Most people have heard of the “fight or flight or freeze” reflex, which can be an instinctive and valuable response to danger. But for most of us, both humans and horses, the system-wide response doesn’t happen except in an emergency. Most often we have just tiny versions of the freeze pattern, a muscular contraction around the head, neck and jaw. With small moments of anxiety or worry, we freeze in small increments throughout the day until we feel tense and tired and worried for long stretches. Horses under saddle freeze in tiny increments too, getting tight in the poll, neck and back.
For people, traffic, difficult coworkers, deadlines, physical challenges, excess stimuli (particularly sound and visual stimuli) can cause this contracted state of being.
For horses, unknown situations, sudden movements, sounds, difficult requests from humans, and of course, the boogey man can trigger the same pattern.
In Alexander Technique lessons, the teacher’s hands-on guidance gives you kinesthetic sensations of release, lengthening and opening into a dynamic balance. You learn to notice, to let go, and to recover from contraction. Notice the language—you are not learning to do something new. Rather, you learn to let go of something unhelpful. This is an important Alexander Technique principle.
Try this: The next time your horse gets tight, ask yourself where you can free up and un-do your own tightness. Start with your head, neck and jaw. Is there any tightness to release there? What about your breath, can you allow your ribs to move freely and three-dimensionally? Check in with your arms, elbows, wrists, fingers; what’s the “just right” amount of muscle tone for this moment? How about your lower back? Can you un-do any tightness around the sacrum and let the release travel down your legs all the way to springy feet on stirrups? Bring your attention back up to your head/neck joint, and check in with your own “poll” again. Let it be spacious and mobile.
Let these questions circle around again and again during a ride. As you get skilled in this checklist of letting go, you will notice that you and your horse have a better back-to-back connection. With practice, you will be able to reorganize into a balanced and dynamic state of being, encouraging and allowing the same for your horse.