Feldenkrais and Riding

I’ve been taking Feldenkrais  lessons for many years. They are the best riding lessons I ever had. My Feldenkrais practicioner is not a rider but she is an absolute expert in movements. And it doesn’t matter if the movement is related to riding or dancing or playing an instrument or even if it is performed by a human or an equine. 

This last year, the progress in Feldenkrais really starts to show in my riding, and I am slowly beginning to ask more questions to my horse during the ride. What happens if I breathe inside my right upper chest? What happens if I breathe into my left seat bone. What happens if I stop breathing for a second? It is most amazing what huge effect a tiny little change in my body has on the horse. 

I have my lessons on Friday just before I go to see the horses and they tell me right away what they think of it. Then I have the whole weekend to explore my discoveries. Thus far, it was a “secret” exploration for myself with the help of Nathalie, my Feldenkrais teacher. But last Friday, the Aha! was so amazing, that I decided I need to share this in one way or another.

Now, don’t expect how-to, instruction-type articles. Feldenkrais is a very personal, individual exploration. Each individual has her own history and needs to find her own path of learning. Instead, I would like to inspire you to explore Feldenkrais and start asking your own questions. Instead of trying to follow rigid text book instructions on how you must sit on the horse à la “chin up, shoulders down, chest out, heels down”, learn how to move with ease and keep thinking “what can I let go, what can I change to make it easier?”. 

Feldenkrais is practiced in group lessons (“Awareness Through Movement”) and in individual lessons (“Functional Integration”). Both are great and none of them involves horses. Yet, you get a riding lesson (and so much more) without bothering your horse. 

My body has several “construction sites” were movement is blocked. My tough spot is the thoracic spine right between the shoulder blades. My spine has a small deviation from the ideal line which blocks the flow of movement of the spine, chest, shoulders and, eventually, everything else because everything is connected. All my lessons are somehow aimed at loosening this area but the way to get there is always different.

When Natalie chooses her weekly lesson for me, she needs to consider many different aspects. She has a general plan of where she wants to get to but she needs to adjust depending on what I am presenting her on that day. Maybe I come after a week of many hours in front of the computer (most weeks), or exaggerated physical activity (fewer weeks) or sitting for too long in the car or airplane during travelling. In each case, she adjusts to give me the lesson I need on that day.

Every lesson Natalie chooses is fascinating and effective but there are some lessons that stand out because of the feedback my horses give me. One thing that I was focusing on for a long time is about how to provide a steady, yet giving and soft contact through the reins. I knew I needed relaxed shoulders and arms for that and we had worked on that quite a lot because working on the computer all day, I am rather tight in my shoulders. We have also worked extensively on free hip joints, that would allow me to follow my horse’s movements. And another piece, that was maybe unique for Nathalie in teaching a horse rider, was that we are sitting on an animal, that is moving us while we are moving. Nathalie’s teaching solution was to introduce unstable ground. Her marvelous strategy was to use rollers for me to sit on and rollers under my feet, which is really unstable, then asking me to move forward and backward over my seat bone – and don’t forget to breathe ! My goodness that was a challenge. 

For the last lesson, we did a variation of that whereby I sat on a stool with the knees open mimicking sitting on a horse, my feet on the rollers and my arms resting comfortably on another roller placed on the Feldenkrais table in front of me. My instructions were to roll over my seat bones, balancing my pelvis forward and backward and allowing my feet to seesaw back and forth over the rollers. My arms simply following the movement naturally and thereby rolling forward and backward on their own. 

I am not sure, if you can follow, but what happened after that lesson was extraordinary. 

A few hours later, I sat on my horse and we had the most fabulous trot. My arms were loose, following my horse’s movements and proving exactly the type of contact that I was working towards for so long. It is a contact with your horse’s mouth that is communicative, allowing him to move freely and keeping the “phone line” on so we could keep talking even though we were trotting, listening to each other. At the same time, I could sit and follow his movement effortlessly. It was amazing! Of course, I want more of this! I can’t wait for next Friday!

I may be writing up more lessons and hopefully inspire you to look up a Feldenkrais practicioner in your area. You should definitely give it a try.

A few hours later, I sat on my horse and we had the most fabulous trot. My arms were loose, following my horse’s movements and proving exactly the type of contact that I was working towards for so long. It is a contact with your horse’s mouth that is communicative, allowing him to move freely and keeping the “phone line” on so we could keep talking even though we were trotting, listening to each other. At the same time, I could sit and follow his movement effortlessly. It was amazing! Of course, I want more of this! I can’t wait for next Friday!

I may be writing up more lessons and hopefully inspire you to look up a Feldenkrais practicioner in your area. You should definitely give it a try.

This is what my Feldenkrais practitioner, Nathalie Van Cauwenberghe, says about the lesson.

“Every Functional Integration lesson is a dance with the student, nothing is planned. I have an idea of where I want to go but the student takes me where she wants to go and with tiny movements, listening to my student, I will eventually know where to integrate and connect, how to differentiate. Every student has movement patterns which are organized in her brain. The difficulty lies in changing old habits and the already acquired self-image.

Over the years, I proposed many lessons to Michaela and I also went to see her on her horses which was a very valuable experience for me as I saw two bodies in motion. From now on, I couldn’t just think of Michaela alone, but always Michaela and her horse. Since then, my lessons changed and we started working with the “unstable floor”.

The first lessons were on the table, using rollers under her feet, pelvis, and back to integrate different body parts. Then we moved to seated lessons again with rollers under the seat bones and feet, always also thinking of her horse and they would move together.

It has been a long journey over several years, when Michaela sometimes encountered difficulties, confusion, asking a thousand questions. But her persistence and trust, accepting new lessons, even complex ones, has grown into a beautiful posture and awareness of her body.

One of the Functional Integrations lessons we did recently, was seated with three rollers. We worked on the diagonals, with a roller under the hands on the table in front of her and two rollers under her feet. My intention was to change her motor patterns, her habits, and thanks to the rollers, the change came quickly, entering the nervous system, which resulted in slowing down, breathing and becoming more aware of her seat bones. After the lesson, Michaela found that she could still let go more of the tension in her right shoulder, which proves her increased body awareness and which we’ll address in another lesson.

I will continue with the rollers, as I am convinced, that they are a good means of integration for a horse rider, thinking of her horse moving under her pelvis, so that also the two of them can dance with elegance, fluidity, and free breathing.”

Nathalie, giving us an Awareneness Through Movement lesson, during the clicker training workshop with Alexandra Kurland in July 2018

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