Improve Your Ride With The Alexander Technique, Part 1

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In order to function well, we need a certain amount of muscle tone.  Unfortunately, though, most of us have more tension than we need, because of the stress of daily living.  This tension interferes with the natural alignment of our head, neck and spine – and that’s one reason why so many of us are in pain or have difficulty with activities.

Through private lessons in the Alexander Technique, you can become aware of your unnecessary muscle tension and reduce it.  At the same time, you can rediscover the natural alignment that we all had as children.  This alignment will give you better balance, coordination, and ease of movement.


I once gave lessons to a woman in her forties who came to see me because she was having trouble with her horseback riding.  I’ll call her Andrea.  Andrea was a very serious amateur rider with a lot of experience:  she’d owned horses ever since childhood.  She’d focused on hunters and equitation when she was young but as an adult she’d shifted her focus to dressage.

Andrea told me she had three issues she wanted to work on.  First of all, she’d been in pain off and on for a few years.  The pain was on the left, in her low back and her hip.  There were also times when she had pain down her left leg.  She told me that the pain was often worse after she rode.  On the other hand, when she took time off from her riding, it improved.  She’d had an MRI which showed a mildly bulging disc – but she said that she wanted to avoid surgery if she possibly could.  She’d tried both physical therapy and a cortisone shot but neither of them had helped.

Second, she was concerned because her horse had gradually become more resistant.  He was more and more sluggish in his response to her aids.  More than once she’d had the vet take a look at him and she’d had his teeth checked but neither the vet nor the dentist had found anything wrong.  She’d also bought a new saddle but that hadn’t helped.  Since she’d covered all those bases, she wondered if her riding might be contributing in some way to her horse’s resistance.

As Andrea was describing her situation, I thought she had the potential to be an excellent Alexander Technique student.  She was a thoughtful person and extremely conscientious.  Most of all she cared about her horse and she didn’t want to do anything to hurt him or get in his way.  She said more than once that, if her riding was somehow making things worse for him, she would gladly change her approach.

Andrea mentioned one other issue.  She said that sometimes when her riding instructor gave her a suggestion, she had a hard time figuring out how to carry it out.  It was difficult for her to translate her instructor’s words into a given feel or a given aid.  In addition, her instructor would say, “Try not to get tense.” or “Try to relax.”  She found that confusing because she wasn’t aware that she was tense.  She also didn’t know what to do to relax.


Andrea Discovers Her Tension

During her first couple of lessons, I noticed that Andrea did in fact have some excess tension.  Her tension was causing her shoulders to become rounded and it was causing her head to go forward and down.  In addition, she was leaning slightly to the left in her upper body, which was putting extra pressure on her left hip and left leg.  I pointed out those tendencies to her – but more importantly I did some hands-on work to help her reduce the tension that was causing them.  At first, I did that while she was lying on my massage table.  Then I also showed her that she could continue to subtract the tension while she was standing, walking and sitting.

Those experiences created a contrast for Andrea.

“My body has felt a lot quieter after these lessons,” she said at the end of the second lesson, “so now I can see that, a lot of the time, I am kind of tense.  I’m finally beginning to understand what my riding instructor has been saying all this time.”

I explained to Andrea that she’s not alone.  The vast majority of adults in our society have excess tension.  It may be caused by a given activity, such as riding, or by the stress of daily life.  Whatever the cause, it gradually becomes deeply ingrained: it becomes habitual.  Then it’s there all the time, no matter what we’re doing – even if we’re not aware of it.

To help Andrea understand her habits, I told her to think of the refrigerator in her kitchen.

“Think back to a time when you were in your kitchen,” I explained to her, “and all of a sudden the refrigerator shut off.  Then you realized that, all this time, it had been making a noise, a background hum, that you weren’t aware of.  It was only when the hum stopped and the room got quiet that you noticed the hum.”

For most adults, our tension is like that.  It’s there all the time in the background.  If you take Alexander lessons, your teacher will help you “shut off” the tension for the first time.  Then the contrast will help you realize how much “noise” there was all along – and also how quiet your body can potentially be.

The good news is that your teacher won’t just give you experiences of less tension.  She’ll also show you how you can reduce your tension on your own.  This is what makes the Alexander Technique so unique.  Your teacher won’t just give you a fish, so to speak: she’ll actually teach you how to fish.


Practicing The Alexander Technique While Riding

Andrea did in fact turn out to be a conscientious and thoughtful Alexander student – and she worked hard to incorporate my suggestions into her life.  From the very beginning, I worked with her not only in my office but also when she was riding.  She’d said that her riding made her back pain worse so I thought it was important to help her in that area also.

When I first worked with her on the horse, I made it clear that I wasn’t trying to take the place of her riding instructor.  I emphasized that I’m an Alexander teacher who works with riders, not a riding instructor.  So during this lesson, we were going to focus much more on Andrea than on her horse.

Watching her ride, I immediately noticed that Andrea was a very experienced rider.  Yet she also had the same pattern of tension that I’d noticed in the office.  Once again she was rounding her back and her shoulders and her head was going forward and down.  At the same time, she was leaning to the left.  I also noticed that, because of her tension, she wasn’t following the movement of her horse as well as she might have, and her hands weren’t following the movement of her horse’s head.

So here again I did a lot of hands-on work with Andrea.  Of course I had to use a mounting block so that I could reach her while she was sitting on her horse.  Once again the hands-on work helped her reduce the muscle tension that was behind her pattern.  At the same time, I began to realign her head, neck and spine.

When I’d done that, Andrea told me that she felt as if was leaning to the right in her head, neck and upper torso.  So that she could understand what was happening, I had her walk her horse around so that she was facing the mirror.  Then I did some more hands-on work and realigned her head, neck and spine.  While I was doing that, I told her not to look in the mirror.

“As I’m working on you,” I asked her, “do you feel as if you’re leaning to the left, leaning to the right or straight?  Without looking at yourself, just tell me what you feel.”

“I feel as if I’m leaning to the right,” she said.

“Okay, now look in the mirror.”

“Oh my gosh!” she said. “I’m absolutely straight.”

“There is a good reason, though, why you feel as if you’re leaning to the right,” I explained to her.  “You’re used to being off to the left.  Then when I change your alignment, you’re more to the right than usual.  It’s going to take a while to get used to the change.

“By the way you’re not alone,” I continued.  “This is something everyone experiences during their Alexander lessons.  In fact it’s so common that F.M. Alexander gave it a name.  He called it faulty kinesthetic perception.”

As a final step, I had Andrea try riding with her new alignment.  For a few minutes she was able to maintain that alignment – but then her old pattern began to come back.  When it did, I had her stop and we did a few more minutes of hands-on work in front of the mirror.  During the course of the lesson, we repeated this series of steps a number of times.

Gradually, Andrea began to get used to the new alignment and she began to feel more comfortable and less tense.  At the end of the lesson, I asked her if she had any questions.  In response, she brought up her horse.

“Every time you did the hands-on work with me,” she said, “my horse felt a little bit less resistant.”

I explained to her that the rider’s tension can sometimes contribute to the horse’s resistance.

“When a rider has extra tension,” I said, “this sets up a contradiction for the horse.  For example, when a rider who has tension gives her horse the canter aid, she’s telling her horse to go – yet at the same time her tension is saying, ‘Stop.’  Because of this contradiction, her horse may be slow to respond or he may become resistant.”

When I think of the horse’s experience in that situation, I always think of something Ralph Waldo Emerson said:

“What you are is shouting so loudly, I can hardly hear what you’re saying!”

Of course I explained to Andrea that most riders are not trying to give their horse contradictory messages on purpose.  Once again most of us are not aware of how much tension we have.


Comparable Parts

I also told Andrea that I’d noticed something else about her horse.  At the moments when he was being resistant, his resistance took a very specific form: he would go on the forehand and lean against the bit.  Sometimes he also tipped his head to the left.  I explained to her that this might be an example of what Sally Swift, the founder of Centered Riding, called comparable parts.[i]

Comparable parts is something that can arise between a rider and her horse.  If the rider is consistently stiff in a certain way, or in a certain area, then her horse will begin to develop the exact same stiffness.  Recall that, in Andrea’s case, she had a tendency to round her shoulders and go forward and down.  She also leaned to the left.  Meanwhile, her horse had begun to develop those exact same tendencies: he was going on the forehand and he would tip his head to the left.   He was not doing this because of any aid that Andrea was giving him but because, in general, horses tend to reflect what their rider is doing.

“Yes it’s true,” Andrea said as we were discussing her horse’s tendencies.  “He does tend to go on his forehand and lean against the bit much more than he used to.”

“The cloud has a silver lining,” I explained to her.  “If you change your pattern of tension, your horse won’t go on the forehand as much.  He’ll change also.”

“You know I’ve noticed something else,” she said.  “When we’re going to the left on the circle, he has trouble holding the circle.  He always falls out to the right.”

“That’s probably because you’re leaning to the left, which opens the door for him to go to the right.  If you keep your head, neck and back aligned and establish your right sit bone and right leg, he won’t be able to do that.  Of course as you found today, that new alignment is going to is going to take some getting used to.”

In any case, Andrea continued with her Alexander lessons, both on the ground and in the saddle, and she continued to make wonderful progress.  First of all, she was able to address her tendency to round her shoulders and torso and lean left; as a result, her back pain gradually improved.  In addition, her horse became much less resistant and much more responsive to her aids; he didn’t lean against the bit nearly as much.

There were three reasons for this.  First, she was addressing the main cause of his resistance, namely her own tension.  Second, her communication of the aids became clearer.  When she gave her horse an aid, that was the only thing he “heard” now since she’d reduced the contradictory “background noise” caused by her tension.  As a result, she found that she could give him subtler aids.  She could ask him questions with a whisper instead of with a shout, so to speak.  Finally her horse was less resistant because she was following his movement better, both with her hands and with her seat.

There was another benefit of the lessons.  Andrea began to have an easier time carrying out her instructor’s suggestions.  She was more aware of her body now and she had a better feel for the ride.  In addition, she had less tension interfering with what she wanted to do.  As a result, she could figure out more easily how to give a certain aid, or create a certain position with her seat, leg and hand, when her instructor suggested that.

[i] See the article “Gain Without Pain”, by Sandra Cooke, in Practical Horseman, February, 1993.