‘No hour of life is wasted that is spent in the saddle’
Sir Winston Churchill
People have ridden horses and engaged in horse riding exercises for thousands and thousands of years. With no other domesticated creature has our relationship ever been as intimate and complete.
When we ride horseback, we become one with an animal that is fast, powerful and sensitive. From the pony-trekking child on Dartmoor, to the Tibetan hunter, to the dressage champion, all experience a unique opportunity to collaborate with their horse, and develop a skill-set which can be infinitely refined.
This article is written for those of you who are having problems with that relationship; that skill-set. As with any art form, practice makes perfect but what if your horse riding exercises aren’t working for you as they should? There may be nothing wrong with the exercises themselves but rather with the way they are being physically interpreted.
Have you ever thought, ‘I’m being taught all the right things but nobody can show me how I’m supposed to FEEL’? – well, lessons in the Alexander technique can help you.
Horse Riding Exercises and the Alexander Technique
F.M. Alexander was a very highly accomplished horseman. He grew up with horses, rode throughout his entire life, regularly gambled on horse races and often won, thanks to his expert eye.
His keen observation of equine functional efficiency formed the basis of his discoveries about human balance and movement and led to the emergence of the now famous form of physical training known as the Alexander technique.
Alexander found that the vast majority of people hold residual patterns of unidentified tension throughout their muscular system. This tension creates pressure in a horse rider’s body, pressure which is communicated directly to the horse, influencing it to tense up.
Just as a horse can be trained to improve its use, so can the rider. Whatever the level of expertise you are interested in achieving, you can be shown how to improve your neuromuscular performance and thus influence your horse positively.
In a way, the Alexander technique is a bit like dressage for humans!
Types of Horse Riders the Alexander Technique Can Help
- Riders wanting help with understanding the traditional methods of training
- Riders who are coming back to the saddle after a gap, and are not as supple as before
- Riders suffering pain, injury and excessive tension
- Riders engaged in dressage, competing, racing and the attendant issues of managing nerves and improving performance
- Riders wishing to improve the welfare of the horse with correct balanced riding
- Riding instructors wishing to improve their knowledge and understanding
The patterns of tension you hold on a horse will be present in everyday life; they are part of your ‘use’ - that automatic, habitual, underlying way that your muscles support you in balance and movement. When you strive, your patterns of ‘misuse’ will intensify, tiring you and leading to wear and tear.
Improve your own use and your horse will respond positively. It is a beautiful, transformational exercise.
There is no other art or sport where an animal is so involved in the process of change and no other technique that can teach you how to so thoroughly and permanently alter your own use.
Alexander Technique Horse Riding Exercises Enable You To
- Sit at the trot without your legs gripping upward
- Stay back if your horse pulls you forward
- Get soft hands, strong legs and a clear mind
- Improve your sense of feel
- Make your riding look elegant and effortless
- Transition smoothly
- Enhance, rather than restrict, your horse’s ability to perform
- Find the right combination of balance, strength and flexibility
- Get even body weight distribution
- Be in charge by LISTENING to the horse so that he will listen to you
- Prepare for an event - get poise in performance through best physical and mental condition
- Achieve rhythmic walking
And much more…
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Horses, Humans - A Common Pattern
It might seem strange to compare the anatomy of a horse with that of a human. We stand upright; horses stand prone on their four limbs. What we call our knees are the stifles of horses, and our heels or ankles are horses’ hocks.
However, the relationship between our head, neck and back is the same - we share a common pattern, as is the case with all vertebrates, which is highly significant in horse riding.
When we are little children, or young foals, the way we use our muscles is perhaps unsophisticated, but quite free from tension. We don’t start out stiff, collapsed or hunched but function the way we’re designed to.
As people grow, they accumulate habits of tension in response to everything new that happens to them. Most of all, being highly sensitive, social animals, we copy one another’s misuse.
The horse is a creature of flight and easily alarmed. Often, when it is broken in, it will develop deep, lasting patterns of tension. Also, it will be especially influenced by the tense humans it has to carry on its back.
Both humans’ and horses’ response to fear, or to anything new, is the same. We tighten the neck muscles, retract the head, shorten and narrow the back and pull away from the legs (or hind quarters).
For efficient movement we need to free the neck, allow the head to come forwards and up, (forward onto the bit), allow the back to lengthen and widen, and engage the powerful muscles of the legs / hind quarters.
When a rider is trained to do these things, the horse will feel them and do them too, simply because it’s more comfortable.
Horse Riding Exercises To Increase Inhibition
One of the hardest things in riding is getting a horse to transition smoothly. Whether or not you sit to transit, you will be aiming for the change in gait to be invisible.
Imposing inhibition on the horse through half-halts is a good exercise to help with this. However, by far the best results will come when the rider is able to inhibit him/herself.
Learning inhibition is a key exercise in Alexander technique lessons. If you are unable to withhold your reaction to a given stimulus, then, against all your best intentions, your bad habits will manifest and you won’t achieve progress.
By learning to pause and direct a free relationship between your own head, neck and back at the point of transition, the horse will respond accordingly.
In fact, when you can inhibit the desire to drive with your back, to force anything or to tense up, this will help your horse perform smoothly in general.
Horse Riding Exercises To Improve Direction
When a beginner first takes the reins and tries to get their steed to go to the left or right they generally overdo it, yanking at the poor animal who invariably ignores them. It’s no good pointing out that they would probably react in the same way if a stranger rudely pushed at them; they need to be encouraged to change their THINKING.
Of course, this seems like magic, especially when you watch a highly skilled dressage champion at work.
In fact, the slightest thought that passes through your mind creates a muscular reaction in you AND in your horse. So, making sure the thoughts are going in the right direction is essential.
As long as the rider is working efficiently, the most subtle directions can get the most incredible cooperation from the horse. It’s your intention that matters, rather than physically pushing.
Direction is one of the skills taught in Alexander technique lessons. Usually, when a person attempts to correct their posture, they overshoot by inches instead of making the dozens of more subtle adjustments necessary.
With guidance, you can learn to feel exactly what you need to adjust in yourself and that will make all the difference when you try to manage your horse.
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A fit horse needs a fit rider, without a doubt, but after that it’s all a question of ‘good use’ - in both the horse and the rider.
A horse needs to be trained so that it has just enough tone in the neck to balance the head and lighten the forehead without interfering with the suppleness at the poll.
When a horse is collected, its neck is free, its head is coming forward onto the bit and its back is lengthening and widening to breathe. Get the horse stepping further under its body, and all movements can be achieved with greater lightness, impulsion and cadence as it comes into its hind quarters.
Almost exactly the same can be said of the rider - we just use slightly different terminology.
In a human, the neck needs to be free so that the head, relative to the neck, can go forwards and up, so that the back can lengthen and widen and the strength of the legs can be used to greatest mechanical advantage.
The more we can improve the use of the rider, eliminating unnecessary effort and tension, the more the horse will respond in kind.
An Alexander teacher will get you to free your neck, send your head forwards and up, lengthen and widen in your back, use your legs as springs, relax your arms, breathe correctly and much, much more.
Lessons in inhibition and direction will help you get soft hands, strong legs and a clear mind.
Alexander Technique Horse Riding Exercises To Improve Breathing
Integrating the breath efficiently is essential in all sport, not just horse riding.
When you are able to calm your own breathing, you will also calm the horse’s breathing - the more your breathing rises up in your chest, the more the horse will do that too.
Your breathing needs to come from as low down as possible, with an elastic, widening back. When you learn to free up all the postural muscles which are squeezing your chest and fixing your diaphragm, the ribs will become mobile and breathing easier.
When the breathing is easy you will feel comfortable and be able to come more into the saddle thus changing the horse’s whole line. If you’re not making contact, then you need to breathe more with your back.
Alexander lessons can help with this. Meanwhile, it might be worth just noticing the moments when you inadvertently hold your breath and simply try to resume.
Alexander Technique Horse Riding Exercises To Free the Jaw
When you’re having trouble directing your horse, you probably need to free your own jaw as this will be having a direct effect on the horse.
An Alexander teacher can help you with this, but if you’re trying it yourself, then do the following:
- Soften your gaze and look ahead.
- Allow a tiny gap between your back teeth.
- Imagine space in your TMJ (temporo mandibular joint - jaw)
- Relax your tongue (yes!) - chances are you will be having an internal dialogue which is activating your muscles.
Alexander Technique Horse Riding Exercises To ‘Stay Back’
If you keep your distance rather than pull towards your horse - then you’ll get a nice extension. If you are ahead of yourself, this will make the horse uneasy.
Alexander lessons show you how to ‘stay back,’ but in the meantime, you can try to ‘smile’ with the back of your neck. Think about the space BEHIND you and think about widening the hips rather than pushing forward with them.
Remember: good direction TONES you whereas pushing shortens you!
Alexander Technique Horse Riding Exercises To Free the Joints
Getting your horse to free its joints often depends on whether you are freeing your own joints.
The insides of your knees and elbows need to be free and open, allowing lengthening in those muscles, not gripping. You need space in your wrists, palms, ankles and hips too.
An Alexander teacher can show you what this should feel like, but in the meantime, you could practise direction while driving a car.
Holding the steering wheel is a little bit like holding the reins - you can use your imagination to translate the physical sensations.
Obviously, stay safe, but when you get an opportunity, try to rest your back and head back, drop your elbows and knees, release your grip slightly and breathe. If you allow your back to be comfortable, you can develop a sense of space on your lap, rather than letting your whole body tighten and pull forward.
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When It All Comes Together
When everything comes together you will experience an independent seat - that experience where the rider is sitting so deeply they appear to be glued to the saddle.
Then you can look out for the horse’s ‘happy ears’ - that secret sign that all equestrians recognise as evidence of a contented horse!
Achieving an independent seat will involve the following:
- When you can soften your own neck and widen your own back.
- When your legs are lengthening down, and your heels are dropping more and more.
- When you can soften your jaw and have space inside your mouth.
- When you transition on an in breath, not an out breath.
- When you feel the space behind rather than pulling forward.
You don’t want to over-collect or over-breathe but when it all comes together…
- Your horse will feel nice and lifted underneath you.
- You’ll have even body weight distribution.
- You’ll absorb the horse’s movements through your back, hips and seat - arms and legs hanging almost independently.
- You’ll be listening to one another and ready to take off and fly!
The Alexander technique improves your awareness and makes riding feel like poetry in motion.
Saddle Work With The Alexander Technique
Saddle work has a long history in the Alexander technique.
In 1955, a 4-year-old girl with spina bifida started having lessons with FM Alexander. She didn’t have the use of her legs and was unable to sit up but Alexander was confident that if he could get her to stand, he would eventually be able to get her to walk.
Sadly, Alexander died soon after their meeting but his assistant teacher had a clever idea. To help the child gain more balance, he worked with her while she sat on a toy donkey, which was fun for the girl and made things easier for the teacher. She was able to sit comfortably on her sitting bones and the teacher could help her overall co-ordination and get release in her legs.
As she grew, the donkey was replaced by a wooden trestle with a horse’s saddle. By the time she was 13, the Alexander technique had helped her build enough upper body strength to start walking with callipers and crutches. This led to her gaining an independent life, going to university, driving and working.
In time, saddle work was used more and more with pupils and trainee teachers alike. It is a tremendously helpful way of getting undoing and lengthening in the legs, freedom in the hips and pelvis, and comfort in the lumbar and sacroiliac areas of the lower back.
Our legs and hip joints tend to get very tight and tense, particularly with the amount of sitting associated with modern life. Sitting in a saddle often feels easier than sitting in a chair, as the balance is directly on the sitting bones and our legs can hang freely.
For horse riders, saddle work is incredibly useful. Practising on a wooden horse with hands-on guidance from an Alexander teacher helps the development of a good seat without needing to grip with the legs, buttocks or back.
Also, a wooden horse won’t respond to any riding signals so is a good opportunity for experimentation!
I have taught many riders, and particularly enjoy the way indoor saddle work aids success in the field.
Often, riders arrive with all the usual problems, and some quite unique ones, and leave empowered to get their horse listening and cooperating.
I had one such lady who had lessons with me for many years. When she first came she was having terrible problems with a huge stallion who didn’t like going in the horse box and consequently she had back ache from trying to battle with him.
We had great fun getting her to stay back in her own back, drop her arms, breathe efficiently, free her jaw etc and each lesson she would arrive with fresh tales of how surprised, and therefore cooperative, the chap was with each new exercise.
Horse Riding Exercises to Relieve Pain
I also have experience using saddle work to help people in pain. Even if they don’t ride, the opportunity to work on legs that are hanging freely while the rest of the body is supported through the sitting bones can be very helpful.
I once taught a man who was crippled from a severe injury to his sacrum. He needed two people to assist him when he arrived at the clinic where I was teaching. I worked on him in the saddle and he managed to release enough tension to be able to walk away quite normally at the end of the lesson.
With regular lessons his condition improved markedly - not by magic, or from healing - but quite simply by getting him to release excessive tension in the area of injury.
When a pupil has a really good grasp of the Alexander Technique, it’s sometimes fun for me to meet the horse and have an outdoor lesson with both.
My colleague in Brighton, herself an experienced rider, has posted some videos here which show outdoor Alexander lessons in action.
‘The Alexander Technique removed a long standing back problem and improved my riding ability. Riders who take up the technique always make a very significant improvement in their riding.’
Daniel Pevsner, Classical dressage purist, fellow of the British Horse Society and a former pupil of the Spanish Riding School of Vienna. He also trained under Mestre Nuno Oliveira in Portugal.
‘There is one principle that should never be abandoned, namely, that the rider must learn to control himself before he can control his horse. This is the basic, most important principle to be preserved in equitation’
Alois Podhajsky, Spanish Riding School of Vienna, which, by the way, has existed for over 400 years!
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