Book Review - by Anne Gribbons
Chronicle Dec. 31, 2004
A GYMNASTIC RIDING SYSTEM Using Mind, Body & Spirit
Reprinted by permission of The Chronicle of the Horse.
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Betsy's book, A Gymnastic Riding System using Mind, Body & Spirit, comes from a different angle, concentrating on the relationship between the human body and the equine body. She talks about the mental relationship with our horses, but the emphasis is on body control. Using the official FEI training scale as a basis, Betsy compares the horse's physical attributes and development to that of the rider's in a systematic building of both.
Pilates, the latest passion of the exercise gurus, is Betsy's foundation. She weaves the exercises for the horse and for the rider together to create two athletes and to build their physical strength and stamina at the same time.
Of course, we all know that riding alone won't keep us fit enough to ride really well, and that's why the majority of our top riders are on some kind of physical workout program. But, you may ask, exactly what kind of exercises will improve the strength of my back, legs or upper body? Here's the answer, laid out step by step, illustrated by loads of pictures.
Beginning with the simpler concepts of Pilates, Betsy slowly increases the demands on the rider, moving from floor exercises to the more advanced work on the "Reformer," a truly unique invention in the world of exercise machines.
As you read on, the training scale that previously you probably viewed as a regimen exclusively to train your horse, becomes a program applicable to you. And slowly it dawns on you that lack of suppleness, impulsion or straightness is your problem just as much as your horse's, and that there is a parallel between the things your body needs to learn and what your horse's body needs to learn.

One of the key concepts is body coordination - of both horse and riders. Alignment of the horse to enable him to travel straight, and alignment of the rider to enable her or him to sit evenly and straight over the horse's back, are discussed in detail.

But above it all reigns the word "core," which in this book takes a central part and refers to three abdominal muscles, which are used in a dynamic manner during all movements and in all positions of Pilates training.
One of the many references to this, in the Betsy's Tips sidebars, sums up what I think good riders do by instinct: "Much dressage work above the lowest levels requires a great deal of body coordination on the part of the rider. The aids for many movements require dead-on accurate timing, the ability to stay centered and grounded in your 'core,' the synchronized use of your entire body, and the ability to make rapid-fire changes in your body position."
Betsy includes a pyramid of training for the student of Pilates, which deals with building your body to awareness, control and strength - and that dovetails with what we're trying to create in our horses.
Betsy calls her system "Equilates," and I believe she's truly created a workable program. It's easy to follow, although not so easy to excel at without a persistent and honest effort. I suspect I know where she's going with this: She's hoping to create horses and riders so in tune with each other that they appear to be Centaurs.

 

Book Review - by Jessica Lawrence
Dressage Today October 2004
A GYMNASTIC RIDING SYSTEM Using Mind, Body & Spirit
Reprinted with Permission

Addressing every aspect of the connection between horse and rider that makes dressage so unique, A Gymnastic Riding System using Mind, Body and Spirit written by Betsy Steiner with Jennifer O. Bryant provides a detailed account of what it takes to achieve your dressage goals. Included is a Pilates program that caters directly to the dressage rider's needs.
The classical training pyramid - consisting of rhythm, suppleness, contact, impulsion, straightness and collection - provides the framework for the text of the book. Under each of the pyramid elements, the horse and rider are focused on individually. Within these sections, the mind, body and spirit elements are outlined with five separate subtitles to help the reader understand the demands of each section and the progression that should be followed.

For the first step in the training pyramid, rhythm, the five subtitles are: What You Need to Know, Assess Your Understanding, Set Your Goals, Exercise and Progress Check. Detailed explanations are given for the items that each horse and rider need to understand for continued success. In the "mind" category, Steiner explains What You Need to Know: "As the rider, you need to develop a keen awareness of rhythm because rhythm relates closely to the timing of your aids."
Another example is the first step needed to have a fully rounded connection between horse and rider. Steiner says, "Use the following checklist to evaluate your horse's understanding and acceptance of the leg-equals-forward concept." The list consists of five separate questions, including, "Does your horse move forward promptly from a light squeezing of your lower leg against his sides? Does he tend to kick out or wring his tail irritably instead of going forward when you use your leg or touch him with the spur or whip?"

Catering to riders of all skill levels, Steiner is determined to ensure success for everyone. Setting goals is noted as an important part of attaining this success, and one example expressed by Steiner includes, "In your journal or notebook, write a sentence or two that describes the way you'd like to improve your understanding and recognition of rhythm, tempo and footfalls. To help ensure that your goal is realistic, put it to a 30 day test: Is it realistic to expect that I can achieve this goal in 30 days?"

Numerous exercises are described in great detail, accompanied by large, eye-catching photographs and many diagrams. Special attention is paid to the understanding of all suggested training techniques. Using the mind element, a sample exercise to improve rhythm is provided: "Establish a calm and regular working (or collected, if your horse is more advanced) walk on a 20-meter circle. As you walk away from the rail, ask him to step one step sideways, away from your inside leg. Immediately take a step forward, and then ask for one or two steps of turn on the forehand, maintaining contact with your outside rein to prevent him from stepping forward."
Other useful exercises include those for the body of the horse. One example to improve contact: "If your horse backs off the contact or hides from the bit, keep your hands still and push him forward from a driving seat toward a steady and quiet hand while making many transitions between gaits and between paces within a gait." Another exercise provided under the spirit element to improve impulsion: "Think about the very best test you ever rode, or a test you watched that inspired you and gave you goose bumps. Recreate that test in your mind."
Each section of the book provides a way to check your progress after completing the exercises at each level. For example, the checklist for tempo and footfalls includes five different elements of evaluation, including: "After 30 days, can you count the footfalls as you watch a horse walk, trot and canter? Can you tell whether the horse you're riding maintains a steady rhythm and tempo?"

The Pilates program has exercises for people of all ages, skills and interests and requires only a flat surface, not the typical Pilates apparatus. All of the exercises explained tie directly into the needs of the dressage rider: "Core stability is an essential element of coordination. Along with attaining axial elongation and functional strength, you need to be able to tilt (or straighten) your pelvis as necessary to achieve many goals in riding, including the driving aids, half-halting, turns and lateral work, and more."