Trish, sitting on the comfortably padded table in my office, was there because she was having difficulty with her horse. Trish made an appointment for a Feldenkrais session after reading about my work in the AHSA publication, Horse Show Magazine. She had been frustrated for a long time by her horse’s apparent stiffness and had decided to explore how she might be contributing to her horse’s difficulties.
Riding, like many sports, demands coordination and timing. It also requires that elusive quality, “feel.” Feel is the ability to carry on a subtle two-way dialogue with your horse, so that horse and rider act as a single, intelligent unit. Feel requires a heightened awareness of self that is often lacking in our stress-filled world.
How can the Feldenkrais Method help riders improve their skills and achieve feel? Simply put, the Feldenkrais Method teaches riders 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 unhealthy and restrictive movement patterns which overuse parts of the body and lead to pain and stiffness. These habitual patterns become so ingrained that they are lost from our awareness. The restrictions feel familiar and thus seem “normal.” We no longer realize that we have the potential to be flexible, coordinated and graceful. The freedom of movement we had as children seems a distant memory. Feldenkrais can help you recover it.
What is so extraordinary about the Feldenkrais Method is that it does not attempt to correct or manipulate. Rather, it is an educational approach that is relaxing, pleasurable and supportive. Using noninvasive touch and movement, a Feldenkrais practitioner clarifies for the client what he is really doing and helps him explore more effective movement options. This sensory learning approach is in contrast to attempting to make postural changes through force of will. The familiar refrains of “Sit up straight, pull your shoulders back, sit evenly,” etc. often fall short of their goal as they can create even more tension in the rider.
Gently running my hand over Trish’s back, I noticed the tension in her muscles. She mentioned that her back ached at times. I was not surprised, seeing how hard her muscles were always working!
When muscles remain habitually contracted and tense, they are weaker than softer, supple muscles. Chronic muscular contractions also interfere with free movement and can lead to pain, stiffness and joint difficulties. They also inhibit feel.
Sitting heavier on one side is a common rider problem which often goes unnoticed by the rider… but not by her horse, who is forced to compensate for the unbalanced load. I asked Trish to feel how her weight was distributed over her seatbones. She noticed that she was hardly aware of her right seatbone, but could feel her left seat bone pressing into the table. Slipping her hands, palms up, under her seatbones confirmed this finding. She realized she was squishing her left hand uncomfortably under her weight. “So this is what my horse feels! No wonder his back is sore and he’s always drifting to the left!” Trish exclaimed.
I proceeded to give Trish a Feldenkrais session which lasted about an hour. 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. As Trish lay comfortably on the table, I used slow touch and movement to help her release the tight muscles which were causing her to throw her weight onto her left seatbone.
I also led Trish through an Awareness Through Movement (ATM) exercise that helps riders learn how to be balanced over their seatbones. This easy-to-do exercise also helps improve posture and relieves back and neck pain caused by tight, tense muscles. The movement lesson is printed below.
At the end of the session, Trish discovered that her weight was much more evenly distributed. And this felt comfortable and natural, not forced. When she stood up, she felt half a foot taller! Her back was softer and more mobile and her walking took on a graceful quality.
Feldenkrais helps give riders an increased awareness of their movement, allowing them to be more aware of their horses’ movement. This can significantly improve a rider’s timing and coordination of the aids. As riders gain independent use of each hip, seatbone, leg, shoulder, hand, etc., they can match their action with their intention. Balance improves, confidence soars and riding becomes a true pleasure.
Many people believe that a supposed weakness or bad habit must be overcome through some rigorous, forceful routine. One of the most rewarding benefits of Feldenkrais is the realization that improvements in ease of movement can be learned in a pleasurable instant. Flexibility, coordination and power then increase automatically. Feldenkrais-inspired riders understand that the same principles apply to their horses. They realize that a horse’s difficulty in responding to their aids is not usually a result of disobedience, but often stems from confusion or pain. And these riders first look to themselves as a possible cause.
This understanding leads to more harmonious partnerships with horses as well as a desire to help horses learn how to move with ease and elegance, rather than riding with force and gadgets. As is true with people, improvements in equine movement prevent wear and tear on joints and increase strength and stamina.
Another day, I worked with Trish while she was riding. I’ve created various exercises, done mounted, that improve rider balance, posture and coordination. Working with the rider aboard also allows me to observe how her horse reacts. Is he tightening his back in response to his rider’s movements? It’s likely that her horse has been compensating a long time for an unbalanced rider and he’ll continue to react defensively out of habit. By working with the rider up, I can help both horse and rider learn to move easily, elegantly and harmoniously.
Over the years I have helped many riders whose problems included: rounded shoulders, swinging legs, tight shoulders and hands, errant heels, stiffness, poor balance, aching backs and necks, sore knees, collapsed hips or carpal tunnel syndrome. While Feldenkrais does not take the place of proper riding instruction, it can be a remarkably effective tool for maximizing the potential of both horses and riders.
Awareness Through Movement® Lesson for Riders
Balancing Your Seat Bones
To see the first part of this movement lesson as a video, please click here.
Sit on a hard or firmly cushioned seat. A tack trunk often works well. Sit on the forward edge, resting your hands on your thighs. Your feet should be flat on the floor, hip width apart. Feel how your weight is distributed over your seatbones. Does one side feel heavier?
Slide your hands underneath your seatbones, palms up. Does the pressure on your hands feel even? Now try palms down. Does that change the pressure on your hands? You may need to sit on a folded towel if your hands are getting uncomfortably squished.
Gently shift your weight from one seatbone to the other. How do you do that? Try it various ways. Can you shift while keeping your spine straight and leaning to one side? Can you shift your weight by lifting one side of your pelvis while your head stays in the middle? What other ways can you shift your weight? How do you use your weight aids when you’re in the saddle? See if you can make it a subtle and discreet movement.
Is it easier to shift your weight onto one seatbone than the other one? Many people will discover that they have an easier side. Note which side is easier for you. Remove your hands and rest.
With your feet flat on the floor, gently lift the right side of your pelvis a little bit. Just lift and lower it. Repeat that movement a few times, noticing the ease with which you can do that. Your right foot will press a little into the floor; don’t let the heel come up.
Now let that go and lift the left side of your pelvis a few times. Which side is easier to lift? Pause and sit normally. Did those few movements change how you are sitting? Sit back in your chair and rest your attention for a moment.
Come forward onto the front of your chair again. Put your right hand on top of your head and, with the help of your hand, gently take your right ear in the direction of your right shoulder. Do not turn your head – you will be facing forward, with your nose straight ahead. Just bring your right ear toward your right shoulder. Do not strain your neck.
As you bring your right ear to your right shoulder, feel how the ribs on your right side get closer together and the ones on your left side get farther apart. Can you exhale as you bring the ear toward the shoulder?
Only do what is easy and comfortable. It’s a small movement. If putting your hand on your head is uncomfortable, simply do the movements without putting your hand on your head.
Do this movement a few times, releasing all unnecessary tension in your body. You may find that you were clenching your jaws, holding your breath or even tightening your toes! None of those will help you move easier; they only interfere with your freedom of movement. So let them go!
As long as you are comfortable, gradually let the movements get bigger, but continue to move slowly. Pause in the starting position between each movement. Repeat each movement several times (about five to ten times, but it is preferable to not count the repetitions). These directions apply to all the following movements.
Pause and rest. Lower your arm.
As you do the movements outlined in this lesson, please do not stretch or strain! Do very small, slow movements. The idea is to feel how you do the movement. Your range of motion will increase automatically as you learn how to do the movement effectively and easily. Let comfort be your guide. There should be no pain or strain at all. Discomfort interferes with learning and impedes improvement. If you have pain or limitation, this may mean you will be making a very tiny movement! If even a very small movement is uncomfortable, just imagine doing the movement. You can create new neural connections by imagining movement.
Rest in the starting position. Now, take the weight off your right seatbone, so that your weight goes onto your left seatbone. This is a small movement of lifting the right side of your pelvis. Return to the starting position and pause. As you lift the right seatbone off the chair, feel how the ribs on your right side come closer together and the left ribs spread apart. Do this movement several times. How are you breathing? Can you relax your legs, shoulders and neck while you do this?
Put your right hand on the top of your head. Bring your right ear toward your right shoulder as you take the weight off your right seatbone. Can you feel how the right ribs come closer together and the left ones farther apart? Your spine will make the shape of a “C”. Feel how your entire left side is lengthening and the right side shortening? Can you relax while you do this? Do the movement several times.
Pay attention to how you initiate the movement. Where do you start moving? Change that around and initiate the movement from various places. Try first pushing your right foot into the floor to lift the pelvis. The next time think of bending your right ribs to begin the movement. Try various options and see what feels easy and light. Do small, gentle movements, gradually letting the movement get larger if it’s comfortable to do so. Rest as needed.
Rest for a moment. With your arms down, simply tilt your head so that your right ear goes toward your right shoulder. Is it easier? Do you go farther? Do you feel that your chest and neck are more flexible and relaxed?
Can you feel your right ribs getting closer together as your left ribs go farther apart? How many of your ribs are you aware of? Many of us don’t have much awareness of our upper ribs. Can you think of your upper ribs and sternum assisting in this side-bending movement? Pause and rest for a while. Sit back in your chair.
When you are ready, come forward onto your chair again. Put your left hand onto your head and gently take your left ear in the direction of your left shoulder. Do the smallest movement you can make and still know that you are moving. Pay attention to the quality of the movement, the ease of your movement. That is what will improve your movement. Pause and rest. Lower your arm.
With your left hand on top of your head, take the left ear toward your left shoulder as you lift the left side of your pelvis. Make small, easy movements. Is this side easier or more challenging? What is different about it? If you find it more challenging, don’t try harder. Instead, do less and feel more. Can you imagine softening your upper ribs? Your sternum? Your upper and mid-back? How do those places participate? Do your left ribs come together the same way your right ribs did? Can you feel your right ribs getting farther apart?
Find ways of releasing tension in yourself. Smile! Breathe comfortably. Relax your hand that is on your head. There is no need to grip. Your toes can be soft. It’s amazing how we develop unconscious habits of tensing various parts of our body. That only leads to soreness, fatigue and stiffness.
Lower your arm and rest back in your chair.
With your arms down, simply tilt your head so that your left ear goes toward your left shoulder. Is it easier? Do you go farther? Do you feel that your chest and neck are more flexible and relaxed?
Come forward onto the front of your chair again. Put your right hand on your head and take your right ear toward your right shoulder as you lift the right side of your pelvis. Then, still keeping your right hand on your head, take your left ear toward your left shoulder as you lift the left side of your pelvis. It’s the same movement as you did earlier, but now you are keeping the right hand on your head, so you may feel your right side lengthening a bit more as you side-bend to the left. Do only what is easy and comfortable.
Go back and forth, side-bending to the right and left several times. Then lower your arm and rest.
Sit at the front of your chair and put your left hand on your head. As you did a moment ago, alternate side-bending to the right and left. How does this feel? Can you feel one side shortens and the other side lengthens? Can you breathe easily? Do several movements. Now make several very light, quick and small movements, still alternating from side to side. Lower your arm and rest.
Come forward onto the front of your chair again and put your right hand on your head. Take your right ear in the direction of your right shoulder as you lift the left side of your pelvis. That’s not a typo! Your spine will now be making the shape of the letter “S”. Do the movements slowly and comfortably.
Still keeping your right hand on your head, take your left ear to your left shoulder as you lift the right side of your pelvis. Alternate; going from side to side in this way.
Explore how you can make it an easy, light movement. Release any unnecessary tension. Do several movements, and then lower your arm and rest.
Come forward onto the front of your chair again and now put your left hand on your head. Take your left ear in the direction of your left shoulder as you lift the right side of your pelvis. Then take your right ear to your right shoulder as you lift the left side of your pelvis. Again, do the movements slowly and comfortably. Explore how you can make it an easy, light movement. After several movements, lower your arm and rest.
Keeping your arms down, simply take your right ear toward your right shoulder as you take the weight off your right seatbone. Return to the center, then immediately take your left ear toward your left shoulder while taking the weight off your left seatbone. Go back and forth, shortening your right side, then your left side, several times. Are both sides getting easier? Can you make this a light, easy movement? Relax as much as possible as you do this. Are you breathing?
Now rest. Gently take your right ear to your right shoulder. Easier? Take your left ear to your left shoulder. Easier? Return to sitting in the middle. How is your weight distributed over your seatbones now? Are you sitting up straighter and taller? How are you breathing?
Do you remember which side it was more difficult to bend toward? If it was the left side, put your left hand on your head, take your left ear to your left shoulder and lift the left side of your pelvis. How does that feel now? Is it easier? If the right side was more challenging, put your right hand on your head and side-bend to the right. Is the movement possible now that wasn’t possible before?
Are you sitting differently? Do you feel taller too? Shift your weight from seatbone to seatbone. Did that get any easier? Do you feel more balanced?
Stand up and slowly walk around. Since side-bending is a component of walking, many people notice how this lesson improves their walking too! Next time you are in the saddle, notice how you distribute your weight over your seatbones. Many equestrians find it useful to review this lesson before they ride to help them stay balanced.
Try This Easy, Effective Exercise!
Lie down on the floor with your legs straight. Notice how much space is behind your lower back. If your back hurts, bend your knees. Otherwise keep your legs straight. With your arms at your sides, lift your head for a moment to look at your feet. Notice how high your head lifts easily. The key word is “easily.” Don’t strain, please! Make a mental note of how high your head went.
Please bend your knees and place your feet about hip width apart.
Cross your hands over your sternum (breastbone). Gently press down on your sternum. Does it feel springy or immovable? Can you feel movement in your chest as you do this? Gently press down on your sternum several times. Think of your sternum as simultaneously going closer to the floor and closer to your pelvis.
Now slowly lift your head as you press down on your sternum with your crossed hands. Does your head lift higher? Slowly lift your head a few times while gently pressing down on your sternum.
Straighten your legs. Cross your arms over your chest and simply lift your head to look at your feet. How does this movement compare to the first time you lifted your head?
For most, the movement will be much easier now because you are no longer using your neck muscles to lift your head. Instead, you have learned to soften the sternum and ribs and allow the powerful muscles of the ribcage and abdomen to do the work of lifting the head. In addition to being biomechanically efficient, using the large muscles of your body reduce strain and help diminish back and neck pain.
Contact Mary if you are interested in scheduling a private Feldenkrais session in Encinitas, CA (North San Diego County). To find out how you can improve your posture and help reduce back pain and stiffness in the comfort of your own home, please refer to our Products page.
To understand how your horse can benefit from bio-mechanically efficient movement too, refer to the articles The Secret to Rounding Your Horse’s Back.