“I was skeptical,” admits FEI trainer and rider Alix Szepesi of North Shore Dressage when she first met Pilates trainer Jennifer Uhlinger at Arlene Page’s Stillpoint Farm in Wellington, FL. As a sports physical therapist and clinician, Jennifer helps both top professional and amateur dressage riders correct and refine their position in the studio and in the arena.
The fact that Uhlinger doesn’t ride might sound odd but as a former dancer, gymnast and pre-med student, her understanding of how biomechanics and balance relates to fluidity fits the niche of dressage. She understands the dance of horse and rider.
“When I only see the horse, I know the rider is aligned,” Jennifer says. “Usually, my focus falls completely on the rider, especially during transitions. If you lose your position, you lose your balance, even subtly, it impacts the horse and my eye goes straight to rider.”
The immediate difference Szepesi felt in her own riding last winter in Wellington convinced her that Jennifer’s insight would benefit her students up north. Ten riders took part in a three-day clinic hosted by North Shore Dressage at Aquila Farm in Hamilton, MA that proved eye opening for many in developing body awareness.
As a buzz word for dressage, Pilates is the holy grail for core control. Jennifer’s approach differs from methods that use big movements or active limbs. Alignment and posture come from interior torso muscles and the lumbar area. “Stabilize before you move, the energy flows out; limbs follow, they do not lead,”she directs. “Control and centering parallels dressage, it’s exactly what you want in the horse’s balance.”
Experienced rider Deborah Brown felt the fact that Jennifer doesn’t come from any type of a riding background gives her a distinct advantage.
“It provided a blank canvas with no preconceptions, no ‘theories’ about dressage and allowed for complete focus on the rider, without the distraction of the horse,” said Brown. “Jennifer’s a very strong and experienced clinician. She kept control of the group and was incredibly focused for the three days.”
Human Conformation Clinic
Uhlinger starts with body awareness on the ground and covers a lot of material. Her individual attention in a group setting benefited all the participants, giving everyone a chance to identify body types and issues. Observing other people’s gait and posture became both revealing and profound.
“I learned an enormous amount about my body (as well as other people's bodies) from all of the posture demonstrations, especially the in-saddle non-riding piece on the second day. To be able to closely observe that many individuals seated in a saddle without the distraction of a horse underneath them was really, really instructive,” says Brown.
“Every one is crooked,” notes Jennifer. “First you take them off the horse to address posture issues,” noting imbalance from can come from disease, injury or habit. She stresses taking responsibility for aligning your body and constant awareness for where you are in space.
“Most riders like going one way,” she says, and when corrected, it feels crooked. Understanding your spine is critical. Her three groups: swayback, lordotic and kyphotic influence which muscles will be primary to straighten spine posture. “We need mirrors too to see how we walk,” Uhlinger says, as she adjusted and refined shoulders and hips for better balanced human gaits.
Corrections then made on a stationary saddle with Jennifer holding the bands as reins helped each rider anchor their core. All the changes came from the abs but proper alignment (balance) naturally allowed feel of the seat bones. “Let the legs go, take the limbs out of play and use the lumbar to turn, which gives lifted rotation. Flat backs bring ribs in,” she critiqued. Subtle adjustments showed immediate results.
Her “reverse chicken,” is a humorous reminder to align the neck with spine much like the poll flex on the horse. She noted the misconceptions of rote exercises and flailing limbs that can cause injury. Uhlinger approaches Pilates through rehab to improve strength with pain free goals. “Pain signals the need to release tight muscles. Shoulders and hips are the most problematic areas that need range and strength.” She also advises athletic breathing that strengthens core posture, not yoga breathing.
“Jennifer’s unique postural analysis techniques, observations and exercises provide a phenomenal tool for riders and coaches,” said Alexandra Hampson, an equine sport therapist and kinesiologist, with a Masters degree in Equine Science from the University of Edinburgh. Hampson’s thesis on how rider biomechanics affect equine biomechanics prompted her to travel from the Northwest Territories to attend the clinic.
“Jennifer’s an engaging presenter. I particularly liked her description of the ‘reverse chicken.’ It made my lengthy air travel home much more entertaining than usual as I observed and critiqued a variety of international travelers in new ways!”
The Mirror Effect
“So much of what happens in dressage is interior that regardless of how many times I review a video of a high level performance or ask Alix to show me once again what she is doing, it is difficult to ‘see’ what is happening,” says amateur rider Claudia Woods.
"Jen showed me how to work with my horse from the inside, to visualize my spine and his spine, my ribs and his ribs. Her exercises offered a new approach to how we use our bodies. She opened the door to a new dialogue for me with my horse,” related Woods.
Jennifer cued each rider to translate their properly aligned feeling from the dummy horse the day before to real horses. Changes in posture were visible and dramatic. Lined up on the seat bones, with the lumbar and ribs activated added height that allowed fluidity and freedom to follow the horse’s motion. For other riders, it was correct straightness.
“My trainer at home, who I’ve known for close to 30 years, saw a remarkable change in my position the first time I rode for her after Jennifer's clinic. She was amazed. I have a young horse by Donnerweiss and I would say that she is going better as a result.”
However, Brown said maintaining her new and improved "position" isn’t easy. “It is tiring and takes a ton of concentration when I ride to keep all of the pieces that I learned from Jennifer in focus. But it’s making a huge difference. I can honestly say that in all the years I've been riding, and that has been most of my life in one way or another, this clinic has been the source of the biggest and most important changes for me.”
For Szepesi, it was a simple reminder to pull her neck back to align with her spine. “Working with professionals like Alix who are solid, strong and capable in their position requires minor alignment tweaks,” noted Jennifer. Szepesi has trained and competed many horses to FEI levels. She earned several 2012 High Score Awards from First level to Prix St. George at both White Fences and the Global Village Dressage venues in Wellington.
As an instructor, Szepesi’s individual focus on her riders was apparent as she took notes on Jennifer’s analysis of each rider.
Balance For a Better Life
“Before Jennifer, I was severely kyphotic (curvature of the upper back, i.e. hunchback), and now my posture looks fairly normal,” says Margie Kelk. “I do not ache anymore, and continue to lead a vigorous riding life, plus my riding has greatly improved.” Together with her daughter, Laura, a jumper rider, Kelk own eight horses.
She worked with Jennifer one-on-one for several months at first, then joined two classes Uhlinger gives every week in Florida from late December to mid April, over the last three years.
Last year, after Kelk battled an acute infection that left her with tingling sensations in her hands and feet, Jennifer started a series of treatments with exercises that eliminated the tingling and showed her how to manage it if it came back.
Three days devoted to a Pilates and Dressage clinic may sound excessive but it goes surprisingly fast. While the aim is better riding, position and core control, improved posture truly aids the quality in everyday life. Most participants echo Deborah Brown’s take home message from Uhlinger’s clinic.
“I have found that whether I am sitting, standing, driving or riding, I am much more aware of my posture and my core. I’m really working with what I learned from Jennifer in more ways than simply applying it to my riding.”
For more info or to arrange two or three day Dressage & Pilates Clinics, contact:
Jennifer Uhlinger/Mind & Body Pilates www.pilateswestpalm.com (305)299-0086