Alexander Technique and Athletes/Equestrians

Athletes & Equestrians

“Through the Alexander Technique I was able to rehabilitate my running after 25 years of being unable to run through injuries, to the extent that I was able to set ten world records for veterans in 1982.” – Paul Collins, Canadian National Marathon Champion 1949-52 and veterans world record holder.

The Rider and the Alexander Technique

equestrianMost riders would agree that getting on a horse who is tense, uptight, hurting, off-balance, or unfocused is counter-productive. In fact, too much time on a horse like this can actually cause similar problems in the rider. Conversely, how we are when we mount a horse has a huge impact on the animal, as well as the quality of the ride. From dealing with anxiety in beginning riders or trainers, to smoothing out the subtlest of issues for the professional, the principles of the Alexander Technique are enormously valuable tools to take to the ring.

From Sally Swift to Mary Wanless and beyond, this technique improves not only the balance and ease of the rider, but the quality of communication with their horse, and even issues in the horse itself.

Because the Alexander Technique has such a huge and instant impact on balance, “horse people” who come for lessons find their time in the saddle impacted, even without discussing the act of riding! Specifically applied, with some guidance from the teacher and a mirror (!), students come to understand how to gauge what true balance is, and how to begin finding it on their own. We look as well at what the horse itself feels when a rider is even slightly off-balance or overworking. The larger implication, then, becomes how simple changes in the rider can lead to profound changes in the horse. The bottom line is always that people are drawn to horses for the sheer joy of being with them, so riding should not have to be a “no pain, no gain” kind of event, but rather a striding towards harmony in rider, horse and their partnership!!

Lisa Ingleton, AT Student ~ A new line of thought for sitting trot

“Sitting trot has always been tough for me. I find that I tighten my legs, back and shoulders in an effort to cling to the horse and stay with the motion. My horse has modified her own behavior by slowing her trot. I would imagine she does this for two reasons. The first would be that it must feel like one long, unreleasing half-halt. Secondly, if she slows down and jogs, I release the death grip on her back.

“I brought the problem to Candace in one of our weekly sessions. We tried some different scenarios while working with an exercise ball. First, I bounced up and down on the ball in more “normal” sitting trot and then Candace gave me two thoughts to work with. Instead of sitting into the ball, I thought of directing my energy out the top of my head in an arc forwards. Adding the “forward” aspect into the “upwards” thought keeps me from using the old riding adage where you sit up by hollowing your back and bringing your shoulders together in a military posture, which creates tension. Candace’s sitting up is more of a lengthening of the spine.

“The second thought was to think about my tailbone moving in the direction of my horse’s tail. This doesn’t mean that I stick my butt out, instead, it is a very subtle “thought”. With the two changes in place I tried bouncing on the exercise ball again. I found that I had much more balance and flexibility. To test out the difference, I reverted back to my old style and took hold of the practice reins that Candace has. When Candace applied gentle, forward pressure on the reins, I came right off the ball. When I changed back to my new sitting trot position, Candace could not pull me off the ball, even with far greater pressure. Candace said that the horse’s motion is forward and down so we would try the opposite motion of upwards and back.

“My next step was to try this on my horse. After warming Kyra and myself up with rising trot, I relaxed into sitting trot with my two new tools. By directing my energy upwards, I found that I was no longer bouncing all over the place. When I added the thought of directing my tailbone towards Kyra’s tail, I found that I stayed with her motion and no longer fighting to keep up. Kyra moved forward in the same trot that she has when I post and she did not try to slow down at all. I found that I was much more relaxed and could also lengthen my legs because of the lack of tension in my body.”

Lisa carries the Alexander Technique into a riding lesson

In my last session with Candace I asked for her help with one certain aspect of my riding. Because Diamond carries his head at an angle or off to one side, I find that I always have tension in my outside rein in an effort to keep him straight. My wrist, forearm, elbow, even my shoulder, are all tight as I use my body to “hold” Diamond straight. Candace had me sit on the exercise ball while she became my horse. Through the reins, we reconstructed the effort used with Diamond.

Not only was the tension in my body, but Candace felt it and reacted to it as the “horse”. She felt stiff to me. I couldn’t even maintain my seat on the ball! Candace asked me to visualize the energy “out through the top of my head” and “down to the horse’s tail” as we did with the sitting trot exercise. Candace had to show me how to find the “connection” as it was difficult for me to do it on my own. I only found it twice while on the exercise ball, but I had an idea to take with me to the barn.

When I got on Diamond last night for a riding lesson, he was very soft, right from the beginning. We started by really using the corners to find suppleness and bend. Diamond’s barrel was bending around my leg although his neck was very straight through the corners. When we picked up the trot, Diamond was immediately working from his hindquarters and very swingy and powerful. I worked with the ideas I had from Candace for the first half of the lesson.

When we took a rest break, I explained what I was doing to Suzanne (our riding instructor), Diane and Mary. I did this because I wasn’t quite where I wanted to be and thought that by talking out loud, I could remember more from Candace. Both Diane and Suzy clicked with the idea right away and Suzy sent us back out for more work at the trot. We started on a 20m circle at rising trot and then spiralled slowly in to a 10m circle at sitting trot, then leg-yielded back out to the larger circle and picked up rising trot.

The difference was amazing. All three horses were light and supple and moving forward (even in the heat). With the riders, Suzy noted that all three of us had quiet, steady legs, balance over our lower bodies (not tilting forward), and were able to sit the trot. At the end of the lesson, Mary said that this is the first time she didn’t feel she was going to fall off at the sitting trot. Diane and Chester had a connection I’ve never seen before. Chester was so tuned in to Diane, it was magic. When Suzy asked for the final walk, Diane didn’t want to stop!

Diane adds:

Lisa, I think you described it very well. It was an amazing ride at the end. For me the first part of the ride was not as nice as Lisa’s but one thing I was trying to work on was using my lower leg more effectively (instead of using my heel to apply pressure, which means I lift my heel and pop out of the saddle, I was focusing on using my calf only and it was starting to get there by the break). Then with Lisa’s telling us about what she had learned from Candace the rest of the ride was amazing!!!!! I really didn’t want to quit even though I was exhausted because Chester felt so good and I felt good on him. I can hardly wait to get out and ride again and practice some more.

An off-horse lesson, in Kerry’s words….

As I arrived at Candace’s, her previous client was leaving. She told me to head downstairs to her studio as she wanted to check her messages. While I waited I “checked myself” in the mirror. I had been concerned the day before that my belly STILL seemed to be sticking out. This is frustrating as I only weigh 125 pounds, work out regularly and eat pretty decent. Candace came down the stairs and caught me with my hand on my stomach. This led us directly to what needed to be addressed (even if only for my sanity!).

Candace explained that although my posture (for lack of a better term ) had improved tremendously, I still hold (something) in my lower back that causes a slight hollow, which in turn pushes my stomach out. Candace asked me how I ideally want my horse to carry itself. I said (as I demonstrated), “We want them to lift their stomachs and lengthen through their topline,” (like a slight arch – not rounded, but certainly not hollow).

Candace explained with excitement that that was exactly how I needed to be. It is interesting to note that when I demonstrated the “lifting” of my horse’s stomach I did NOT suck mine in… although it disappeared! Candace suggested we crawl on the floor, thinking about how a horse moves, leading with their head, body following, but with a sort of circular energy (not dragging the body along). The first interesting thing (that Candace expected I’m sure) was that my back was no longer hollow and my belly disappeared!

It is important to note at this point that our eyes were looking at the ground to get this effect (no arching of the neck or looking where we were going in order to keep a consistent connection from head to tail). We also discovered that although our eyes were down and we were thinking out our heads, we could only see the ground/surroundings directly in front or next to us. And certainly we could not see behind. YET, we moved with perfect ease and confidence!

Furthermore, we discovered that we could “SENSE” when we were approaching an obstacle (whether in front of, over us, or behind us) before we could ever see it! Candace had a wonderful analogy that when a person is moving like this (in a most primitive state), they are “in the moment”, can only see directly in front of them, not to be distracted by what lies behind, ahead or might be distracting around you! Perhaps there is a life lesson here?