For the Rider
Natural Horse, Natural Rider: Fluid Painfree Riding
If our horses could talk, would we listen?
'Make the impossible possible, the possible easy and the easy elegant.' Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais
'I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man (and woman) to elevate his/ her life by conscious endeavor.' Henry David Thoreau.
Thank goodness for those of you interested in how to keep your horses healthy, smart, and educated through natural means. While you may know what you want from your horse, are you sure you know what your horse wants from your partnership? Food, shelter, safety, good care, fun, lots of love, and maybe some horse treats, may be basics. But, is there something more? Let's listen in on an imaginary conversation between mounts Buddy and Partner to learn more about what our horses want from us as riders.
BUDDY : 'You are lucky, Partner. You don't get ridden much any more.'
PARTNER : 'That's true Buddy, but I actually miss going different places and doing different things.'
BUDDY : 'I don't think I'll ever miss not being ridden again. Those saddles can be sooooo heavy and uncomfortable. My rider squeezes me with her legs. Her grip is so tight that my ribs ache. I can hardly breathe. It's hard to do those circles and turns she wants. She is crooked too, always putting more weight on one side which throws off my balance and gaits.'
PARTNER : 'Now that you mention it, my rider felt stiff as a poker on my back - no bending anywhere. It did hurt. He wanted me to jump, move sideways, back up, do these fancy things, but it felt like a steel rod going through him into me. I was sore sometimes too from the way he rode me, but I tried not to complain.'
BUDDY : 'My rider locks her heels down which messes up my back and shoulders. She wants me to be light on my feet, but with the way she rides me, I can't be.'
PARTNER : 'I remember times when my hips got stiff and sore. I didn't realize it then, but maybe it was because my rider's hips didn't move much. In fact, he had hip replacements a few years ago. He also had a stiff neck……maybe that's why I would get one too. I am glad, after all, that he decided to stop riding me. Being with people is fun, but being ridden that way wasn't.'
BUDDY: 'I wish someone would teach our riders how to move and use their bodies so they would stop hurting us and interfering with our performance. We want our riders to be our buddy and partner. Learning to ride us with suppleness, fluidity and flexibility, would mean we could both move more harmoniously together as one.'
The set of exercises described can be done on either a large exercise ball or a straight, armless chair.
Fluid painfree riding means effortlessly following your horse's movements with your entire body . No more tight hips and legs gripping the saddle, rigid chests and shoulders, hollow lower backs, stiff ankles and necks or rib cages that don't move. When you are free to move, your horse is too. Painfree riding includes your horse as well as yourself. Comfort and performance become the norm for both you and your horse. Your ride becomes safer and far more enjoyable. This series of articles will help you become a fluid, painfree rider.
Many great riders and instructors, from all riding styles and disciplines the world over, espouse that being a good rider means moving in harmony with your horse. The key challenge lies in transforming rigid stiffness and poor habits into the light buoyancy of a free, supple, flexible body. Learning to ride with more fluidity can be significantly enhanced by one of the best kept secrets for years. This method was developed during the 1940's by an engineer, physicist and judo master, Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais. He helped himself and millions of people move more efficiently, effectively and in healthier ways. This Feldenkrais Method of Awareness Through Movement helps re-educate your body, mind and nervous system. You learn how to become aware of habit patterns that interfere with getting the results you want. Regardless of your riding style or level of ability, you discover new possibilities for improving your functioning. This effective method based on neurological principles encourages ease, effortless movements, awareness, and freedom of choice. By doing these movement lessons off the horse you can immediately apply them while mounted. This approach does two things elegantly: it saves your horse the wear and tear from endless hours of poor riding while you are trying to learn something new, and it increases your ability to learn whatever you want faster than you ever imagined.
In this first article you will be given a Feldenkrais lesson known as the 'Pelvic Clock'.
Subsequent lessons in upcoming issues will explore different themes.
Having a free pelvis is a crucial element for being a good fluid rider. In this 'Pelvic Clock' lesson you will learn how to organize your pelvis, spine and hips to move in any direction necessary to follow your horse's movement. This will help you find a deeper, more balanced independent seat, and greater freedom in your hips, spine, and whole body. You will experience improvement in your lateral bending and rising trot. Downward transitions, backing up, and turns become easier for both rider and horse.
The motion of flexing and extending the spine, which is encouraged in this lesson, is essential for the feeling of unity between your horse and you. Many riders over-use certain parts of their spine such as the lower back. This often leads to a hollow, painful, over-arched lower back while the middle and upper back remain stiff and under-used when following the horse's movements. A basic principle in the Feldenkrais Method is that all parts of the spine should do their equal anatomical share of work. Your ability to follow the movement of your horse will be greatly enhanced as your pelvic clock becomes clearer in your mind and easier to do.
This lesson can best be done sitting on an exercise ball of about 75 cm in size because it has smooth, built-in movement due to the ball's shape and size. However, since not everyone has a ball to use, the lesson is presented sitting on a straight armless chair. Read each movement proposal, then do it slowly, with awareness, several times. Repetition is not important; sensing and appreciating subtle differences in the quality of the movement are what is important.
This 'pelvic clock' lesson helps riders learn new patterns of movement and become aware of interfering habitual holding patterns.
1. Sit close to the edge of a straight armless chair. Place your feet on the floor, shoulder width apart. Put one hand on your belly button, the other on your lower back. Move your pelvis so that, without leaning, you gently push your belly button into one hand while moving your back away from the other hand. Sense how this movement changes the shape of your lower back. When your belly button moves forward into your hand, your lower back arches; when your belly button moves backward, your lower back rounds. Find the smallest range of this movement where the quality of moving remains easy and smooth. Repeat several times and REST.
2. Imagine sitting on top of a big old fashioned clock face with numbers on it. 12 o'clock is in front of you and 6 o'clock behind you. When you push forward and gently arch your lower back, you move toward 12 o'clock. When your lower back rounds, as if your rear pants pockets were coming closer to the chair seat, you are moving toward 6 o'clock. Repeat moving from 12 to 6 o'clock several times. Become aware of how this movement translates up through your spine. Can you sense movement in your chest, back or head?
3. a. As you go toward 6 o'clock, let your whole body round. Exhale as your chin moves toward your chest and your head lowers, your eyes looking downward. Notice how your weight shifts back on your seat, behind your sit bones.
b. Move to the 12 o'clock so slowly that you can begin to feel the front of your body start to sequentially lengthen and open up. Continue moving until your head and eyes begin to look upward on the wall or toward the ceiling. Return to neutral and repeat several times. REST, sitting on the chair. Notice any differences in how you feel, your breathing, or the contact your bottom makes with the chair.
4. Put one hand below your belly button on your pubic bone, and the other on your sternum or upper chest. As you move toward 12 o'clock, notice that your belly button and pubic bone go forward slightly and downward. What happens in your hips, knees, and chest? Sense and allow a small uplifting motion to happen through your sternum (breastbone) and rib cage. Thus as you go to 12 the lower abdomen moves downward while your middle and upper chest moves upward. Do a very small movement, as this invites the entire spine to engage in moving into extension. Do you naturally breathe in or out as you do this? Experiment with both patterns and see which enhances the opening of the front of your body. Return to neutral after each extension of your spine. REST, sitting.
5. Move from neutral to 6 o'clock and allow the entire front of your body to fold as your back rounds. Do this slowly and gently so that all parts of your spine become engaged. Look toward the floor between your legs as you fold. Experiment exhaling to see if that helps your folding. REST, sitting.
6. Place both hands with the fingertips in the middle of your chest. As you move to 12 o'clock, let your fingers and hands come apart like a bird opening its wings. As you move toward 6, bring your fingers back to your breast bone. Alternate between 12 and 6 in your pelvis as your chest moves and your hands open wide and come together again on your chest. Imagine for a moment you are doing the rising trot. Find a rhythm that would approximate your horse's trot. Feel how the length of your spine could change and follow your horse's movement. Of course your head will make a much more subtle bobbing motion, rather than looking up at the sky or down toward your horse with each movement. You may want to take a rest by finding a place to lie down. As you do, please observe the contact your back is making with the floor. Does that feel different than usual for you?
7. Sit again on your chair and imagine your clock face under you again. Sense if there is more weight on your right or left buttock or sit bone. Generally one side will make better contact than the other. Now imagine 3 and 9 on your clock face. 3 would be to your right and 9 to your left. Move your pelvis slowly from neutral to 3 several times. Then move from neutral to 9 several times. Appreciate differences between the two sides as it may be easier to move to one side or the other. Does it have a relationship to the buttock which is lighter or heavier? This probably happens in your saddle too, although you may not notice it. It may even throw off your horse if your weight is significantly heavier on one buttock.
8. With your pelvis, make a slow circle exploring each quarter of your pelvic clock. Do each segment slowly so you can really feel which parts (hours) of the circle are smooth and easy and which aren't.
a. Move from 12 o'clock through 1, 2 to 3 o'clock and back again to 12, several times.
b. Move from 3 o'clock slowly through 4, 5 to 6 o'clock and back to 3, several times
c. Move from 6 o'clock through 7, 8 to 9 o'clock and back to 6, several times.
d. Move from 9 o'clock through 10, 11 to 12 and back to 9, several times.
e. Move from neutral position or the center of the circle to each hour and then back to the center again. Which hours are clear, easy and smooth, and which ones aren't?
f. REST, sitting again. Notice if the contact with your chair and buttock or sit bones feels any different. Perhaps you are more aware of the bottom of your pelvis.
9. Very slowly, make a complete clockwise circle several times. Then make a counter-clockwise circle. Go slowly and know exactly which hour you are on. Appreciate which hours are easy and which are difficult. See if you can you let your entire spine and rib cage become involved in these circles, so that they are also tracing circles in both directions. Imagine you have a hula-hoop around your ribs, waist or shoulder girdle which can also follow the movements of your pelvic clock. REST, sitting.
10. Sit and move your pelvis from the center or neutral position to approximately 10:30 and return to neutral. Repeat several times. Then move from neutral to approximatey1:30 and back again several times. Alternate moving between neutral and 10:30 and neutral and 1:30. Feel what happens in your hips as you do this. This movement replicates following your horse's shoulder movements. Continue doing this movement and imagine riding your horse at a walk.Can you feel his/ her rhythm? Let your hips follow this movement on your pelvic clock. Explore either side of 1:30 and 10:30 as there are slight variations depending on the horse and your riding style or saddle.
11. Imagine you are on your horse. Bring your hands up as if holding the reins. Continue moving your pelvis as if you were following your horse's natural movements through approximately 1:30 and 10:30. Experience your pelvic movements and their subtle rippling through your ribs and back into your hands and elbows creating a very soft, slight swinging motion. You are not pulling on your horse's mouth; you are letting a dance happen between your horse, your pelvis, your arms, and your elbows. Your shoulders may get into the dance as well. It is a very light, pleasant movement. For riders who have been encouraged to keep their chest still, this will be a very new experience. Riders with grips of steel or locked elbows will discover new options. REST.
12. Sitting on your chair, move your pelvis from neutral to approximately 5 o'clock and neutral to approximately 7 o'clock. Let it ripple through your whole body. Alternate between these hours and neutral. Imagine actually doing these on your horse. These subtle movements can be used when cueing a horse to back, turn on the forehand, spin, or do a half halt. REST.
13. Sitting, once again, slowly circle through every hour of your pelvic clock. Pay attention to your knees. Sense your knees also making small circles. Can you let this movement ripple down through your ankles and feet as well? Appreciate if one leg is more free in the knee, ankle or foot than the other.
14. Sit and move your pelvis from neutral to the 1:30 position. Allow your right knee to lengthen in that direction as well. Then move from neutral to 10:30 and let the left knee lengthen too. Alternate each movement so that each knee lengthens slightly. Notice that your foot also makes a slightly different contact with the floor as you do these movements.
Riders who grip with their knees end up restricting the natural movement through their hips, lower back and pelvis. This is why many riders experience strain and pain in these parts of the body. Riding with fluidity, each step your horse takes encourages your entire body to follow their movement.
15. REST, sitting. Sense any differences in the contact your left and right buttock make with the chair. Do you feel more balanced than usual? Walk around and notice the freedom in your pelvis and other parts of your body.
Next time you ride, attend to your pelvic clock in the saddle. Appreciate how your weight changes in your saddle. Some saddles however will 'lock' you into only one position and not allow for a free moving pelvis. Observe if you can feel 'deeper in your saddle'. You may feel your center of balance lower, below your belly button where it really is. Many people ride with the center of balance high in their chest or shoulders. Of course this increases the possibility of falling off the horse.
This 'pelvic clock' lesson for riders may need to be done many times as you learn new patterns of movement and become aware of interfering habitual holding patterns. You may want to explore these movement proposals in different positions - varying your relationships to gravity. For example, try this lesson while lying on your back, with your knees bent and feet on the floor. Lying down provides support for your back. Your muscles are freer to change. Another interesting way to do this lesson is on all fours - your hands and knees. This gives you an opportunity to experience what happens in your horse's back too. When a horse's back is overextended it is generally from carrying the head too high or from a sway back caused by any number of things. When a horse rounds and comes on the bit, he is flexing his back. A horse's back may also be rounded while bucking. In this position with you on all fours, at 6 o'clock your back will be rounded and you will be flexed. At 12 o'clock your back will be hollowed out and you'll be in extension. Let all the hours of the pelvic clock move through your entire spine and into your head and shoulders.
Next time you ride after doing this lesson, please focus on your body movement for awhile. Let your horse's rhythm move through your entire body. If you sense yourself holding or bracing parts of your body, experiment letting go and allowing these parts to fully participate in the movement. Enjoy your more flexible, fluid body.