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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.

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.