Posts By SDeStefano

The Secret to Soft Hands is in Your Back

As riders, we want to develop soft, steady hands that don’t interfere with the horse’s movement. Many riders try to release the tension in their arms and hands, only to find they are right back to pulling or hanging on the reins, however slight, when their horse runs into the slightest difficulty.

What if I were to tell you the secret to improving your hands does not come from your hands or even your elbows following your horse’s movements, but in how you use your back? You can communicate through your seat without changing anything in your arms, hands or fingers-keeping your shoulders, arms and hands soft!

Let me tell you how I figured this out.

Jeff Haller, a trainer of the Feldenkrais Method, studied directly with Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais, tells the story where Dr. Feldenkrais mentioned that he (Moshe) was able to lift a person’s head without increasing the tone of his hands. Jeff then set out to determine how Moshe was able to have such refined control.

My own experience, many years ago, included Jean Luc Cornille, informing me that he does not “close his hands on the reins,” but rather “changes the tone in his back.” His hands remained, “like shock absorbers.”

I felt these two experiences were related and I had to uncover what each had in common, so a rider can figure out how to use her seat to communicate with the horse, yet maintain a light, contact with soft hands.

One of the fundamental principles of the Feldenkrais Method is the use of a counter-balance or “equal and opposite” for ideal functioning. Let’s say your horse has a loss of balance and increases the weight on the reins. Most riders close their hands on the reins to help the horse rebalance. Closing your fingers on the reins increases the tone within the hands. If instead, you lengthen your spine. This action creates an equal and opposite force by “deepening” your seat, sending your seat bones back and down. This movement is felt by the horse. (And if you have been coming to my workshops or ridden with me, you most likely have experienced it yourself and have sensed for yourself the improvement in the quality of the contact.) There is no need to close your fingers on the reins.

Now my experience has shown that riders need to dedicate themselves to developing this skill. This is not a quick fix. Our awareness and usage of our hands is our default method of operation. Finding the coordination and switching our functioning towards the use of our back takes commitment. Be up for the challenge and dedicate how changing your movement will improve the quality of your contact. Your horse will experience you in a different, much softer, way.

Find Your Balanced Riding Position

Balanced riding is somewhere between sitting and standing, but more towards standing. “Put your legs under your torso” is a common directive, which is a good beginning. Many riders make “big adjustments,” pulling their leg away from the saddle and swinging it back, to “correct” their position. Major movements do not make improvements, most of the time the leg “sneaks” back to where it came because these big movements were done with effort.   When you do too much, you will not get the sensory feedback necessary to uncover the changes that need to happen. Find your balanced riding position through slow movements done with attention.

Change your reference points. Explore how the position of the pelvis/spine relates to the position of the legs. What happens in your legs when you round your back or arch your back? What happens when you lean back or forward from the hip joint? Where do you have tension?  Is it in your toes, ankles, or knees? You do not have to make big movements to affect your position. Move slowly with little effort and you will become aware of the connections between your different parts. The more you can sense and feel what you are doing in the saddle, the more you can make decisions and help yourself. These movements, done with attention, will help change how you ride.

Next is to bring the torso over the legs.  This is a change that occurs with little effort when the rider releases unnecessary muscular work in the hips and belly. Of course, the challenge is to bring this all together on a moving horse. Accomplishing that will bring you in the vertical alignment that helps you stay with the movement of the horse and make it easier for your horse to carry you.

Stop That Swing!

Do your legs swing when riding when you post the trot or jump?  The classic approach to correct this is to work without stirrups or tie the stirrups to the girth. These constraints will not guarantee you will find the solution.  Stop the torture!  There is merit to riding without stirrups, but when you take your stirrups back certain habits may still keep you from riding effectively.  Find your hip joint, stand onto your feet (not from your feet), build the awareness to differentiate the movements in your ankle, knee hip, and learn to feel a neutral spine.  Do these things and learn to stay up with the movements of the horse to avoid the struggle and develop the tools to help yourself.

Facilitating the Process

Frustration in the rider indicates that we have recognized a problem and made unsuccessful attempt(s) at solving it.  When it becomes excessive, it blocks the learning process. Let us hope that it is the rider blaming herself when frustration becomes part of the equation.  When solutions to problems are not resolved, many times the horse will suffer.  All too often when the rider is “digging deeper” and it has been going on for a while, she is digging the wrong hole and needs to step back and find a different way to approach the problem.

The instructor’s job is to facilitate the learning process, not just re-state the goal, and give directives or reprimand.  There are many techniques that help riders find new options to try.  These include, but not limited to the following. Vary reference points; give the rider more than one way to observe themselves or horse.  Slow down; this gets the rider out of automatic patterns. Let go of excess effort; whether it be muscular or mental.  Allowing time for the rider/horse to process without interference when the rider is on the right track is also important.

Most students are trying hard to figure things out. Many times that effort impedes progress.  When the rider is focused on the goal without flexibility within the process, difficulties arise. Observation of the student’s situation can give the instructor the information to strategize in order to guide the rider appropriately through a lesson.  Learning to ride does not have to be dominated by effort.

There are aspects of riding that require much dedication from the rider to discover.  Those elusive skills do take time and mistakes do happen. Instructors help by breaking down goals to obtainable steps based upon the student’s abilities.  When the instructor guides appropriately, students learn and become more proficient, confident and self-reliant.

Riding Awareness

Learning to move more efficiently is one of the benefits of Feldenkrais.  With attention you will also sense small changes, differences in your image of self and variations of how you move. When you begin to discern these subtle differences, you discover if you apply the same attention to how you ride and how your horse moves a completely different perspective arrives.  You have a different view of where you are now from within.  It is a personal “how to” manual that is unique to yourself (and your horse) and not available on DVD.

How You Move is Important

Your self-use is an important component in riding and training.  It is important to expand your awareness to that of your horse, otherwise, your focus will be limited and self-indulgent.  The kinesthetic sense you develop “when you know what you are doing” (Moshe Feldenkrais) and how the horse and rider move together will provide the basis for subtle but clear communication between both, so “you can do what you want.” (Moshe Feldenkrais).

Too much tension or force will interfere with how you sense your horse.  When we use too much of our musculature to move we move with tension.  We are contradicting ourselves. We end up getting in our own way and interfering with the way we perceive ourselves and our horse. Using your whole self in an efficient manner will impact how your horse senses you. This is achieved through the use of the larger muscles of your back and pelvis synchronized in a specific way to support the actions of your arms and legs.  Combined with how we sit on our horse, the use of the larger muscles are more efficient and produce inviting and clearer aids for your horse.  Instead of focusing on the specific goals of “leg goes here, back works this way, etc.” you will seamlessly discover your innate ability to synchronize your movements and aid to effectively communicate-your actions become part of the process rather than the seemingly endless quest for a goal.

Your ability to feel and recognize the subtle changes in your horse as he processes your request(s) will be part of this process and will produce a situation for optimal learning.  You are much more able to be in the moment to reward or encourage appropriately.


Soft Hands, Powerful Back

Do you get frustrated with yourself because you end up pulling on the reins to balance and control your horse? Replace pulling on the reins with something more effective.  Learning to use your whole self as a reference point for the horse requires a refined kinesthetic sense.  First you must absorb the horse’s movement through your whole spine, not just through relaxing the lumbar region.  Too much lumbar motion is recognized visually with a rider pushing with the seat or “belly dancing.”  When the lumbar region is too flexible, the rider stiffens the shoulders in an attempt to stabilize on a moving horse.

Many times a rider in an attempt to stabilize her lumbar region stiffens all the abdominal muscles, “tighten your core.”  These are flexors and will tend to provoke flexion in the arms, supporting the pattern of pulling on the reins.  Pulling the belly in will also tend to take you behind the movement of the horse.  A key to stabilizing the lumbar region is finding a neutral spine, where minimal muscular effort is required to keep the rider’s vertical alignment and absorb the horse’s movements through the whole spine.  In riding the curves of the spine remain.  This allows the whole spine, lumbar through thoracic, to absorb the movement from a vertical pelvis.

When Less is More

My trainer for many years would say, “You spend the first fifteen years of your riding career learning to do, the last seventy-five years is spent learning how to do less.” Intellectually, this made sense to me. But clarification and implementation of “doing IT with less” came from The Feldenkrais Method®. Learning “how to learn” is one of the hallmarks that define The Method. Through exploration of movement, efficient use of oneself emerges. Doing “less” means utilizing the musculature to perform only the task at hand, removing unnecessary effort. When you begin to make progress in efficient use of your body, you discover a hidden tool to bring a greater level of awareness to your riding. The Feldenkrais Method unlocks our ability to learn or teach ourselves the most efficient use of energy on movement.

Our society reminds us to do more, work harder and longer. We put so much effort in trying harder. Any thought of doing less never emerges or is fleeting and we dismiss it. Why? For me, the concept was foreign. I had no idea what it meant. After all, champion athletes become winners by hard work and concentrated efforts.

My initial interpretation of “doing less” was to make my aids lighter. Efficient use of self as a rider did not even enter my thought process. Even so, how can doing less help me? I kept thinking, “I must not be doing something that is preventing me from advancement and I must try more or harder to find that something”. Doing less was equivalent to not trying and was not a viable solution to me. There was so much excess effort in everything I did, in reality I was frozen in a posture and getting in my own way. Full of frustration, I was told to “dig deeper” to find solutions. I had no idea how, for I had put all my available resources into learning to be an effective rider and there was nothing else to try. My conclusion, I reached was of failure, a rider who was good, but not an elite athlete. The trainer concurred it was rare for someone to dig that deep to become an elite rider and I was flawed and “defective”. But I’m stubborn . . . I didn’t give up riding. I did resign myself to ride only for myself and doing my best, but it was no longer enjoyable. I was not finding the oneness and unity that I thought was possible. Not wanting to give up, how could I continue?

At the same time, I was looking for a new career direction. Even that was frustrating because I only wanted to ride and teach. My decision to join a Feldenkrais Professional training program was uncharacteristically based on impulse, faith and a more characteristic “gut” feeling-even though I had abandoned my gut sense of anything as a reliable indicator because I was such a failure. I had no idea where Feldenkrais training would lead me. The first year there was no epiphany, although being an inwardly focused person, I was intrigued by the exploration of movement and found joy in that exploration. At the start of the second year, improvement was still elusive and unclear. Slowly things began to change. I was finding a new awareness, new options; my beliefs were shifting, including my understanding of how to do more with less!

I discovered the ease of movement that is possible by doing less. Doing less gave me a powerful tool to take the wonderful information I have learned from years of riding instruction and discover it was not a matter of “digging deeper”. It was a matter of moving differently. For example, the instruction to “grow tall” in order to establish or maintain balance in the horse’s movement initially resulted in my frozen posture mentioned earlier. The understanding of how to elongate my spine without any active pushing or effort now results in a sense of both fluidity and stability in my seat. This enables the shoulders and arms to remain soft. This small, seemingly effortless movement creates a powerful reference point from which the horse can find balance.

My riding has improved significantly. I stay much calmer about training challenges. Creativity in teaching has emerged and my eye to see movement has become keener. All have set the path to self-learning. Although I still consider it a possibility, I have not achieved the elite level once sought. Instead, there are new things to explore since new ideas, solutions and awareness seemingly appear out of nowhere making the process fascinating, more pleasant and efficacious!

It has been a journey of discovery that’s been at times painful, but now is more enjoyable. I hope my story has inspired you to explore the possibilities of the Feldenkrais Method®. For me, it is a powerful tool in finding a new level of ease and effectiveness in my riding. Once again my gut feeling can be trusted- an advice given to me by my trainer at one point. More importantly by changing me, my relationship with my horses has improved and it is my belief they are benefitting from greater clarity in my interactions with them.