Helen Fletcher: Pilates and Dressage

Helen Fletcher

Helen Fletcher

Helen, you recently appeared as the PAA Instructor in Focus for the month of August. It is a great way to get a quick insight in a teacher’s life and fun way to get to know our wonderful Pilates community and teachers. This is particularly true in the past few months with the APMA and PAA joining forces and becoming a united front to all Pilates lovers and teachers.

Helen, you also recently participated in an American equestrian Podcast called Dressage Today. This wasn’t the first time you have been approached to discuss your experience and knowledge on the benefits of practicing Pilates to improve horse riding skills. Back in 2018, you recorded two podcasts with Horse Chat, one of which was voted the most popular of that year. There were also a few published articles. You have become a wizard in the matter of combining your two passions horse riding and Pilates. The PAA is always thrilled to support and share such wonderful experiences with its community. We would love for you to tell us more.

What made your first Pilates experience “illuminating’?

I have thought a lot about this question and how to answer it eloquently, when some of my reasons for my experience being illuminating transcend the physical. In essence, my first Pilates experience felt deeply connected to my childhood experiences with riding, with a resonance on a number of levels.

I started riding at the age of 5, and by the time I was 11, I was learning classical dressage (The word Dressage means quite simply, ‘training’, it is gymnastic training for horses). My older sister and I had an incredible coach called Gwen Stead, we used to go to Dressage camps twice a year in the Western District of Victoria, and our late mother organized a number of clinics in the Wimmera region and central Victoria. Miss Stead taught us basic equine biomechanics, how the horses moved in each gait. How to ride in ‘drills’ a bit like the Spanish Riding School, along with the basics of classical dressage. it was a disciplined and focused environment, as one of the youngest riders there, I loved it absolutely and completely. She also talked a lot about the rider’s position, so from a very young age this became an interesting and important topic for me as a rider. She would shout ‘position, position, position!’ And ‘repetition, repetition, repetition!’ She would tell us to ‘stretch up and stretch down’, to lengthen the tops of our riding helmets to the sky and our legs toward the ground. Which I now know as a movement teacher, as oppositional energy or even, tensegrity.

Fast forward 20 years to 1991 and I found myself in that very first Pilates class with Kim Baxter. Kim also talked about similar things but in her own dancer/Pilates practitioner language. Different terms but the same meaning – length, oppositional energy, focus, rhythm. Along with the quiet discipline of the studio, the background classical music (we sometimes rode to classical movement with my second coach Cherie Edmonds) the incredibly focused environment, I felt like I had come home. I had found my second ‘thing’ in life that was going to become all encompassing. As I walked down Park street Sth Melbourne to my tram I thought to myself “this would be perfect for riders!’. I really felt like if anyone was going to introduce it to them, at some time in the future it was going to be me.

What were you doing before becoming a Pilates Instructor?

I had a variety of different jobs, and I truly believe that everything we do in our lifetimes can, and does, prepare us for our futures. No experience is wasted, even the less positive ones. Many skills can transfer in different careers. I worked in restaurants (one of my favourite experiences, so much variety and pace, meeting people from all walks of life and socio-economic backgrounds) I modelled (great to learn how to deal with constant rejection, and be happy in front of a camera) and did some film work. I worked in retail in the cosmetic industry, Banking, and as an office manager. The last two were probably the ‘better’ jobs. My father was thrilled I was in banking. I hated it! So boring.

The thread throughout the jobs I enjoyed involved people from different walks of life, movement and variety. I find all these things in my Pilates teaching! Pilates captivated, and continuous to captivate me. There are continuous opportunities for growth and learning, it is ever changing. There is so much value in what we do, and that is what keeps it alive for me.

In the Instructor in Focus questionnaire, you said that you dreamed to combine your two passions, Pilates and horse riding (dressage especially), as one of the reasons to pursue a career as a Pilates Instructor. Can you explain how you succeeded at doing so?

Determination and diligence! My life long experience riding, talking about riding, reading and learning about horses helped with my confidence to combine the two. My early riding education was very comprehensive, and I rode a lot. I feel at home on a horse as I do on my own two feet. Putting the two together felt very comfortable to me. There are similarities between Pilates and Dressage. They are both gymnastic disciplines, Dressage is gymnastic training for the horse. They both require focus, alignment, breathing, centering and discipline of one’s self, body control and more. I knew in the deepest part of myself that this type of work was important for riders. It hasn’t always been easy. Introducing anything new into a culture attracts criticism, but in no way arrogantly, I always felt I knew better than those that were criticising. I have followed through on my ideas, and have been working steadily combining the two ever since.

What has helped my success is continually asking myself a couple of questions – what do the riders need, and how can I best deliver it to them. Horse riders are generally time poor, and their own bodies and wellbeing often come second to their horses. Part of my success has been trying different ways to service the community. That has been a case of trial and error. I have made some mistakes and had failures, as any successful person does, but as time goes on I feel that I am making better decisions, developing my business and expanding my community. Publications, interviews and my international online classes have also helped introduce my work to the equestrian community, along with presenting in 2018 and 2022 at Equitana. Founded in Germany it is an international, four-day equestrian showcase of all major equestrian disciplines.

We all grow as instructors over years of practicing and teaching. How did this growth help to deepen your work, and the relationship between Pilates and horse riding?

I believe the growth that I have experienced over the last 18 years as a teacher has given me more confidence to trust myself and my ideas. Much of that has come about through teaching itself. Experiencing different clients, different pathologies, different studios. I am also very invested in my own further education, and that crosses into equestrian education as well. I have attended a number of internationally run webinars on equine science and research and will continue to do so in the future. I am always looking to learn more. A couple of major injuries over the last 10 years has helped me a lot too! Sometimes education for me, beyond learning, is validation of my own thoughts and ideas. Either way, I believe knowledge is key to growth, and it has been important to me also, in finding my confidence. In my equestrian work, it has helped me validate and confirm what I felt after that first Pilates class. Pilates is great for riders!

You have several riding clients that have started Pilates because of your specialised work and your understanding of the equestrian environment. Can you tell us what your approach is with them?
My approach varies client to client. I believe that riders should aim to be the athletic equivalent of their horses. I teach many of my riders both on and off their horses, and work individually with the rider’s specific needs. Some of my work involves making improvements to the effectiveness of their ‘seat’, in terms of their position, balance, connection to their horse and their effectiveness in the saddle. (This is the rider’s ability to ask the horse for movements in the lightest and most effective way possible.) This can be done in both the mounted and the unmounted classes. Each client is different and has different needs in terms of their own body and also their horses body, and how he/she moves underneath them, therefore specificity becomes important in the training. As with any sport to really help the athlete, you need to have an understanding of the sport, I am very grateful for my lifetime of experience with horses and riding.

The breath: Breathing is one of Pilates key principal, and the essence to life. How does your knowledge of breath work improve your clients’ relationship with their horses and therefore their riding journey?

The breath is an often undervalued and underrated tool for the rider to use in various ways. A functional breath pattern is the key to many things in riding, stability, mobility, relaxation, energy, the list goes on. It can also be used to enhance the horse’s movement in all gaits. Horses are sentient beings and they respond to the breath very quickly. It can be a pathway to making a connection to a horse, and to improving the riding exponentially. I have used my breath in a ridden clinic to settle a young anxious horse whilst his rider was too nervous and tense herself to use her own breath effectively. It’s a superpower when used well!

When do you find the time to ride?

It can be challenging! I ride on my days off and often have to sacrifice other things to enable that.

What is your number one recommendation to Pilates instructors that, like you, wish to combine two movement passions?

I believe, as much as you can, that you should work to develop a deep understanding of both modalities or disciplines. To be prepared to continue to learn and to meet your clients where they are, and then take them with you on their new journey. To do that you need an understanding of what it is they really do. Having said all that, self-belief and belief in what you want to achieve, along with commitment and a strong work ethic, can make anything possible!

Without telling all, the audience can discover further details whilst listening to the Podcast, how did Dressage Today find out about you?

I had written a number of articles for Australian Equestrian Life Magazine, and had always deeply admired US based Dressage Today. I felt that I had something to say and contribute, so I contacted the then editor of the magazine, Patty Lasko, and asked if she would be interested in an article. She kindly said yes. My first one was published in 2012, and then a second article a couple of years later.

Tell us about the exercise videos you created for Dressage Today.

Dressage Today OnDemand is Dressage Today’s online learning platform. I recently contributed six videos, three on the mat, three with a fit ball, of approximately 20-25 minutes long. My brief was to have little or no props, so that the videos could be used by anyone at home. I used a rolled-up towel and two one kilo weights that could be substituted with water bottles or tins of food. I did beginner, intermediate and more advanced classes. With the short time format, I wanted to make them as effective and specific as possible, so I put a lot of work into choosing the exercises.
I have had some very good feedback, which is pleasing.

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