In the previous article, I described Andrea’s Alexander Technique lessons. Once again, Andrea learned how to reduce her excess muscle tension. As a result, her back pain went away and her riding improved. Among other things, her horse became less resistant because she’d addressed the source of his resistance: her own tension.
The thing is that Andrea made another key discovery during her lessons. As her extra muscle tension melted away, she learned that she could cultivate a more natural alignment of her head, neck and spine that gave her better balance, coordination and strength. Once again, I helped her to develop that alignment in simple activities like sitting, standing and walking – and she also discovered that she could maintain it when she was riding.
As she learned more about her alignment, and it began to improve, I explained to her that there’s an important parallel between our alignment and our horse’s alignment. Our optimal alignment is the human equivalent of self-carriage in the horse – so in a way the Alexander Technique is like dressage for humans. Of course it goes without saying that there is one major difference between our alignment and the horse’s alignment: our spine is vertical while theirs are horizontal.
Optimal Human Alignment And Equine Self-Carriage
What are the parallels between human and equine alignment? First of all, when you’re embodying your best alignment, your head becomes more poised. It goes forward and up in relation to your neck, which is free of tension. That’s similar to what the horse does when he reaches towards the bridle and towards the contact. His head goes forward and away.
Most riders have had the experience where their horse stretches to meet the contact. On the other hand, you might not know what it means for your head to go forward and up. Here’s a way to think about it. If your head is going forward and up, then it’s not going back and down. Back and down is the human equivalent of above the bit. Of course, the other thing that can happen is that your head can go forward and down. Once again that was what Andrea’s head was doing when I first met her: that’s the human equivalent of on the forehand. So if your head isn’t going back and down and it isn’t going forward and down, then it’s going forward and up.
Here’s another example of a parallel between your optimal alignment and your horse’s self-carriage. Once your head is poised and going forward and up, then your back can lengthen and widen to stay slightly behind your head. That’s similar to what the horse does when he lengthens his topline and lifts his back. As your back lengthens and widens, it lifts and expands slightly – very much like the horse’s back.
Interestingly enough, the forward and up movement of your head and the widening of your back can take place at the same time. In fact, the two movements actually make up one overall movement. Think of it this way: your head and your back are like the two ends of a seesaw. They’re linked and they move together, even though they’re going in different directions.
As you might imagine, those same movements can take place in your horse. He stretches his head and meets the contact – and at the same time his back lifts. Here again, the two movements make up one overall movement.
There’s one more crucial element in optimal human alignment. Ideally, your legs can lengthen toward your heels and you can allow your feet and heels to settle into the stirrups. Or if you’re standing on the ground, you can make sure that your heels are planted. Then, in a circular progression, this establishing of your heels allows your upper spine to lift and lengthen, while your head becomes even more poised. Once again it goes forward and up.
All of this is similar to what happens in your horse. He engages his hindquarters, which involves a gradually increasing flexion of each hind leg during the weight-bearing phase of his gaits. This engagement allows his forehand (head, neck, withers and shoulders) to lift and lighten. This is known as the “relative lifting” of the forehand. The horse’s forehand lifts indirectly, as a result of the engagement of his hindquarters.
Here again, the analogy of the seesaw works well. As one end of the seesaw moves – that is, as the horse’s hindquarters become more engaged – then the other end of the seesaw will naturally move at the same time. His forehand will naturally begin to lift. That’s just like what happens if you put a big kid on one end of the seesaw: the little kid on the other end will naturally go up.
In the case of human alignment, there’s another analogy that also works well. Think of what happens when you bounce a ball. When you plant your heels, that’s like dropping the ball or throwing it toward the ground. Then when your upper spine moves slightly upward, that’s the moment when the ball comes back up again. That second movement, the lifting of your spine, happens indirectly, as a result of the first movement, the planting of your heels.
Become The Change You Wish To See In The World
Once Andrea had begun to uncover this optimal alignment of her head, neck, back and heels, she experienced a number of benefits. Among other things, I explained to her that her improved alignment could become an “aid” for improving her horse’s self-carriage.
“Now I’m talking about a very special kind of aid,” I said. “You’re not doing anything directly to your horse; instead, you’re changing your alignment while you’re in the saddle.”
I said that this is similar to the phenomenon of comparable parts.
“In the case of comparable parts,” I continued, “there’s a negative effect. The good news is that you can cultivate a relationship with your horse where you have a positive effect on him by making changes in yourself. Your improved alignment can lead to improved self-carriage in your horse.”
When I think of this relationship between horse and rider, I always think of what Mahatma Gandhi said – that you can “become the change you wish to see in the world.” In the case of riders, they can become the change they wish to see in their horse.
So to sum up, the Alexander Technique provides a wonderful complement to all the other techniques and aids that have been developed over the centuries for creating self-carriage in the horse. In Andrea’s case, she of course continued to take riding lessons while she was taking Alexander lessons – and she continued to practice more direct aids for developing self-carriage in her horse, while she was improving her own alignment.
Some final thoughts about optimal alignment in both rider and horse. First of all, it doesn’t involve a position. If you cultivate this alignment as a rider, it will lead to very good form, whether for dressage or for jumping or for any other discipline – but it actually involves a relationship of your head, neck, back and heels that has a fluid, dynamic quality and that allows your movement to be freer and more coordinated, regardless of the position or activity. Of course, the same is true of the horse: self-carriage is ideally based on suppleness and fluidity, rather than on putting the horse in a fixed position.
Second, optimal alignment has a circular quality. I began this chapter with the relationship of the head to the neck – but once you improve your alignment, and once the horse begins to experience self-carriage, an improvement of any one relationship between parts will help all the other relationships, and will improve your and your horse’s overall way of going.
Finally, I want to say a few words about F.M. Alexander (1869-1955), the founder of the Alexander Technique. After reading these articles, you may think that he developed the technique for riders, but that’s actually not the case. His father was a farrier, he did grow up on a farm in Australia, and he did ride throughout his life. But to my knowledge he never thought a lot about horse movement, or about the parallels between self-carriage and the optimal alignment that he discovered in humans.
Early in his life, he took up acting as a hobby – but then he began to lose his voice when he was onstage. To find out why that was happening, he set up mirrors and observed himself while he was reciting. He eventually made a number of discoveries that helped him get his voice back. As a result, he decided to become a professional actor. He also began to teach his discoveries to his fellow actors, and to the general public. Today, there are several thousand Alexander teachers throughout the world. If you’d like to find out more about the Alexander Technique, you can go here and click on “Where Does The Alexander Technique Come From?”