Horse Riding With Alexander Technique Exercises

 

 

 

‘There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man’

Sir Winston Churchill

 

For thousands of years people have ridden horses and practised horse riding exercises. Our relationship with horses is more intimate and complete than with any other domesticated animal.

 

Riding horseback we become one with a creature that is powerful, sensitive and fast. From the dressage champion, to the Tibetan hunter, to the pony-trekking child in the forest, all experience a unique opportunity to collaborate with their horse and develop a skill-set which can be refined almost infinitely.

 

I have written this account for those of you who are struggling with that relationship; that skill-set. What if your horse riding exercises aren’t working for you as they should? With any art form practice makes perfect but it may be that the exercises themselves are fine while the physical interpretation of them is faulty.

 

Do you ever think, ‘I’m being taught all the right things but who can show me how I’m meant to FEEL’? – if so, Alexander technique lessons will help you:)

F.M. Alexander

Alexander was an extremely accomplished horseman. His parents bred horses, he rode horses throughout his whole life, he liked to gamble on horse races and, thanks to his expert eye, he often won.

 

A close observation of equine functional efficiency formed the basis of his discoveries about human movement and balance and led to the development of the now famous form of physical training we know as the Alexander technique.

Alexander discovered that most people hold habitual patterns of unrecognised tension throughout their muscular system. This tension creates pressure in a horse rider’s body, pressure which will communicate to the horse, causing it to tense up when ideally you want it to remain free.

 

With Alexander lessons you can be taught how to improve your own use. Whatever your level of expertise, you can be shown how to get the best out of your own neuromuscular performance and have a positive influence on your horse.

 

Alexander technique is a bit like dressage for humans!

The Alexander Technique Helps The Following Types Of Horse Riders

-   Riding instructors looking to improve their understanding and knowledge of human balance and movement

-   Riders seeking to improve the welfare of the horse and achieve correct balanced riding

 

-   Riders wanting help with understanding traditional training methods

-   Riders engaged in competing, dressage and racing and the accompanying challenges of improving performance and managing nerves

 

-   Riders returning to the saddle after a gap

 

-   Riders with injury, excessive tension and pain

 

Patterns of tension you hold in yourself when riding will be present in everyday life; they are part of your ‘use’ - the habitual, automatic, underlying way that your muscles support you in movement and balance. When you strive in riding, the patterns of ‘misuse’ will intensify, tiring you, causing wear and tear and effecting your horse.

 

When you improve your own use your horse will respond positively. It is a wonderful, transformational exercise.

 

'In no other sport, or art form, is an animal so involved in the process of change'.

And no other technique can teach you to so thoroughly and permanently alter your own use.

Horse Riding With Alexander Technique Exercises Helps You To

-   Get strong legs, soft hands and a clear mind

-   Transition smoothly

-   Improve your sense of feel

-   Stay back if your horse pulls you forward

-   Make your riding look elegant and effortless

-   Sit at the trot without your legs gripping upward

-   Get even body weight distribution

-   Find the right combination of balance, strength and flexibility

-   Enhance, rather than restrict, your horse’s ability to perform

-   Achieve rhythmic walking

-   Prepare for an event - get poise in performance through best physical and mental condition

-   Be in charge by LISTENING to the horse so that he will listen to you

 

And much more…

 For a 5% discount on your first lesson, contact me and I will aim to reply within 2 days

Humans, Horses - A Common Pattern

Comparing the anatomy of a human with that of a horse might seem a little strange. We stand upright on two limbs whereas horses stand prone on four limbs. We have knees whereas a horse has stifles, and heels or ankles rather than hocks. 

 

The relationship between our head, neck and back, however, is the same - we share a common pattern, as is the case with all vertebrates - and this pattern is extremely important in horse riding.

 

Little children and young foals use their muscles in an unsophisticated way, yet free from tension. Neither starts out collapsed, or hunched, or stiff but function with natural poise.

 

Children develop and gradually accumulate habits of tension in response to everything new that happens to them. Being sensitive, social animals, we copy one another’s misuse. Then we get forced to sit at desks for years and years until we become hunched and slouched.

 

Foals are easily alarmed. Often, when broken in, they will develop deep, enduring patterns of tension. Then they will be pulled out of shape by the tense riders they have to carry for years and years.

 

Humans and horses respond to fear, or to anything new, in the same way. We tighten the neck muscles, pull the head back, shorten and narrow the back and pull away from the legs (or hind quarters).

 

To function efficiently we need to release the neck, let the head come forwards and up, (or forward onto the bit for a horse), let the back lengthen and widen, and engage the strong muscles of the legs, or hind quarters.

 

If a rider learns to do these things the horse will feel them and be more inclined to do them too because it feels like such a light, comfortable and effective way to move.

 

Improve Inhibition

With Alexander Technique Exercises For Horse Riding

Getting a horse to transition smoothly is one of the hardest exercises in riding. Whether you sit to transit or not you will be aiming for the change in gait to be imperceptible.

 

A good exercise to help with this is to impose inhibition on the horse through half-halts. The best results will come, however, when the rider is able to inhibit herself/himself.

 

Inhibition is one of the main exercises taught in Alexander technique lessons. When you are unable to withhold your reaction to a given stimulus, then, in spite of yourself, your bad habits will come through and your progress will be thwarted.

 

Learning to pause and direct a free relationship between your own head, neck and back at the point of transition will influence your horse to act accordingly.

 

When you are able to inhibit the temptation to drive with your back, to tense up or to force things, then your horse will feel encouraged to perform smoothly.

Improve Direction

With Alexander Technique Exercises For Horse Riding

Often a beginner will take the reins and try to force their horse left or right, yanking at the poor animal who will usually ignore them. It’s no good telling them that they wouldn't like it if someone pushed them around - they need to be taught to change their THINKING.

 

'Thinking' a horse to perform seems like magic, especially when you watch a highly skilled dressage champion at work. Actually, the smallest thought that occurs in your mind triggers a muscular reaction in you AND in your horse. Therefore it is essential that you make sure those thoughts are going in the right direction!

 

When the rider is working efficiently, the most subtle directions can get the most amazing cooperation from the horse. It’s INTENTION that matters, rather than physically pushing or pulling.

 

Direction is one of the main exercises taught in Alexander technique lessons. Without training, when a person attempts to correct their posture, they massively overshoot instead of making the dozens of more subtle adjustments that are necessary.

 

With the guidance of a good teacher you can learn to feel exactly where and how you need to adjust in yourself and that will make all the difference when you try to manage your horse.

 

 For a 5% discount on your first lesson, contact me and I will aim to reply within 2 days

Good Use

A well trained horse has just enough tone in the neck to balance the head and lighten the forehead without interfering with the suppleness at the poll.

 

A 'collected' horse has a free neck, head coming forward onto the bit and back lengthening and widening to breathe. If you can get your horse stepping further under its body then all movement can be achieved with greater impulsion, cadence and lightness as it comes into its hind quarters.

 

The same applies to the rider - the terminology is just different.

 

A rider's 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 best mechanical advantage.

 

When we eliminate unnecessary tension and effort in the rider, then the horse will be more likely to follow.

 

Lessons in the Alexander Technique help 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.

 

Get soft hands, strong legs and a clear mind!

Improve Breathing

With Alexander Technique Exercises For Horse Riding

Essential in all sport, not just horse riding, is the ability to breathe efficiently.

 

If your own breathing is calm, your horse’s breathing is more likely to be calm - the more it rises up in your chest, the more the horse will do that too.

 

For optimal breathing you need an elastic, widening back and the breath needs to come from low down in your lungs. For the ribs to be mobile and breathing easier you need to learn to free up all the postural muscles which are squeezing your chest and fixing your diaphragm.

 

Calm, easy breathing makes you feel comfortable and more able to come into the saddle, thus changing the horse’s whole line. When contact is poor you need to breathe from the back.

Better breathing is one of the main exercises taught in Alexander Technique lessons.  

 

NB try to notice moments when you've inadvertently held your breath - and simply resume!

Free the Jaw

With Alexander Technique Exercises For Horse Riding

Trouble directing your horse? Perhaps you need to free your jaw. Lessons in the Alexander Technique can help with this. 

 

NB If you’re trying by yourself, then do the following:

 

- Look ahead and soften your gaze.

- Picture space in your TMJ (temporo mandibular joint, or jaw).

 

- Allow a gap between your back teeth, enough to fit the tip of your little finger.

 

- Try to relax your tongue! - you might be having an internal dialogue which will activate your muscles.

Free the Joints

With Alexander Technique Exercises For Horse Riding

When you are able to free your own joints, it will be easier for your horse to do so too.

 

You need space in your palms, wrists, ankles and hips. The insides of your knees and elbows need to be free and open, lengthening the muscles instead of gripping. 

 

Lessons in the Alexander Technique can show you what this should feel like. 

 

NB you can practise freeing your joints while driving a car. Holding the steering wheel when you drive is a little bit like holding the reins when you ride.

When a safe opportunity arises, rest your back backwards, rest your head for a moment, drop your elbows and knees, release your grip slightly and breathe. When your back feels comfortable, you can be aware of a sense of space on your lap, rather than letting your whole body stay tight and pulled forward. 

All the hazards you encounter while driving will make you alert and inclined to pull forward in yourself, it's only natural. So, when the next safe opportunity arises, simply settle back as above and breathe. And so on...

Stay Back

With Alexander Technique Exercises For Horse Riding

When you are ahead of yourself, this will make your horse uneasy. When you keep your distance, instead of pulling towards your horse, you'll be more likely to get a good extension. 

 

Lessons in the Alexander Technique show you how to ‘stay back’ in yourself, to get a strong, elastic, supple back supporting you when you ride.

 

NB 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.

 

Good direction TONES you whereas pushing shortens you!

 

 For a 5% discount on your first lesson, contact me and I will aim to reply within 2 days

When Everything Comes Together

When it all comes together you will get an independent seat - that experience where the rider is sitting so deeply they appear to be glued to the saddle.

 

You can watch for the horse’s ‘happy ears’ - the secret sign of a contented horse!

 

Getting an independent seat will happen:

 

-   When you feel the space behind rather than pulling forward.

-   When you can soften your jaw and have space inside your mouth.

-   When your legs are lengthening down, and your heels are dropping more and more.

-   When you transition on an in breath, not an out breath.

-   When you can soften your own neck and widen your own back.

 

Don’t over-breathe or over-collect and when everything comes together…

 

-   You’ll have even body weight distribution.

-   Your horse will feel nice and lifted underneath you.

-   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!

 

Lessons in the Alexander Technique help you to improve your awareness and make riding feel like poetry in motion.

Saddle Work

With Alexander Technique Exercises For Horse Riding

Saddle work has long been used in Alexander Technique exercises.

 

A 4-year-old girl with spina bifida began having lessons with FM Alexander in 1955. 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.

 

Unfortunately 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.

 

The donkey was replaced by a wooden trestle and a horse’s saddle as the child grew. 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.

 

Saddle work was gradually 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.

 

There is a great amount of sitting associated with modern life and consequently our legs and hip joints tend to get rather tight and tense. 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.

 

Saddle work is incredibly useful for horse riders. Practising on a wooden horse with hands-on guidance from an Alexander teacher helps the development of a good seat without the need to grip with the legs, buttocks or back.

 

A wooden horse won’t respond to any riding signals which makes experimentation a lot easier than with the live animal!

Case Studies

I've taught many riders and I particularly enjoy the way indoor saddle work aids success in the field.

 

Riders often arrive with all the usual problems, and some quite unique ones, and leave empowered to get their horse cooperating and listening properly.

 

I recall a rider 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.

 

It was 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 cooperative her horse was with each new exercise.

Field Work

It’s sometimes fun to have an outdoor lesson with both rider and horse, when the pupil has a really good grasp of the Alexander Technique. It's by no means essential.

 

An Alexander teacher and experienced rider has posted some videos here which show outdoor lessons.

 

Relieving Pain

With Alexander Technique Exercises For Horse Riding

I use 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 recall 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.

 

His condition improved markedly with regular lessons - not from healing or by magic - but simply by getting him to release excessive tension in the area of his injury.

Testimonials

‘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!

‘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.

 

 For a 5% discount on your first lesson, contact me and I will aim to reply within 2 days

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The Old Bakehouse

2A South Parade

Oxford

OX2 7JL

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Jennifer Davy

The Practice Rooms

The Old Bakehouse

2A South Parade

Oxford

OX2 7JL

jenidavy18@gmail.com

Tel: 07866 257033

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