The equestrian art of dressage is a subtle tango between human and animal. As the rider requests specific movement with small physical cues, the horse prances, flicks and turns elegantly in response. The relationship requires quiet strength, as well as an intense control of isolated body parts. Guiding with the right calf muscle means the rest of the body must remain relaxed—or risk confusing the steed. When done well, the dance proves mesmerizing.
Sounds a far way off from barre, doesn’t it? To Simone Gell, though, the isolation and strong body needed in dressage is the same as that in fitness class. So, the rider and long time fitness enthusiast started teaching barre, and now, she teaches not only regular clients, but also equestrians hoping to tone and lengthen via the synergistic class. Read on to hear more about this unexpected connection, and how Gell is exploring both forms of exercise with her students at Barre on the Green and The Mane Barre Studio.
SBS: How did you become involved in equestrian arts?
Simone Gell: I lived in Chappaqua, NY, and I grew up dancing. I was also fortunate to be close to a beautiful stable that offered dressage. They looked like they were dancing, and I loved it. My mother always wanted me to dance and ride horses in particular, as a way to ensure I had good posture and poise.
But, I never had my own horse and didn’t fully train. Then, when I was 40, I had just given birth to my third child, and my husband bought me my first horse. I jumped on the chance and took learning dressage very seriously. I was constantly at the barn or watching videos, as if I was getting a degree!
SBS: How would you describe dressage?
SG: Dressage is a partnership between a horse and a rider. Based on balance and encouragement, the rider controls the animal’s body, subtly requesting engagement so the horse can move as it would move in the wild, showing itself in its most beautiful form. Originally, dressage was an exercise to dress a horse for war and ensure quick, supple movement and a seamless relationship between animal and human. That helped them keep each other safe. Then it became an art form.
SBS: What’s the connection you see between dressage and barre?
SG: 12 years ago I stumbled upon a barre class. What I liked so much about it (besides how it made me feel) was that it was particularly useful for dressage. It divided my body into four quadrants, and it helped me use all four corners of my body independently. You start to think more intensely about: How can I tense my right leg but leave my left leg relaxed. That translates directly to dressage, and it impacted my riding tremendously, which was my ultimate goal.
SBS: How did you come to teach yourself?
SG: Before I taught, I was selling telephone systems. So unglamorous! I was taking class at Exhale in New York City, and I was testing the water. I didn’t really know if I wanted to teach or if I would be good at it. But I decided to get certified, thinking maybe I’d teach or at the very least, I’d improve my own practice. That opened my eyes!
Then, I started giving my friends privates in Gilford, CT, where we have our summer home. They started talking, and soon I had six privates a day: way too many! So one of my clients suggested I rent a space. I found a local studio and gave class there. At first it was just once a week, but then eventually, I built up to teaching many times each week. I developed a following and there was a waitlist! Even when I returned to NYC, I went to that studio every week to teach classes on Friday. This is the third summer I return and amp classes back up.
Then, last fall, I decided I wanted to bring barre to the riding community to merge my skills and passions. So, I found a space to rent in the riding mecca community North Salem, NY. Now, I teach riders there, and I call it The Mane Barre Studio!
SBS: Why did you choose to get certified through Exhale?
SG: Fred and Elisabeth of Exhale are pillars in the community. They allow students to learn through them and then put their own stamp on the training. And, they’re accessible if I have any questions. They make sure to teach you how to teach, not just instruct without engaging. The care and investment in your students is priority. That resonated tremendously with me.
Technically, Exhale places the emphasis on the whole health of the individual, not just looks. It’s about being able to grow gracefully into a healthy adult body. I think by having someone like Elisabeth—a graceful, warm, strong, woman who has been doing this a long time—at the helm inspires people. Exhale is also thoughtful in the transitions and exercises. The idea is to work efficiently. It’s not about sweating buckets or how many reps you do. It’s about the quality of every movement.
SBS: What are your tips for teaching a class that’s all-age friendly?
SG: For older students, have at least three definite stretch sections throughout the class. I include one at the barre, one in the middle of class and one at the conclusion of class on the mat. I spend about 14 minutes of my 65-minute class stretching, which if it were a class of 20-year-olds, they wouldn’t feel it was enough of a workout. But, if you are a 55-year-old, if you can only do one thing, you’re most likely going to want that to be stretching.
I love stretching at the barre when you turn to a la second (with your hips facing the barre and your feet turned out) and reach up and over the leg on the barre. I also love the upside down butterfly stretch: Lay on your back, cross your right knee over the left so both knees are bent. Take hold of the shins and gently pull them in the opposite directions. Or lie on your back, and put a strap over one foot. Lift that leg to the ceiling, and with the strap, move the leg open to the side and then across your body, pausing in each position.
When students say they aren’t flexible, I always say, ‘Let’s talk about becoming more flexible, instead.’ Undoubtedly, when I ask them how much they stretch, it’s usually none at all. So in a relatively short period of time, you can make progress with consistent stretching. I want my students who are 40 and up to feel taller, more elegant and aligned when they leave.
SBS: How do you tweak your North Salem classes for the riders in the room?
SG: I’ll often discuss the movement in the context of riding. For example, when I use the word ‘tuck’ in North Salem, I explain you’re using your pelvis as you would follow the motion of the horse. Or, in Gilford, I might talk about using the barre to hold yourself up: Maybe use two fingers instead of your whole hand to find balance. But in North Salem, I’ll talk about hanging on the barre as the same as hanging on the horse’s mouth, which is a big no-no! Or, using one hip at a time as the isolations in barre class is the same as a departure for a cantor on a horse. It’s the same aim.
For the riders, then, I really focus on engaging one part of the body while relaxing another. This is a great idea for everyone, but for a rider, you ask for something with one body part. If you are bracing the other side, it won’t direct the horse accurately. So for example, a great exercise is placing the ball between the medial thighs. With one leg relaxed, squeeze the ball in with just the other leg. That isolation is key. Or, anything we can do with the calves is so helpful because they’re a subtle tool when on a horse. They need to be able to apply pressure on just one side. So calf raises in parallel, first position or with an internal rotation—or a ball between the calves!—wakes up the lower leg.
Riders are extremely dedicated to their sport, so they will do literally anything to make themselves better. I get feedback after just a few classes that they can’t believe how much more strength and stability they have on the horse.
SBS: What’s your advice to riders who are new to barre class?
SG: Often, students are nervous that the workout will be too strenuous to get back on the horse soon after. I can appreciate that because at the end of the barre class, your legs are fairly spent. You don’t want to climb into the saddle feeling shaky or tired, so that can be intimidating, particularly if you have a horse who makes sudden movements. But remember, this is a process. If you stick with it and come to class twice a week, you will build up stamina to the point that won’t be a problem. Plus, in the beginning, if I know that’s a concern, I suggest modifications like lowering the reps so they don’t walk out feeling like jello.
Simone’s SBS Mantra: Be Focused: If you put your eye on a goal, from a business idea to stretching, you’ll get there. It may not be a straight line, but you’ll get there.
Simone’s TK Favorites:
Splurge Restaurant: The Inn at Pound Ridge by Jean-Georges
Healthy Restaurant: It’s the same one! The Inn at Pound Ridge
Food: My mother’s osso buco
Athletic Wear: Sweaty Betty
Athletic Shoes: New Balance
Snack: Honeycrisp apple with Whole Foods peanut butter
Book: Yoga Mat Companion 1, 2 and 3
Fun Activity: Race walking with my husband
Calming Activity: Napping