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Riding Life's Ups and Downs

I recorded the interview for the Australian Feldenkrais Summit in mid-January before we knew how much our world was about to change, before we knew how the skills of riding life's ups and downs were going to be needed.

As I reflected on the Feldenkrais principles I had brought to the foreground in the interview, I realised how appropriate they are and how much I have used them in the last weeks.

The problem riders need to solve is that of balance on a moving base. The problem we are all solving now is our lives are changing in unexpected ways.

So how do riders do it? There were two key principles I brought to the foreground.

  1. Finding the way ‘up and through’ the skeleton to maintain a vertical posture in the field of gravity.
  2. Seeking the quality of lightness and ease

Gravity is acting on us all, all of the time. Generally we are unaware of it until we begin to fall! Then a common reaction is to stiffen, to increase muscle tone. Another reaction is to shrink, to crouch. Neither of these reactions is very useful when riding, or indeed in life in general.

At the same time our sense of self is shaken, diminished or rigidified. How each one of us responds speaks to their sense of capacity and confidence in the moment. And it's not a matter of being completely unmoved by events, it's how we maintain and recover equilibrium that matters.

Horse riding is a complex relationship between horse and rider, between two living, sentient beings. Both partners have their own wants and needs, which are subtly changed as they connect. Do they come into rapport and understanding or do they become dissonant? It is incumbent on both parties to come to some accommodation.

The rider is the one who makes the decision to come into relationship in the first place, thus they are the leader. A young untrained horse would be happy to live out it’s life in a paddock or perhaps, preferably in freedom roaming hills and valleys at will. However, careful education can show a horse that this relationship with a human can have benefits and excitement.

Riding a trained horse, what posture and attitude serves a rider best? My experience as a rider has been formed by trial and error as a child, in numerous riding lessons, in various branches and equestrian disciplines. I have read the masters from Xenophon to Podhajsky. I have been lucky to learn in person from teachers and clinicians the world over from my local Pony Club to Linda Tellington Jones and Mary Wanless.

To the outsider, the rider looks as if they are sitting 'still'. But the neuro-musculo-skeletal organisation to even get close to this ability is considerable. Let’s take the principles above.

  1. 'Up and through': by organising your torso in such a way that gravity is counteracted and erect posture is established, your limbs become 'light' and available for intentional movement.
  2. Seeking the quality of lightness: this speaks to the sensory criteria we use in Feldenkrais of ease of movement, absence of resistance, clarity of intention and freedom of breath.

Riders will immediately recognise that these are what we seek in our relationship with our horse. The horse is also said to be ‘through’ when working well. Riders know the elusive sense of lightness in the horse where we truly become 'one'.

How can we use these principles in our current situation?

There are two foundations that unpin Feldenkrais.

  1. Know thyself: getting to know what you do when your horse spooks, when you feel unstable. Do you shrink or stiffen into flexion or extension? How does your internal dialogue shape your experience?
  2. Learning: we are able to modify our habits, our way of meeting the world over time.

But then the big question is HOW?

This is where Feldenkrais lessons can give you a felt sense of these qualities first in yourself, and in increasingly complex situations, such as riding, and the one we all face with COVID-19.

Learning how to create joyful and confident action through deep listening to yourself. Then you will be able to refine this felt-sense with your horse or in the world with your family and friends.

Catherine Hamber May 2020

Feldenkrais Sydney articles

Feldenkrais & Horse Riding
Sensational Sitting
Riding Life's Ups and Downs
Work, Rest and Play

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Bodily Expressions by Moshe Feldenkrais
The Feldenkrais Method by Alan Questel
Felden-what? by Lawrence Wm. Goldfarb
New Hope for Aching Bodies
by Dr Norman Doidge
Neuroplasticity and The Feldenkrais Method
by Eileen Bach-y-Rita

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