them on the bit, keeping them moving, what is he going to do. It takes them out of that very multi-tasking place into one focused area to think about “this is the movement and these are the body parts you are using.” So it really brings huge body awareness.
SP: I can imagine! It sounds like it would be a really beneficial program for any sort of rider at any level.
BS: Yeah. It also helps me as a trainer. It helps me see. You can keep telling a person, “Sit straight, don’t keep collapsing on one side,” but when you see them off the horse, you can kind of tell in the work that we do if they really have a severe weakness on one side or the other. Or if they really can’t do something- say if they can’t really keep their heels down or whatever it may be. I’m not going to keep telling them to do that because they may try all the time but they’re never going to do it. So what kind of exercise can I do to help them do that simple thing? Or I’ll think, “No, that’s not a possibility. They have restrictions in their body, they can’t do that, so how am I going to teach them better?” So it helps people coaching other people to understand that individual’s body because everybody’s so different.
You can say to a rider, “Drive,” but what does that mean? How do you initiate drive? Where does drive come from? How do you explain it? Like, if we’re here face to face, I can say, “Okay, you engage your abdominal muscles, you push your hips forward,” and you actually do it, say, with an exercise on the floor or sitting on the ball, and just by engaging those muscles you move the ball forward, you’re like, “Ahh!” So you get that. You can do great things on the ball. Just imagine the energy’s behind you and when you pull it in a forward direction, the horse comes forward and onto the bit. So everything we do, it’s not like a pilates class per se, but it all reverts back to your riding.
SP: So it’s very riding-specific.
BS: Very riding-specific.
SP: So how did you come to feel like this needed to be developed? Was there just nothing out there, or were riders doing exercises but not ones that were very beneficial?
BS: Yeah, when I started it, nobody was doing cross-training. Or nobody was talking about doing cross-training. I had always done cross-training with my riding career. That started very early on. I went to Canada and worked at Christilot Boylen’s barn and her mother taught dance and I had to go to the dance studio. When I went, I thought she did a lot of Pilates- it wasn’t called Pilates- but she did a lot of Pilates-based exercises and she explained when you did these, it helped your riding. So from the very beginning, I thought, “Well, that makes a whole lot of sense!” You understood your body and you understood straightness.
I had a very arched back at the time and she said, “That’s not beneficial for your riding, you need to use your back like this,” and because the riding was my complete and total passion, I thought, “I’ll do whatever it takes to be able to do it!” So that’s what sort of planted the seed to bring the fitness training into my riding. Plus, I love working out anyhow. I love different modalities of it.
I did a lot of weight training. That made my muscles too bulky- I didn’t feel like I was supple enough. I then I went to Tai Chi, which was really nice and that brought in a looseness and also core strength. And then I found Pilates, and that was, gosh, back in 1994 or something. I’d started working with this coach, the personal trainer I was working with at the time, and she started doing Pilates. She came back to the studio and said, “This is what you’re going to love.” And then on the reformers, we started worked on the reformer. [Ed.- Here’s an article on Pilates reformers if you aren’t familiar with them.] And because the reformer moves and has reactions, I thought, “This is the closest thing to simulating being on a horse.” So for me that was huge.
From the different things I’d learned from Tai Chi and in weight training and some yoga training and with the Pilates, I thought, “If you combine all those things…” It doesn’t have to be strictly one thing, because every body is different. So whatever works for a particular body, that’s what you should do. For a while, I was working on strength, and then it was like, “You don’t need strength now, you need suppleness.” So it changes, and sometimes you go to the suppleness, and it’s like “Okay, let’s build our strength again.”
SP: It sounds like it has a lot in common with the way we train our horses.
BS: Exactly! Exactly. That’s nice that you brought that up. To me it was the same thing. With our horses, we do the gymnastic work. From the very first time I started riding horses, I thought of it as being an athletic endeavor in equal. Like, if I expected this from my horse, he expects this from me. I have to be fit, I have to be balanced, I have to understand my body and know where it is. That was a real interesting thing that I’ve always had problems with.
I think probably, then, gosh back in…gosh, that was a long time ago. There was no Pilates studio at all in Wellington. And you’d say “Pilates” and nobody really knew what it was. I was going all the way out to West Palm Beach to find a studio. One of the gals that worked out there, I convinced her- I said, “You have to come out to Wellington” and she said, “Well, I don’t know if there will be enough business,” and I said, “Trust me.”
At that time, I started developing Equilates and that’s when I wrote the book and did all of the comparisons- “when you learn this exercise yourself it really helps you do these movements on the horse.” And I’ve really seen that a lot, even in just using the language. You know when you’re talking to a rider and they’ve been working with you on Equilates and you say, “Feel the difference between your upper and your lower abs” and they can really articulate that and can really feel it. So it’s just developing a language and a body awareness so that when they’re on the horse they’re not balancing on the horse and they really have control. And I think a person really has to understand that to allow the horse self-carriage. That makes a long answer for that, doesn’t it? [laughs]
SP: It seems like riders in general are starting to approach the sport from a more athletically-minded standpoint than maybe they did in the past. Do you have any advice for riders on where to start?
BS: I think if somebody took a beginner Pilates mat class- Pilates targets so much to the core strength. Then you can do yoga and different things like that. I think for a base, Pilates is really the best. When you get the concept of Pilates and working from your core, then everything you do starts there.
Then you go back to our horses- we want them to balance through their bodies, bring their bellies up, use their back, go forward towards the bit and be able to bring the haunches under. And you think, “Okay, if I’m asking them to do all of that, then I want to be able to create the same position in my body that I’m asking them more.” So you need to be able to engage your abs, bring your seat forward, push in a forward direction, and have them reach into the reins, not balance in the reins. Any beginner rider who comes to me, if the balance is off a little bit, we always go back and talk about body awareness and when they’re on the horse too “Can you feel this? Can you feel when you’re moving and when you’re allowing the horse to move and when you’re forcing movement in the horse because your body is either tight or stiff or holding, not letting them move.”
Pilates also offers a wholeness- you know, like, it’s a little bit ‘mind, body, spirit’. In training a horse, you can never just train the body, you have to train the body and the mind. And sometimes the body goes ahead and the mind has to catch up, so you slow down a little bit there and you give them time to understand and give them confidence. And now he’s confident and everything else, and you say, “Now we can move the body forward again” and I think for humans, my riders, I watch them, and it can be a rider of any age or experience, and you say, “If we just got them a little bit more balanced like this they could understand then how to release their energy and their horse’s energy in a positive way”
In my mind, it just keeps growing in benefits. It’s not just riding now, it’s blending together, it’s melting into the horse. You know how they say, “Become one with the horse.” When you have use of your body and you’re strong enough and can let go enough to let the horse move and you move with him, you can CAN feel like you’re one with him. And to me, that’s the most glorious feeling ever.
Interested in Equilates? You can read more about it, buy the book, or buy the DVD at www.equilates.com!