Release your poll first, human!

You probably all know this situation: You are riding in the arena, practising something or other and it’s just not working quite right today. Then someone steps in and you stop for a brief conversation. A few minutes later, you pick up the reins and, all of a sudden, everything works smoothly. You experience one of these glorious moments when you and your horse become one, almost like a centaur (a picture I like to use when trying to convey this feeling to my students).
I borrowed this analogy from Klaus Balkenhohl, a German veteran dressage rider and star instructor. He uses this situation to explain how the horse regenerates its muscles in this break and how important it is to drop the reins every now and then and grant it a break.

I’d like to look at this situation from the viewpoint of the rider: What happens to your body when you are interrupted by a friendly conversation?
That’s right, you relax! And when we are relaxed, our horses are happy.

Look at this happy horse stretching forward-downward, marching relaxed and motivated round the arena with my friend Clarissa (who, not expecting too much from her first ride in a dressage saddle, is nice and relaxed herself):

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Five minutes later, I sat on the same horse in the same arena and then something happened to me that many riders struggle with: I fell into performance mode!
Even though I try and not do it, it still happens sometimes, this silly idea of having to show a perfect performance. The result: nothing worked!
My perfectly relaxed, happy and warmed-up horse tensed up and wasn’t cooperating with anything, not even his favourites: extended trot and half-passes.
Why? Because I mounted and immediately started giving aids, probably way to intense and I didn’t give him or myself time to loosen up and find a connection.

This is why it’s always better to warm-up your horses yourself!

Quite recently one of my riding students made me aware of something called “The Alexander Technique”. She told me about this course she had attended and the instructor helped her understand some fundamental issues in her posture, particularly when sitting or riding and how these issues interfered with her seat and aids. I was intrigued.

So I started reading and watching youtube videos, the way I usually research anything that might help me in my own riding and especially with my teaching others.

What I learned is that many postural problems come from the fact that we unknowingly refuse to let go of our own tensions, which leads to sore muscles and all sorts of pains.

The Alexander Technique follows three major principles: Observe, Inhibit, Direct.
So I tried to apply it to my sitting at a desk, lugging moving boxes (oh yes, we moved to the country side last week!) and, of course, to riding. Here’s the results of my self-experiment:

  1. Observing habits I displayed when mounting, sitting, driving and giving aids. And boy, there’s a lot of unwanted stuff there! A forward rolling right shoulder, a tensed up left shoulder, a shortened and backward-drawn neck, a crooked right waist – as a result a stretched-out left hip, …
  2. Inhibiting these unwanted tensions was harder. So I tried to stretch out my neck, up up and forward to loosen the muscles at the base of my scull – my “poll” if you will. I squared out my shoulders and balanced my hips and waist. And generally made sure every step of the ride not to curl or tense up in any way. Easy said…
  3. Directing I interpreted as a prolonged idea of what I was trying to fix in step two – basically a general sense of up, building an image in my mind that I was much taller than I though, but also much more relaxed than I am.

It’ll be a long way to really creating a new posture and body image altogether, but I will continue to work on myself, having added a mirror to my office and maybe asking some folks I go trail-riding with to tell me when I forget to be tall and relaxed.

For any of you interested in learning more about the Alexander Technique (that isn’t my personal interpretation), here’s a link to plenty of resources: http://www.alexandertechnique.com/

“The Alexander Technique is a way to feel better, and move in a more relaxed and comfortable way… the way nature intended.”

Even though I know – and teach – that you need a clear mind and a fit body for riding, I still struggle with it sometimes.
I tell students to meditate in the car after a stressful day in the office before even walking to the stable and to do breathing exercises in the saddle before starting warm-up. All this to quieten the mind and be in the “now”, that’s where you horse is all the time: in the present!

But then, there’s also the physical aspect of tension.
Horses have this immediate calming effect on me, they work like Valium to me. I arrive, put my boots on, walk over, get breathed on by one of the horses and I have forgotten about the aggravating call earlier, the overdue project deadline and time itself. I can make the switch to “now” in an instant when with horses… but my body can’t let go of it all that fast. The aforementioned call still sits in tight shoulders, the project deadline in a tense back – and since my mind has forgotten about it all, I need reminding to ease up my body.

And this is important, to actually look at yourself and notice what’s hurting. It’s important for your well-being, as much as your horse’s. You’ve probably heard of the phenomenon that a horse you ride regularly will start mirroring your physical problems: a sore right shoulder won’t take long to transfer to your horse – and then your training needs adjustment because the horse is crooked! I wonder how often this happens…

A much better way would be to try and avoid this altogether, by taking better care of yourself – get that shoulder checked out! You might require a visit to an Osteopath or some physical therapy – if you are overall tense and sore (like after moving house), maybe treat yourself to a massage, a hot bath or a sauna to loosen up before thinking about riding again.

There’s plenty of fun to be had outside the saddle. Here’s Wesley inspecting a scary loop, having a hard think if the goodie is worth walking through it or not…

It’s time for the 2016 Olympics in Rio and I am looking forward to watching the Dressage Gran Prix tonight.
But when I am watching tonight, I will not only watch for the perfect seats of the riders, the amazing moves of the horses (and my ever-present criticism of noses behind the vertical – this needs changing in this beautiful sport!), but I will also watch out for tall and relaxed postures, for how the riders carry their heads, shoulders, arms and hands – and hopefully take something away for my own arena work.

So, dear riders – whatever way you ride and whatever goal you might pursue with your riding – remember to relax your own poll first! Your horses will thank you.

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