Alexander Technique: Horseback Riders

The Alexander Technique is a century-old educational process in which the student learns a set of skills that he or she can apply in all facets of life. One of the assumptions underlying this educational process is that most people carry more muscle tension than they need in order to carry out activities. The first skill that students learn, then, is how to lessen these areas of undue muscle tension. Second, they learn that, without the interference of the tension, they can cultivate a more natural alignment of their head, neck and spine that has associated with it qualities of balance, strength and coordination. Overall, knowledge of these skills allows students to move and carry out activities with greater ease and less effort.

There are a number of ways in which the Alexander Technique is helpful for riders. In order to describe its benefits, let me introduce the topic of communication between horse and rider. Riders know that communication with their horse is one of the fundamentals of good riding. What some riders don’t realize is that we communicate with our horse not only through the aids we give, but also by the way in which we use our bodies. This “body use” is often unconscious. Muscles, responding to stimuli from the environment, and to our perceptions and attitudes, develop patterns of undue tension. Although we may not be aware of these patterns, our horse does perceive them in addition to any aids that we give. In this sense, we may safely assume that the horse’s experience sometimes echoes that of Ralph Waldo Emerson when he said: “What you are shouts so loudly in my ears I cannot hear what you say.”

There are two ways in which our patterns of tension may affect our ride. First, if we have undue tension when we are asking our horse to go forward (for example, when we ask for the canter depart), then this will create a contradiction for our horse. That is, our aid says, “Go!”, while any increase of muscle tension in other parts of our body says, “Stop!” As a result, we may wonder why our horse is slow to respond to the aid, or seems resistant.

One of the results of this situation may be that we will add to our horse’s level of tension. In fact, if we ride a particular horse over a period of time, and we are consistently tight or stiff in a specific area, then the horse may become stiff in that exact same area! Sally Swift calls this phenomenon comparable parts. (The phenomenon is described in an article entitled “Gain Without Pain”, by Sandra Cooke, in Practical Horseman, February, 1993.)

But what does all this have to do with the Alexander Technique? As you might have guessed by now, one of the central benefits of the Alexander Technique is that it helps us to gain awareness of our unconscious patterns of tension and to reduce them. It provides a concrete, step-by-step means of undertaking this process. Ideally, through this process, we attempt to become as aware of ourselves as our horse is of us.

There are a number of results of this process. First, our communication of the aids becomes clearer. When we give an aid, that’s the only thing our horse “hears”, since we’ve reduced the contradictory “background noise” caused by our areas of tension. As a result, if our horse is resistant, we’ve reduced one of the possible causes of that resistance, namely the unconscious messages that we may have been giving our horse. And in many cases, this eliminates the horse’s resistance!

Second, by reducing the “noise” caused by our areas of tension, we gain greater awareness of ourselves and of our horse. Our feel for the ride dramatically improves. My experience of riding while pursuing this process is that I can sense increasingly subtle aspects of the horse’s movement. For example, in addition to being able to sense the rhythm and tempo of each gait, I can sense when the horse’s right hind leg is carrying extra tension – and what the relationship of that leg is to the horse’s back! In fact, all riders can develop this awareness through practice – and the Alexander Technique proves an invaluable tool in doing that.

Third, the freer we are of undue muscle tension, the easier it is to follow our horse – for example in the sitting trot. For muscle tension is the main culprit in causing extraneous movement in the rider. As we lessen that tension, we gain greater control and greater ability to “receive” and follow our horse’s movement. It’s amazing how, on subtler and subtler levels, we can quiet ourselves, in such a way so that our only movement (other than the aids) is a direct result of the horse’s movement.

Finally, our aids can become increasingly subtle: we can ask questions of our horse with a whisper when we used to have to ask with a shout. This is partly because, as I mentioned, the background noise is less and also because the horse’s tension, and therefore his resistance, is less. And this doesn’t mean that we are at all passive in relation to our horse. We can be extremely active in making a decision about what we want and communicating it to our horse – and we can do this with a minimum of undue tension, that is without compromising our receptivity in following our horse as he carries out our request.

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I’ve discussed the benefits for riders of reducing muscle. Perhaps the most important benefit of all is that it helps riders to pursue self-carriage in their horse. In this sense, the Alexander Technique dovetails beautifully with classical horsemanship, for many riders and teachers of horsemanship agree that “doing less” plays an important part in developing self-carriage.

Let me offer two examples of this. I once saw a banner in a riding arena that said, “Where force ends, dressage begins.” Second, let us consider Charles de Kunffy’s description of self-carriage in his book The Ethics and Passions of Dressage. He says that, first and foremost, self-carriage must involve the relaxation and stretching of the horse’s musculature, which will “facilitate the horse’s ability to absorb the concussions of the impact on the ground throughout his entirety and, therefore, reduce or even eliminate trauma to his joints and muscles.” He goes on to say that, if we want to achieve this result, then “all tensions and blocking of mobility caused by harsh hands, should be avoided. The hands and the reins should neither inhibit the horse’s strides, nor confine his neck. The horse must have utter freedom from restrictive rein contact. Instead, one ought to offer a soft and steady hand — and at times even a yielding hand — independent of the balancing activities of the rider, to a confident horse that is stretching towards the bit and seeks an even contact with it.”

De Kunffy is clearly arguing that one prerequisite of self-carriage is a lessening of undue tension. But what exactly is self-carriage? What are the elements that make it up? Let me offer a simple description. First, as we saw in the de Kunffy quote, self-carriage involves the horse’s head leading forward and out from a free and flexible neck and poll. This is sometimes referred to as the horse going “in the bridle” or “on the bit”. In other words, we want the horse’s head to move not into a set position, but in such a way so that he meets the contact of the bit and of our hands, with his mouth. At the same time, he lifts his back, so that it becomes rounded, as well as free from tension. That is, ideally he is experiencing “throughness” in the relationship of his head, neck and back. Finally, his hindquarters become deeply engaged – paradoxically so that his forehand (head, neck and shoulders) can lift and lighten. The latter is sometimes referred to as the “relative lifting” of the forehand. That is, the rider does not directly lift the horse’s forehand. Rather, the rider helps the horse to engage his hindquarters and then the horse’s forehand will lift automatically. The effect is not unlike that of a seesaw, except that the movement of parts that we are after is much more internal and subtle than the movement of an actual seesaw.

Here again, it turns out that the Alexander Technique dovetails with the teachings of classical horsemanship. For the Alexander Technique has at its heart the cultivation of a new and more natural alignment of the student’s head, neck and back, known as the primary control, that has striking similarities to the self-carriage that riders look for in their horse! (This is true even though F.M. Alexander, who developed the technique, was an actor by profession, and knew nothing about the discipline of classical horsemanship.)

For example, if a person’s primary control is working well, then this means that her head becomes poised, leading slightly forward and up from a neck that is free of tension, while her back lengthens and widens to stay slightly behind her head. All of this could be called throughness. As you might imagine, the only difference between throughness in the human being and throughness in the horse is that the former is taking place in a vertical plane, while the latter happens in the horizontal plane. Finally, the person’s legs lengthen toward her heels and she allows her feet and heels to settle onto the floor or into the stirrups (engagement of her hindquarters). Then, in a circular progression similar to that of self-carriage, this grounding and deepening of her feet and legs allows her upper spine to lift and lengthen, while her head becomes even more poised.

Now it’s important to point out that, like self-carriage, the primary control is not a position. While it has as one of its byproducts the correct form, whether for dressage or for jumping, the primary control actually involves a relationship of head, neck, back and heels that has a dynamic quality and that allows for freer, more flexible movement, regardless of the position or activity. This dynamic relationship emerges most of all when we attend to – and lessen – any areas of tension that are interfering with it. To sum up, a popular saying in the Alexander Technique is that when we stop doing the wrong thing, the right thing does itself.

Given its emphasis on the primary control, the Alexander Technique can be seen as a kind of dressage for humans. (Don’t worry we don’t make our students do half-pass or flying change of lead or any of the other dressage movements!) The beauty of the Alexander Technique, though, is that, if the rider employs it to cultivate a more natural relationship of her own head, neck, back and heels, then this can become a tool for improving the horse’s self-carriage — not by doing something to the horse, but simply by changing herself while she is in contact with her horse. (Recall the phenomenon of comparable parts. Luckily, this same phenomenon can also work in a more positive direction.) Thus, the Alexander Technique provides a wonderful complement to all of the other tools that have been developed over the centuries in the pursuit of self-carriage.

From the above discussion, it may sound as if the Alexander Technique is only suitable for students of dressage. In fact, that’s not the case. Whether you’re eventing or competing in the hunter-jumper ring or involved in any other riding discipline – or even if you’re a recreational rider – the Alexander Technique can help you to improve your riding.

Let me end on a more personal note, by describing how I work with riders. In order to teach them about the benefits of the Alexander Technique, I work with them in two ways. First, I give them lessons in the Alexander Technique, away from the horse. And second, I work with them on horseback. The lessons on horseback involve a combination of Alexander Technique “hands-on” and more conventional horseback riding instruction. Of course, the exact mix of approaches depends upon the needs of the specific rider and horse.

Article by Adam Bailey, teacher of the Alexander Technique in the Boston area.