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Exploring with the Feldenkrais Method®

"We should differentiate between improvement of ability and sheer effort for its own sake. We shall do better to direct our will power to improving our ability so that in the end our actions will be carried out easily and with understanding." Moshe Feldenkrais

I ride for the challenge. I ride for the exercise. But most of all I ride for the joy of it! I have ridden since I was a child; I have ridden competitively in dressage, eventing and endurance, completing the Shahzada Endurance ride successfully. I have coached equestrian vaulting to international levels and riding at Pony Club. I am a qualified physiotherapist. When I was introduced to the Feldenkrais Method®, I found new ways to extend and improve my riding 'feel' through increasing my kinaesthetic sensitivity, the brain's sense of movement.

Podhajsky says that "Feeling is as important to the good rider as hearing is to the musician."(1) This feeling is difficult to explain. So it is taught by giving feedback on exercises as they are ridden. And increasingly, today by encouraging the rider to make their own assessment of a movement, which requires the ability to notice in detail the movements and relationships of our own and our horse's body.

Seunig instructs "The first reciprocal action of the aids consists of the rider driving his horse on, by means of his back and leg muscles, from the rear to the front, first into a hand that 'gives' and later a restraining hand."(2) These instructions in themselves speak to the art of horsemanship. It seems that some riders come across the way to make this work for them and others don't. It is the feel that Seunig wants to impart but we all know (and have seen) that these instructions are applied in different ways by different riders!

Over a period of 10 to 15 years I have studied with many teachers and have come to recognize how the way I move, both in ridden and in-hand work, changes the way my horse moves. For me and for my students, Feldenkrais lessons (which can be group lessons of Awareness Through Movement® or individual sessions of Functional Integration®) offer ways to notice in a dismounted situation how the person moves. Making fine distinctions of movement clarifies habits of muscular use and allows students to explore new ways of perceiving and feeling. The student then takes this 'feel' into riding.

We are creatures of habit. Experienced and elite riders will already be familiar with some of their habits of muscular use. Feldenkrais lessons let you feel in finer detail how your body moves so this information can be used to further improve your actions. You learn to notice the very early patterns of anxiety and tension, which may limit your breath and reduce options for movement in the ribs, spine and limbs. You will also learn ways to lessen these patterns of limitation and facilitate suppleness; excellent riders are characterised by their 'stillness', without stiffness, in action, even when the horse is executing advanced movements or misbehaving. To achieve this 'stillness', they have perfected the physical co-ordination and mental balance necessary to move fluidly with the horse, while at the same time maintaining their ability to shape the movement in a very precise way.

On a quiet horse, we have space to explore how level the seat bones are, how the right foot rests in the stirrup and how this is different to the left. I have yet to meet a rider who has no asymmetry! That is not to say that we will always in touch with minute gradations of pressure and application of the aids as there are times when, on a more challenging ride and at speed, we ride 'by the seat of the pants' and trust that the body already knows what to do. It is my experience that Feldenkrais lessons help students learn dynamic flexibility and core stability for riding. We access this organic knowledge as necessary, thereby becoming autonomous, unconsciously competent riders.

When teaching a beginner about the footfalls at, say, walk, coaches will use a variety of methods to demonstrate and create circumstances for learning. An educated kinaesthetic sense will help the student relate what they see and what they feel, and facilitate the ability to refine that feel.

Riders (and horses, for that matter) are constantly making distinctions about ways to move. The Feldenkrais Method® uses movement sequences which consist of comfortable, easy explorations that gradually evolve into movements of greater range and complexity. By involving imagination, attention, perception and cognition these pleasurable and precise sequences bring awareness to the parts of the self that commonly remain hidden, and alter the neuromuscular patterns that organise and control movement.

Top athletes are relentless in their search for ways to maximise their physical and mental condition. Feldenkrais is an established, scientifically-based method which helps riders learn to recognise unnecessary muscular force and poorly organised movement, enabling them to achieve greater flexibility, strength and neuromuscular control while reducing pain, limitation, and injury.

Sensational Sitting is a series of intertwined Feldenkrais lessons designed especially for horse riders to explore different areas of their seat; to learn to move with minimum tension but optimal tone and develop the qualities of feel, timing and balance on which the safety and pleasure of their riding depends for both the horse and rider.

Whether you ride for performance in dressage or endurance (or any other discipline) or simply for pleasure you will enjoy discovering the whole body movement patterns that underlie a co-ordinated, effective seat. Coaches will find new ways to help their students find the 'feel' of the movement.

1. Col. Alois Podhajsky, The Complete Training of Horse and Rider, Harrap & Co Ltd., 1967
2. Waldemar Seunig, The Essence of Horsemanship, JA Allen, 1983

Catherine Hamber is a Feldenkrais Practitioner and Physiotherapist with a special interest in and experience with equestrian athletes and equine performance. She works with riders from all disciplines and at all levels. Her workshops are grounded in her extensive study of how horse and rider move and well-developed skills in movement facilitation.

Further Reading
Feldenkrais M, Awareness Through Movement, Harper & Row, 1972
Feldenkrais M, The Potent Self, HarperCollins, 1985
Murdoch, W, Simplify Your Riding, Carriage House Publishing, 2004
Wanless M, Ride with your Mind, Methuen, 1987
Wanless M, Ride with your Mind Masterclass, Methuen, 1991
Wanless M, For the Good of the Rider, Trafalgar Square Publishing, 1991

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