Horse Talk – How We Translate Our Body Language to Our Horse

 

Let’s face it, we all have postural habits or compensation patterns that we wish we didn’t. Some of us have super tight hips, some have frozen, or partially frozen shoulders, some bad knees, an unwanted twist in our torso, a scoliosis, an old broken ankle..and the list goes on. And we use these excuses to affect our riding, we say , oh I can’t do that because of x, y and z..

What if we didn’t let these habits/patterns stop us? What if we delved into understanding how they are limiting our best possible “use” and we discover a way to work with, or better yet even change that pattern or habit.

When I was in my mid 20’s I was in practically constant back pain. At the time I was Three Day Eventing and driving many miles from my upstate NY home, to Massachusetts, Conn, and Pennsylvania to compete. My best friend, who I competed and traveled with had a Dad who was training to become an Alexander Technique Teacher, and she mentioned that he might be able to help me. I was living on a bartender’s wages and could not afford much and he was still in school, a 3 yr 1600 hour program, and not able to charge till he graduated, so I said yes!

I will not go into too much detail here but that decision was one of the best and most pivotal decisions of my life. Not only did working with Wade Alexander get me out of pain but it began my journey to revolutionizing my life and my riding. Even though I had a “condition” a spondylolisthesis, and scoliosis, it was not my “condition” that was causing me pain but rather how I was affecting that condition by my poor postural habits.

What Wade did for me was to teach me FM Alexander’s Discovery, which mainly consists of learning about the relationship of one’s head, neck and spine in activity. This may sound very simple and in some ways it is but the end result is increased awareness of how my body works and therefore the beginning of my discoveries of how my body is affecting my horse.

Whether we like it or not we carry our habits into all of our activities, and they are often the most pronounced in the activity we are the most passionate about.

So what if by delving into a process of self discovery we could actually better understand why our horse is always stiffer going left, or falls in on  a circle right , or can’t seem to take the left lead consistently, or locks his jaw against my right hand, or just runs through my aids, and as mentioned before , the list goes on and on..

Could we be the cause of some of these behaviors?  Perhaps..

Years later, in my mid 40’s I became trained as an Alexander Technique teacher and these days my passion is to help Equestrians gain knowledge of the many ways they are affecting the best possible performance and relationship with their equine partners.

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What’s the Purpose of All This?

I have had a bit of a lull from writing lately . I lost both of my parents in a period of 2 months and it really rocked my world.

This whole feeling of being an orphan is really an odd one and it has taken some adjustment. I also think there was a part of me that was always trying to prove myself to them, mostly subconscious, but after they passed I think there was this void of who am I trying to impress now?

That brought me to writing today, to remember why I wanted to reach out in the first place. And it really has nothing to do with impressing anyone. It has to do with speaking my truth and by throwing it out there into the etherspere, and seeing if it resonates with anyone else.

When I look back through my horse history I see when I made a profound shift in my perspective on my riding and training. There was definitely a “moment”.

It was sometime in the early 2000’s and I was at a dressage clinic. I was riding a horse that I had purchased from this clinician about 6 months earlier. I was quite nervous to “do a good job”.

Probably because of that, you know how that goes….Things were not going well and the instructor had us racing around to his constant barking of “more forward!!” for so long we were both getting frazzled. Because we were not getting the desired result he said let me get on the horse and get it done, and intimidated , I said OK.

Well this was a rather large man, compared to me anyway, and when he went to mount my horse the saddle slipped slightly off to the left and the horse took off bucking , dumping the “esteemed” instructor and GREATLY bruising his very over inflated ego.

Well this went very badly for my horse, who now needed to be made an example of having infuriated the clinician. As I watched in great despair, my poor horse was running around the arena wild eyed and totally panicked as the mountain lion he imagined had climbed on his back had in fact done just that. I was horrified and totally frozen in space, having no idea how to interject to save my horse in front of all these people who had paid a lot of money to be here, and who thought whatever this man said was gospel.

When he had finished his demonstration of dominance on my horse he beckoned me back on to exhibit that my horse had learned what he wanted it to and now he wanted to show me the results. I really don’t remember the rest of that lesson, it was a total blur as I was so full of remorse on how I had let my horse be treated that I just got through it. What I do remember most clearly was as soon as I left the arena and got back to my trailer I jumped off my horse, threw my arms around his neck, burst into tears and sobbing to him, said “I am SO, SO SORRY, and I will never do that to you again, to you or any other horse!”

That brings me back to What’s the Purpose of All This, because in that moment I made a decision. It was to always put the welfare of my horse first and to never let myself be intimidated into treating my horse or any other animal for that matter in any way that was disrespectful of them. The welfare of my horse, when in my care, is dependent on me.

So from that day forward I have sought out trainers, mentors, clients who believe the welfare of the horse is the top priority when working with them. And I am happy to report there are many out there! Unfortunately there are many that are not and that saddens me a great deal.

For today my experience is that if you ever find yourself in a situation where the trainer, clinician, farrier, vet, or whomever you are asking to help you with your horse, is not putting your horses welfare first, walk away!

Phase 2 -Effortless Riding

In my last blog, Effortless Riding or Riding with Less Effort we discussed what we bring to our ride, or how to generate “state” in preparation for our ride.

I had a friend recently say to me “My mare is REALLY working for me!”

What do you suppose she meant by that?  Since we are quite good friends and based on some other comments after that declaration I know that what she meant was that she was experiencing a wonderful , harmonious relationship with her mare and that the result was thrilling! They were in sync, there was collaboration going on.

Another comment she said was “I have figured out how to organize my ride to suit her”.

So does this mean giving over complete control to the horse, no, but it does mean taking into consideration how that horse works the best. What type of warm up works best, a long walk on a loose rein, lots of stretch work, some lateral work, or ground work before getting on, or a combination of those?

Each horse comes to the ride with their own needs and preferences and if we don’t take them into consideration we are losing a valuable asset to our ride and our training program. If we get on and declare, “this is the way it is going to be, we are doing this, this and this, in this order..”we are going to create a dictatorship and not a collaborative experience. Some horses really enjoy working and have a very strong work ethic. With those horses it is easy to get and stay very serious and we may have to interject some play and fun into the ride to make sure those A type personality horses don’t burn out. Some horses need a bit more coaxing to want to work and we might only be able to do serious training a couple days a week and do other things such as gymnastic exercises, hacks out, trail obstacle work, cavaletti.

I have a horse who has told me in no uncertain terms that 2 days a week is his limit for dressage work. Since dressage is my discipline of choice at first I found this very frustrating and tried to change his mind. Not a good idea! Talk about too much effort-ting..oh my, he would work very hard for me for those two days and after that Rider Beware! Spook, buck,  any excuse to say, no way!

So I learned and didn’t die in the process! And it has made me become a much better partner to him, we came to an agreement and really have learned some fun things to do in the process. He needed a lot of variety so I had to stretch myself as well and learn some new things . So as I said in my first blog, which is worth repeating is to ask the horse what are you here to teach me? If we remain open and receptive our horses are always teaching us, but are we always listening?

So what does all this have to do with Efforting or not Efforting. Well the bottom line is how do we find that balance between achieving our riding goals and keeping our partners happy? I know for myself when I am trying to make it happen, That is a red flag! I am off track and need to look at what I can shift to get me back in harmony with my horse.

Yes there are times you have to make something happen, to stay safe etc but I am not talking about that, I am talking about during my ride, when I feel frustrated, when I have that grimace on my face, my horse is tense, he has that grimace on his face..those are all what it looks like when I am trying to make it happen. Usually starts in the neck, my neck, his neck , which of course works it’s way down through our whole bodies till we both feel stiff as boards, Whoa! Pause, re direct..this is NOT working, what can I do in this moment to shift this?  Of course all of this is happening in a split second and there is very dynamic movement going on , how do I get back into the flow of this movement, feel what is happening in my body that is creating this tension and how to shift it into something that works but is not over working?

Here in lies the challenge , and most of it has to do with gaining a better understanding of my body and how it works. What I know from my years of training and teaching Alexander Technique is that I can reorganize my head , neck and spine relationship, and by doing so I can help my horse reorganize that relationship as well. This takes clear thinking combined with good body mapping, skills I try to convey to my students as well. I don’t get it right all the time but I really enjoy the process and when I see my horse release tension and feel that glow of a great ride come back I know I am on the right track.

Happy Joyful Holiday Rides To You!!!