Any Dressage rider who truly knows the sport and its major players at least knows of Betsy Steiner. With over 3 decades of Dressage experience under her belt, Steiner has practically done it all- from training numerous horses up to Grand Prix, representing the U.S. at the World Equestrian Games, to serving on the Athlete’s Advisory Council for the U.S. Olympic Committee. And that only skims the surface of all of Steiner’s incredible accomplishments over the past 30 years.
However, there is one unique aspect of Steiner’s Dressage Career that stands out, and that is her Equilates program, a Pilates program for Equestrians allowing them to strengthen their core and use their bodily awareness and strength to benefit their riding.
For those of you unfamiliar with Pilates, Pilates is a physical fitness system created by Joseph Pilates during World War I that incorporates awareness of breath and alignment of the spine, and focuses on creating core strength to create a balanced body and sufficient support for the spine.
Originally, Mr. Pilates created this system as a rehabilitation program for veterans of the war, and even those who were bedridden. Attaching springs to hospital beds made this possible, and his system was absolutely revolutionary. Mr. Pilates believed that mental health and physical health were intertwined, and thus, for the wounded veterans of the war to better their chances of recovery, he made it possible for them to strengthen their bodies and focus their minds on regaining strength in a time of weakness.
Throughout the years, Pilates has evolved greatly, and has become a popular form of exercise in the U.S., especially amongst dancers and other such athletes. It has become a supplementary exercise system that can improve and increase flexibility, core strength, posture, and confidence. And it has become just that thanks to Betsy Steiner’s ‘ah ha’ moment when she discovered the value of Pilates specifically for the Equestrian.
Steiner tried every type of cross training she could think of to supplement her riding, but it was not until she started Pilates in 1995 that she had her realization. Steiner was in California when Cathie Teague, her first Pilates instructor, introduced her to the Pilates system. Steiner admits she’s been hooked ever since.
“I got into Pilates during my endless search to find an effective cross-training method to support and help my riding. I tried many different forms of training, weight training, yoga, tai chi… but Pilates just seemed to resonate with me,” she said. In 2003 Steiner trademarked the term Equilates and began to create a program that would ultimately aim to change the way equestrians think about riding, and about life.
“Once you really start doing Pilates it changes your life in the way you think about your body. You become keenly aware of any imbalances or misalignments you may have.”
In order to spread the word, Betsy started an Equilates teacher certification program in 2004 for Pilates instructors, primarily to focus them in on the aspects of Pilates that most benefit riders of all disciplines, but especially Dressage riders like herself. “Pilates has affected my riding in every way, Steiner admits. “It has given me the understanding and exercises to develop my core strength, teaches me focus on my correct body alignment and supports the discipline of mind and body.”
Cindy Bickman, a Dressage Rider and a certified Equilates instructor, played an instrumental role in helping Steiner create the Equilates training certification program in 2004. “After Betsy’s book, A Gymnastic Riding System Using Mind, Body, & Spirit, was published, Betsy had a lot of inquiries about where to learn equilates,” said Bickman. “This lead to a series of equilates workshops and the instructor certification program. ” Bickman and Steiner worked for over a year to create a Pilates program for riders that could be relayed to classical Pilates instructors.
Steiner and other advocates of both Pilates and Equilates agree that Pilates improves the body from the inside out. “It has made me more supple and flexible, keeps my muscles toned which has improved the quality of my daily life. When your body is free from pain and constrictions you simply feel good,” she said.
A pioneer of Pilates for Equestrians, Steiner remembers a time when Pilates wasn’t so hip or chic. “I remember traveling 40 minutes to a Pilates studio when I moved from California to Florida - there weren't any in Wellington.” But she recognizes that a lot has changed, thanks to her passion to pursue Equilates. “Now we have quite a few great Pilates studios in Wellington as well as private instructors that go to the stables to teach,” she said. “I think riders are so much more aware today of the importance of working out to stay fit and supple and be an athletic equal to our horses.”
Today, her Equilates program has taken off, and is not merely a program, but rather a way of life, a way means of teaching, and a way to increase bodily awareness. Once the principles of Pilates are instilled in you, they become second nature. “I practice Equilates in every lesson I give - it's a part of how I teach and get my riders to become "body aware" - of their own bodies and of their horse's bodies.”
Steiner’s students are evidence that Equilates works. “My students tell me they benefit from being much more aware of what their bodies are doing and as a result they are much better equipped to be in control and feel what their horses are doing…they find a connection,” she said. As for Betsy herself, she accredits her Pilates and Equilates training of keeping her strong and supple enough to ride 6 to 8 horses everyday.
Monisha Blackburn, an Equilates student of Steiner and a Dressage rider said that Equilates has taken her riding to a much higher level. “Not only have I become stronger in my seat, but I have more importantly become softer. Equilates has taught me to use all the parts of my body to influence my horse. My aids are far more equally distributed throughout my body,” Blackburn said. “This overall makes for a more elegant and effective rider.”
Shari Hart, an Equilates, Pilates, & yoga instructor who has also worked under Steiner’s tutelage has nothing but good things to say about Steiner and her program. “It has been a privilege to study and work with Betsy Steiner. Her understanding of the relationship between horse and rider is bar none. As a rider you have to first experience Rhythm, Suppleness, Contact, Impulsion (power packed energy), Straightness or Alignment, and Total Body Collection in yourself before you can ask of it from your horse,” Hart said.
Hart’s Equilates instruction allows riders to understand how their bodies’ affect the horse from the horses’ perspective. “I like to sit riders on an exercise ball (because it moves), hands under their seat (that is what the horse feels through the saddle), and have them lift one leg without collapsing in their side or shifting at all. Most cannot do it because they use everything else except their core to accomplish it. When they learn to move first from the core and not rely on upper body strength or leg strength, the movement is completely different and more controlled.... yet effortless...fluid....harmonious,” she said.
Between spreading her Equilates knowledge around to many different trainers, holding retreats, and having her own riding career, Steiner keeps a tight schedule.
Along with teaching Equilates classes at Lake Erie University and Findlay University, Steiner hosts Equilates retreats and is working on a format for Equilates clinics for Equestrians of all disciplines that will include unmounted exercises and mounted exercises, helping each rider to improve, for example, flexibility, suppleness, and strength.
Janet Harms, the director of Dressage at The University of Findlay and certified Equilates instructor, agrees with Steiner that Equilates is beneficial to the riders at there. Harms ensures that Equilates training is a part of the Dressage training. “We use a position assessment to individualize the riders and where their weakness or position faults are. Equilates makes the riders more aware of their bodies and how there position alone can affect the horses’ way of going,” Harms said. “Being able to isolate a certain area of their body while staying relaxed in another” is very important according to Harms. “It is implemented daily in each and every ride. Awareness develops feel!” she said. Harms is grateful to have known Steiner for many years, and believes she is “a beautiful and talented rider.” “Her dedication to the sport and ability to communicate and inspire is a motivation to so many,” Harms said.
Betsy is surely loved by all whose lives she has affected. “Betsy is my heroine. She has an unparalleled ability to see what both horse and rider need to nourish both their bodies and souls,” Blackburn said.
Steiner’s program has a lot in store for her this year, and thanks to her persistence, she is being rewarded for her efforts, not only in the U.S., but also in one of the world’s top countries for Dressage. “I am very excited to be doing an Equilates clinic in Southern California in the spring sponsored by Hesen and Haslam, and I have been asked to do an Equilates clinic in Germany, which will be really fun!” she said.
Ultimately, Steiner would like to expand Equilates to an international program. “My long-term goal would be to have Equilates Studios in key equestrian areas in the US as well as Europe.”
She also looks forward to bringing Equilates into the regular riding curriculum at Universities and Colleges “so students learn at an early age about the importance of body awareness, core strength, balance and alignment. The goal is training riders the basics of a good seat - the result is happier horses,” Steiner said.
Steiner emphasizes the fact that because we expect a lot of our horses physically, that we are responsible for keeping ourselves fit as we keep them fit. It’s a shared responsibility between the horse and rider to create a successful pair. “We expect a great deal from our horses. I find working on our own fitness, alignment, balance and flexibility is a constant reminder of what we are asking our horses to do and how hard it may be at some times,” she said. According to Steiner, this allows us to sympathize more with the horse during the training process.
“As we become more physically aware and realize some of the challenges we may be having in our own bodies, it makes us more sympathetic to what our horses are going through when we ask something challenging of them.” She believes that the training process becomes more of a team effort as a result. “You find your horse wants to work for you instead of being forced into working for you,” she said.
After all, Dressage is about harmony and balance between the horse and rider. “Horses everywhere are thanking Betsy for Equilates!” Bickman said.
Visit Betsy’s website for information on how to start your Equilates training at www.Equilates.com.