The voice on the phone sounded frustrated. “My horse, Kali*, won’t bend to the right. No matter how much leg or even spur I use, it’s a struggle. One of my friends at the barn gave me your number. I think she was tired of hearing me complain about my horse! Anyway, she thought you could help, but I’m not even sure what you do.”
I explained to the caller, whose name was Jill*, that I needed to work with both her and her horse. “Me?” she asked. “But it’s my horse who is stiff to the right. I work out and stretch every day. What do I have to do with it?”. “That’s what we have to find out”, I answered, smiling.
After two decades of helping improve the movement and performance of horses and riders, I have seen first-hand how much equestrians influence their mounts’ movement. “To best help the horse, I have to work with the human too”, I explained to Jill. So she scheduled a Feldenkrais® session with me.
A week later, Jill was sitting on a chair in my Feldenkrais office. “I feel perfectly even”, Jill said, even as I could plainly see that she was putting more weight onto her left seatbone. Jill’s right ribs were held more closely together than her left ones, causing her to side bend a bit to the right. The right side of her pelvis was held higher than her left, giving her the appearance of a “collapsed hip”. In Jill’s case, this asymmetrical sitting caused her to throw more of her weight onto her left seatbone. No wonder her horse had difficulty turning to the right!
But it all felt perfectly normal to Jill, who had probably been sitting like that for several years. So I asked her to slide her hands under her seatbones. “Ouch!” she exclaimed, as she pulled her hands free. “My left hand was getting squished!” Then the light bulb went off. “Oh, I get it now”, Jill continued. “That must be what Kali feels when I’m riding her. No wonder her back is sore and tight! I never realized how unbalanced I was”.
It was not surprising that Jill didn’t feel her own crookedness, since the nervous system often adjusts to a feeling that is habitual, even if it is an asymmetrical one. The imbalance feels normal. Sitting heavier on one side, like Jill was doing, is a common problem. It often goes unnoticed by the rider, but not by her horse, who is forced to compensate for the unbalanced load.
Now that Jill knew she was sitting crooked, she immediately tried to straighten herself out. She thought that stretching out her right side might help, but it did not change her long-standing habit. It merely caused tension and imbalances in other parts of her body. Instead, Jill needed to find new, healthier ways to sit so that she would no longer be contributing to her horse’s difficulties. A balanced, flexible position would also keep Jill’s spine supple and pain-free. And that is where the Feldenkrais Method® can be a great help.
Simply put, the Feldenkrais Method teaches people how to stop interfering with themselves, taking the struggle out of riding. Years of sitting behind a desk, driving a car, dealing with stress and nursing old injuries often leads to the development of restrictive movement patterns which overuse parts of the body and lead to pain and stiffness. These habitual patterns become so ingrained that they feel familiar and thus seem “normal.” And the common refrains of “Sit up straight, pull your shoulders back, sit evenly,” etc. usually create more tension in the rider. But Feldenkrais can help you recover the flexible, coordinated and graceful movement of childhood.
Feldenkrais helps riders gain increased awareness of their movement, allowing them to be more aware of their horses’ movement too. This can significantly improve a rider’s timing and coordination of the aids. Balance improves, confidence grows and riding becomes a true pleasure.
Although I also work with riders in the saddle, I generally start by working with riders off their horses, so that they are removed from the situation where the habitual behavior is taking place. I proceeded to give Jill a Feldenkrais session which lasted about an hour. As Jill was lying comfortably on my Feldenkrais table, I used gentle touch and movement to help her release the tight muscles which were causing her to throw her weight onto her left seatbone.
I finished up the session by leading Jill through a Feldenkrais® Awareness Through Movement® lesson so that she could learn to be balanced over her seatbones. This movement lesson also helps improve posture and can relieve back and neck pain that arises from tense, restricted muscles. I’ve printed the full movement lesson on my website (scroll down to the Awareness Through Movement Lesson for Riders) so that you can do it yourself. Click here to view a YouTube video of the first part of this movement lesson.
Helping Jill sit more evenly was only half the solution, though. I had to work with her horse, Kali, as well. I’ll be blogging about how I helped Kali bend better too, so please stay tuned for Part Two! Thank you for reading my blog. Your comments are always appreciated!
Thanks very much to Pam Johnson for modeling for the photo. And many thanks to Wally Johnson for the photography.
Wishing you health and harmony for you and your animal friends ~ Mary