by Constance Clare-Newman
When you ride, you are engaging in a holistic partnership with your horse. If you’re feeling tense, how can your horse be soft and supple? If you’re sitting crookedly on your horse, how can he move in a straight path? If you feel out of harmony with yourself, how can you expect harmony with your horse?
You can learn to release tension and over-efforting, to sit into length and depth, and to nurture a sense of inner harmony—all of which will help you to be more successful in creating harmony with your horse.
Many riders learn how to achieve this through lessons in the Alexander Technique, whose principles are fundamentally the same as those of classical equitation. Both focus on achieving integrated and supple movement, without the use of force, through the delicate exploration of balance and an easy liveliness in activity.
As you develop this postural and movement awareness in the Alexander Technique, you can also work on un-doing patterns that interfere with the best use of your self, including emotional and mental patterns. For instance, do you ever come to your riding in a rushed or harried emotional state, or distracted by negative self-talk? You may not even notice these emotional or mental habits, but if you have them, they are getting in the way of your best riding self.
Many riders force themselves into a “correct position,” which creates excessive tension, which in turn hinders their ability to feel. For example, “chest up, shoulders back” results in narrowing rather than lengthening the back and causes the muscle to be held in a position of contraction. When muscles are tight, the sensory nerves that sending information from the body to the brain can be blocked from their full capacity. That is, tight muscles lead to less sensory awareness. In riding, more sensory awareness leads to a better “feel.” Muscles are needed, but they are needed in an active and toned state, not in a state that is tight or overly held.
The cycle of excess tension and over-effort can be broken by learning the skills from the Alexander Technique which concentrate first on un-learning bad habits and then on gaining better control of balance and activity through clarity of intention rather than pushing, trying too hard and holding oneself in the “right position.” As if it was “Dressage for Humans,” the Alexander Technique teaches better coordination of this relationship of head/neck/back for the rider, rather than forcing the rider’s body into an ideal shape. Alexander Technique lessons or workshops have an important hands-on aspect, in which the student is guided by the teacher into a better, freer coordination. Just like you teach dressage to your horse by mostly kinesthetic cues, an Alexander teacher uses her hands as a primary way of teaching. While we cannot create that experience in an article, we can explore a few fundamental ideas and principles, with which you are already familiar, regarding your horse.
The balance of the head/neck/back relationship is one that riders understand is very important for their horse. Inexperienced riders often become preoccupied with obtaining a specific position of the horse’s head and neck. This excludes the vital role played by the back and doesn’t recognize the need to work with the horse as a whole.
Excellent riders encourage elasticity through the horse’s back, which depends on a release through the neck and an engagement of the hindquarters. When the activity from the hindquarters can travel through his back, neck and head to his mouth, into the rider’s hands, then the horse is truly engaged and balanced. How do these riders achieve this?
An experienced rider may not be conscious that her own neck is released and her head is balancing easily on her “poll” (the atlanto-occipital joint), or that her own back is resilient and lively, and her legs are draping down along the sides of the horse. But this is exactly what is happening—or her horse would not be able to respond harmoniously. The experienced rider does this “naturally” or habitually. A good habit—that all riders can learn with mindfulness, intention and practice.
To begin to acquire these good habits, let’s take a look at how the horse and human are similarly structured as vertebrates. This will help with awareness and clarity of intention. We share with our horses a large, heavy, head (with the mind inside as command central) on the top of a long neck, which is part of the spine. We share a wide torso, with mobile ribs and limbs that swing off a shoulder girdle and pelvic structure. We share strong hind/lower limbs and mobile fore/upper limbs.
As well as this structure, we share the functional aspect that the head/neck joint influences the rest of our movement. When the head/neck joint is free (poll for the horse, atlanto-occipital for us) the neck and back muscles are able to function at their optimal tone. When the head/neck joint is free, it positively influences the mobility of the limbs.
When the horse’s poll is free, the neck and back have a chance to move with more ease and liveliness, and the rider feels this ease and activity in her hands through the reins. The opposite of a free poll is a contracted head/neck relationship that travels down the back. The rider feels resistance through the reins and in the horse’s back.
When the rider’s atlanto-occipital joint is free, the neck and back have the chance to be mobile and easy, and the horse feels this as a comfortable weight to carry. The opposite of a free atlanto-occipital joint is the head compressed onto the neck and spine, and the horse feels a stiffness or heaviness that is more difficult to carry. When you are riding, bring awareness to your head/neck relationship, release whatever tension you can, and have the clear intention to allow the neck muscles to be long, yet free and your head to easily float on top of your spine.
How many times have you felt your horse soften in the poll and noticed that he begins to swing his limbs easier? If you haven’t noticed this, begin to bring attention to these concepts—you will be amazed at how these simple movement principles become clear.
Another functional aspect we share with our horses is the principle of moving “through the back.” A dressage horse is trained to bring his back up to meet the rider. The back muscles should be strong but supple and swinging. If the horse is truly moving through the back, his limbs will be swinging more freely and he will be able to carry the rider with ease as well as perform the advanced dressage activities. The opposite of moving through the back is a tight, less fluid spine, which often goes with a slightly concave shape, and feels to the rider as stiffness and/or crookedness.
Riders are often trained to “sit up straight” at the expense of a supple, swinging back of our own. While it is certainly important to sit into your greatest spinal length, it is equally important to experience your own back as wide and not compressed in the lower/mid back region. If you try too hard to “sit up straight” in the “right position” you may be making it impossible for your horse to carry you with ease. If you can be mindful about allowing mobility and length at the same time, you will be resilient rather than rigid, and you will feel that you are “moving through the back” as you follow the movement of the horse.
Riders talk about the “way the horse goes,” which includes the whole of how a horse is to ride—that is, the use of himself. A good dressage horse moves through the back, with a supple poll and easy swinging limbs , and also has an attentive, alert, yet calm demeanor. He listens to his rider and responds with willingness. His overall balance and coordination enable him able to work effectively and with ease—harmoniously.
As riders, we can learn to become aware of the use of ourselves. We can explore our own “way of going.” We share with our horses the fight-or-flight startle and fear reflex. When we are afraid, we go into a pattern of contraction—ready to fight or run, tense and with limbs pulled in, ready to explode into action.
Using your awareness about your own “way of going,” you may realize that you feel nervous every time you pass a certain corner of the arena, because your horse has spooked there before. You haven’t realized that your whole body is communicating tension and danger to your horse, as your body subtly (or not so subtly) contracts inward.
If you counteract this reaction with an un-doing of the contraction and a clear intention to release into length, width and depth, you will find that your horse will settle along with you.
When you begin to bring awareness to your own patterns of anxiousness or frustration, it is amazing how often you find yourself more contracted than necessary. As you practice releasing these patterns, and opening into a resilient and responsive state of being, you will be well on the way to creating a more harmonious relationship with your horse.