Monthly Archives: September 2012

Alexander Technique in the Saddle – Origins

FM  Alexander on Horse

FM Alexander on Horse

Saddle work has a long history in the Alexander Technique. In 1955, a 4-year- old girl with spina bifida started having lessons with FM Alexander. She didn’t have the use of her legs and was unable to sit up. But Alexander was confident that if he could get the girl to stand, he would be able to help her walk.

Alas, Alexander died soon after their meeting. But his assistant teachers had a bright idea. To help the youngster gain more balance, they worked with her while she sat on a toy donkey. It was fun for the girl and easier for the teachers. She was able to sit comfortably on her sitting bones and the teachers could help her overall co-ordination and get release on her legs.

As she grew, the donkey was replaced by a wooden trestle with a horse’s saddle. By the time she was 13, the Technique had helped her build up enough upper body support to start to walk with callipers and crutches. This led the way forward to leading an independent life, going to university, driving and working.

In time, saddle work expanded and was also used to work with other Alexander students. It is an enormously helpful way to get undoing and lengthening in the legs. Our legs and hip joints often tend to get very tight and tense, particularly with the amount of sitting in modern life. Saddle work can also help with lower back pain, particularly in the lumbar and sacro-iliac areas.

In fact, sitting in a saddle is often feels easier than sitting in a chair, as the balance is directly on the sitting bones. Also, excessive tensions in the legs and the hips can release, often including those we are unaware of. Often we are not even aware we are holding tensions unnecessarily. The Alexander Technique helps us get to the tensions even held below the radar.

For horse riders, practising on a wooden horse with hands on guidance by an Alexander teacher helps to get a sense of a good seat, without needing to grip with the legs, buttocks or back. And a wooden horse won’t respond to any riding signals so is a good opportunity for experimentation!

FM Alexander himself was a keen horseman, as was his assistant Walter Carrington. Today horse riding and Alexander Technique have close connections. See Back-in-the-saddle-thoughts-on-recovery-riding-and-the-alexander-technique written by one of our students, a rider.

The next HITE ‘Improve your Seat’ workshop is from 1:30 – 4:30pm on Saturday 6th October at 10 Harley Street, London W1G 9PF. Designed especially for riders, you will gain insights and experiences through the application of the Alexander Technique on how you can find a comfortable posture and even seat on the saddle and discover a more harmonious connection with your horse. For further information and to book your place click on Improve Your Seat – Riding and Alexander Technique Workshop today.

Back in the Saddle; thoughts on recovery, riding and the Alexander Technique

by Leonie (Beadie) Charlton – Alexander Technique pupil of Claire Rennie & Erica Donnison

Last year felt like the longest of my life.  January through to August, when I finally had spinal surgery, felt like an interminable blur of pain.  Progressively debilitating back pain had forced me to stop my beloved work as an Equine Podiatrist, stop riding, walking, swimming, cycling, housework, even cooking was nigh on impossible.  In terms of my ability to helpfully participate in my life, with three young children and all that entails, I felt next to useless.  As I became increasingly out of kilter physically, so too did my mental and emotional balance tip dangerously.  It was a frightening time looking into a forbidding sea-swell of unknowns, and most starkly terrifying of all to me was the thought of no longer being able to enjoy my longest and truest passion, riding.

I had two herniated discs, one of which had oozed into my spinal canal and was crushing the sciatic nerve, giving me extreme nerve pain down my right leg and buttock.  The pain forced me into my own body in a whole new way; anyone who has experienced the final stages of childbirth will know the sense of total absorption that comes with intense pain. I see now that the whole experience was like a birth for me; I am brimful with gratitude with where I am now, how my relationship to my back, to my self, to my riding, to my life has changed.

It took something pretty serious for me to change habits that were damaging me, yet now the philosophical emotional and practical applications of the Alexander Technique that I have been able to integrate has brought me so many gifts.  I wouldn’t change anything.  It is an ongoing process of unlearning and learning, of doing and non doing; as a friend (in her mid seventies, who still rides extensively and beautifully) said recently, ‘if you cant enjoy the process you haven’t got a lot going for you!’.

I went into hospital with my vast array of painkillers, a book of Mary Oliver’s poetry and several on the Alexander Technique.  I spent the eight weeks following surgery learning a whole new level of awareness of my body, I was following FM Alexander’s directions as much as I could, by reading, by listening to CDs and from the few Alexander Technique lessons I had had previously.  I had no choice but to move very, very slowly; I had to think carefully about every movement I made and took the time to pause and consider before I did anything.  It was in many ways the perfect opportunity to change old habits that had clearly been causing me harm, mainly by doing things with a ‘pushing through/ driving/ no matter if it hurts’ mentality.  Pain had become normal for me over the years, something to be stoically ignored, almost part of my identity.  Well thankfully my body just wasn’t going to put up with that indefinitely.

Eight weeks after surgery I took my horses along to a riding clinic.  I was unsure and pretty anxious on several levels; I didn’t know how the surgery may have affected my riding, the horses had had a long time off so I had no idea how they would be, and I also had a big question around whether I may have lost my nerve.  The minute I was in the saddle I could feel myself different; I was almost totally focusing on my self and my own body, constantly checking in and asking if I was holding tension anywhere, and letting go if I found any.

My horse loved it, after 9 months with no work he gave me the most beautiful trot work I had ever had on him.  Forward, rhythmically and working through his back.  I was overjoyed, I can remember very clearly thinking ‘I don’t want this to end, ever..’. I felt like we were floating together.  I was with my horse, and he was able to flow forwards because my body was free of restrictions.  I could not have had more positive feedback from him.  I was in heaven.

At the end of the session my riding teacher said ‘wow, that’s the best I’ve ever seen you ride.  Eight months off has been great for you.  What’s happened?  What have you changed what have you been doing?’  I paused for a moment before answering with certainty ‘I’ve been really focusing on the Alexander Technique… and I have been letting go’.  Horses are such honest mirrors for us, the minute we do something differently they change.  How we use our bodies makes all the difference to how they can use theirs, and they will show us in an instant the difference between ‘use’ and ‘abuse’.

It takes a great deal of attention and practice to really change habitual patterns of tension, of posture, even of thought.  That is where the AT is so incredibly powerful; the technique is a fantastic tool for helping us become really body aware, to be able to turn off all the muscles we don’t need in a given moment, to turn on just the ones required, and then to turn them off again the minute they are no longer needed.  To the horse, a creature who lives so wholly in the present, that makes complete and utter sense. It is meaningful conversation.  With the help of the AT I am quicker to notice when and where I am holding and can use the directions to help release the blocks.

My riding teacher often says ‘hold nothing’; we give an aid and then immediately we go back to neutral with our hands and legs, if we hold on, hang on or squeeze on anywhere in our body we effectively set up resistance in the horse’s body, and all they can do to stay safe from our mixed messages and clumsiness and heaviness is to switch their own lightness off.  To ride well, really well, it involves incredible self awareness, and is a lifetime’s work, it is a constant meditation, it is an art, and I feel happy and honoured to be somewhere along the humble beginnings of this path.

Paying close attention to what is happening with our own bodies is a fascinating and health giving process, and when you are further rewarded for that close attention by your horse moving more fluidly and happily beneath you, it is massively motivating.  I love these words by the poet Roger Housden, ‘It is our attention that honours and gives value to living things…  When I pay attention, something in me wakes up, and that something is much closer to who I am than the driven or drifting self I usually take myself to be.  I am straightened somehow, made truer, brought to a deeper life’.  To me that resonates beautifully with the practice of the Alexander Technique.

*****

it’s the quality of the spine that influences the horse’. Perry Wood

our good posture is the only thing we have over the horse’.  Eric Herberman

The shoulder in is like herbal tea. It is a potion with medicinal qualities. When you ride it, let it go slow and let it steep.  Let it brew half the value of tea like this is in the careful meditation during its preparation’.  Anon 17th century

Sit well, do nothing, and let the horse do’.  Colonel Mario de Mendoza

*****

Our grateful thanks to Leonie for sharing her experiences.  The next HITE ‘Improve your Seat’ workshop is from 1:30 – 4:30pm on Saturday 6th October at 10 Harley Street, London W1G 9PF. Designed especially for riders, you will gain insights and experiences through the application of the Alexander Technique on how you can find a comfortable posture and even seat on the saddle and discover a more harmonious connection with your horse.  For further information and to book your place click on HITE Improve Your Seat Riding and Alexander Technique Workshops today.