Wooden horses

Seated on a wooden horse, the rider is able to think about herself without distraction

Seated on a wooden horse, the rider is able to think about herself without distraction

A workshop for horse-riders

I was recently asked to give a workshop to horse-riders. Although I’ve had the odd riding lesson, I don’t know much about horses so enlisted the help of my AT colleague and friend Tara Bentall, who, as well as being an experienced rider, has a degree in Equine Studies.

The venue was a smart livery yard in East Sussex with excellent amenities for the horses including a solarium and hot wash bay! We held the workshop in the indoor school, a huge covered area with unglazed ‘windows’, allowing a gentle breeze to come in. I’m used to working in studios and church halls, so it was a treat to be in a more ‘natural’ environment with a mix of scents and sounds. Active Rest was enjoyed on horse blankets over the springy floor covering. Then again, during the pre-workshop conversation full of horsey jargon, I did wonder what I’d let myself in for! I shouldn’t have worried, though, because human beings all have to deal with the same issues.

A tense body can affect performance adversely

As riders, our participants were naturally interested in how what they do affects their horses and were good at making connections between everyday life and situations encountered exclusively by horse-riders. Just as with musicians, an over-reactive and tense body can affect performance adversely. Any rigidity transmits to the horse, whereas the horse and rider need to move together and maintain a free, unhindered transfer of information. This requires the whole self (horse and human!) to be well-integrated and balanced.

Riders can be tempted to look down at their horse, grip the reins, and pull forward.  This is just what happens to car drivers and computer users. But if the rider does this, the horse also moves differently. You don’t have this problem with machines! In horses as well as humans, the relationship between head, neck, and back affects movement in the whole of the body. Clearly, from the horse’s point of view, it is harder to be well integrated if your rider is pulling you off balance!

Obviously the rider needs to look in front to see where they are going and use their peripheral vision in case something unexpected is approaching. It’s just the same when you are out on the street; walking along with your face bent over a phone is not the safest way to proceed.

Don’t grip with your legs!

Another response to nervousness is for riders to grip the horse with their legs. You may notice the same tension when you’re feeling anxious, perhaps when talking to someone who makes you uncomfortable. Isn’t it good for the rider to make contact with the horse? Well yes – but not like this! Over-tight legs cause the rider to lift out of the saddle and lose connection. Long, released, and ‘aware’ legs are what are needed.

Just like everyone else, riders need to sit on their sit bones in a well-balanced way, neither pulling forward nor slumping back. This allows them to release the buttock muscles on to the supportive saddle. In the same way, when we sit well balanced on our sitting bones on a chair, the surrounding muscles can release.

Ingrained habits tend to pass unnoticed

The indoor school had a wall of mirrors to help the riders, who were well aware that ingrained habits tend to pass unnoticed. As AT teachers, we introduced the concept of stopping and saying ‘no’ to the habit, rather than simply adding on layers of tension in an effort to over-ride the existing habit with a new one.

Once again, AT showed itself to be suitable for just about anyone because although we all encounter different situations and challenges, the human response tends to be the same: muscular tension! AT helps us modify our habitual responses so that we replace effort and strain with easier, freer, and more conscious movement.

Subtle changes

We had some lovely feedback including the following: ‘Just subtle changes that you enabled me to do made such a difference to how my body felt and my posture.’

AT tends to be subtle but the changes it brings about are long lasting. This is because you allow these changes to take place rather than having somebody else impose them upon you. To put it another way, by experimenting with alternatives, you may make exciting discoveries about yourself!