Thursday, 29 December 2011

Leg yield and shoulder in, part 2: the aids

The way I see it, the aids are the same for leg yield and shoulder in. In both movements the horse goes sideways with more or less angle, and with more or less pronounced flexion of the neck (see my previous post).

Order of priorities
When you teach your horse a new movement, or for that matter, when you introduce a new exercise to a rider you should follow this order:
1) The horse must be light in the hand (free to place its head and neck any way it wants), the rider must not hang or pull on the reins
2) The horse puts his feet more or less where you want (you have influence over the horse's balance), the rider can control the placement of the horse's feet
3) The horse, through the yielding of the jaw and relaxation of the poll and neck, lets its head fall into a more or less vertical position (the horse is in the form), the rider does know how to ask the horse for this yielding of the jaw and relaxation of the poll and neck

The hand is the primary aid
What I mean by the statement “the hand is the primary aid” is that the attention to the quality (ie lightness) in the contact between the rider´s hand and the horse´s mouth is always the top priority. It comes before everything else. To see the hand as the primary aid does not mean that I try to force the horse around with large uncoordinated gestures. Not at all, quite the opposite. To see the hand as the primary aid is to acknowledge that lightness between my hand and the horse's mouth is the main indication of the movement's quality in general.

I have previously written about how to educate the horse´s mouth and also how to influence the horse´s balance by the use of the hand.

The legs
Since the word “leg” is present in “leg yield”, it is of course easy to assume leg aids are necessary to perform the movement. Since only the angle in which the horse is travelling seems to differ between leg yield and shoulder in, the same could be true for the latter movement.

You can of course use your leg to ask the horse to move sideways. If you do, there are a few things you should keep in mind:
1) when you use both legs at the same time, it is a signal to the horse to move forwards
2) a single leg tells the horse that it will move sideways and not forwards
3) when using your legs, either together for forwards movement, or to move the horse to the side, the horse should not lean or push on the bit

A single leg can be used to ask the horse to move sideways. Spontaneously, I think most of us imagine that an increase in pressure from one leg will cause the horse to move away from that leg. This is one way to train the horse. But how much pressure is needed? A horse can feel a fly crawling on its skin, so the answer must be "not very much". Instead of focusing on increasing the pressure in the leg that is on the horse, you might be better off easing the pressure with the leg that the horse should move towards. If you pay close attention, you can feel the horse's barrel lifting your knee up in one sequence of the horse´s foot fall when stepping sideways. You can very easily lighten the contact of you leg against the horse´s side by aiding in the lifting of your knee at this very moment. Do not hold your leg up, but let it sink when the horse's barrel sinks and then lift it again in time with the horse's movements. If the horse does not perceive or understand your cue, stimulate the horse gently using a whip on the opposite side. And, of course, pay attention that your horse does not start to lean or push against the bit.

The weight
If you want to help your horse by using your weight, you want to place your weight in the direction of motion. This means that in a right shoulder in on a straight line where the horse moves to the left, your weight should also be placed to the left. Using your weight as an aid is done by extremely subtle means and it is easy to do too much.

Do nothing
Remember, when the horse does what you asked for, it is your job to do nothing, ie to be the best, non-interfering passenger you can be to your horse.

Thank You
Thanks to Mark Stanton of Horsemanship Magazine for checking my spelling and grammar! All other errors are my own.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Colic, part 2 - food to feed

There is a link between colic and the quality of the food a horse is given. Since colic is a serious condition for any horse I have taken the help of Sara Beckman with this posting on feed.

The horse is a roughage eater and the nutrients in the feed is made available to the horse in the fermenting process that occurs in the colon. The forage is largely grass and it comes in three forms: fresh (pasture), dried (hay) and acid conserved (silage)

Grass can be contaminated by soil due to heavy rain. Newly mown grass placed in a pile without aeration will soon take heat and harmful bacteria and mould is growing rapidly.

Hay is preserved by drying. The water content is about 16% (dry substans, 84%). When there is no free water micro-organisms can not grow. If the hay is brought in, or pressed into bales before it is completely dry the hay is quickly pestered with bacteria and mould. The same happens if the hay gets wet from leaks in the roof, if damp stable air passes through it or from moisture during the storage directly on concrete floor without an air gap (eg, on pallets) below.

Silage is preserved by a combination of acidification, compare sauerkraut or boston cucumber, and airtight storage. As the lactic acid-producing bacteria grow and provide an acidic, oxygen-free environment where unwanted - in which, for the horse harmful, microorganisms can not grow. Silage is a generic term for ensilage, 65-75% water (dry substance 35-25%), and haylage is drier 45-60% water (dry substance 55-40%). Haylage is most commonly used for feeding horses. Hygiene requirements are however equally regardless silageform.

If the grass is too dry when the bale is pressed, the beneficial bacteria has difficult to grow and preserve the gras. If the field is harvested during blooming the stalks are tough and it's hard to pack the bale and it remains a lot of air in the bale - that benefits the harmful organisms' growth. When the bale is opened or if there are holes in the plastic air will come in and the bacterias can begin to grow. If you see a lot of the coarse straw in bloom in the bale - feed it more quickly to "get ahead" of the mould.

A good silage should smell slightly sour - as sauerkraut. If it has a sweet-sour or sharp smell to it, or if it is warmer than the outside temperature that indicates a mishap in the fermenting process and harmful organisms thrive.

In harvesting a farmer can affect the quality a lot! By drying the hay in the barn it is preserved better. The ensiling process can be accelerated and the process ensured by: baling hay with the right moisture content, if necessary, cut the raw material, acidification of the grass if it is dry or coarse, rolling the bales tightly, wrapping with many layers of plastic to seal the bale.

Generally speaking seven adult horses is needed to eat from a haylage bale after it has been opened to be able to eat faster than the feed is destroyed by air. In northern Sweden you can have fewer horses per bale during winter time, if it's minus degrees (below freezing) when opened.

In forage with visible mould, or smells "dusty" or have gained heat there are usually very high levels of unwanted organisms. Feed it quickly or discard. Which is most expensive? To discard the bale or to call the veterinarian because of colic?

Problems with colic may occur if forage contains readily soluble protein and low fiber content - it gives the wrong balance and a disturbed fermentation in the colon. That quality occur with forage that is harvested during periods of heavy rain or when you take an extra harvest in late autumn. The feed can be recognized by a high content of green leaves and almost no grass stalks. To feed should not pass too quickly through the intestines and cause bloating, it must be combined with an extra feed of straw daily as fiber supplement.

If the gut flora is disturbed and extra gas is produced and if bowel movements are not stimulated enough by fibers then the transportation of gas is impeded and that can lead to colic. This can be caused by either to much starch in the diet from oats or fabric feed mix or too little roughage in the diet.

A horse should eat at least 1.2 kg hay or 1.5 to 1.7 kg haylage (depends on water content) per 100 kg horse on a daily basis. Most ponies/horses ridden 1-2 hours per day feeds well only on roughage + minerals + salt in the summer. (Studies at the University of Agricultural Sciences in Sweden has shown that even trotter in full competition can be fed only roughage and reach full performance level).

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Leg yield vs Shoulder in

I received a question the other day: “I would very much like an explanation with videos of how leg yield is performed”. Thank you for your question, Johanna! I was about to write about leg yield and shoulder in anyway since, after I posted the two videos with me and my horse doing shoulder in, I've learned something very interesting about the modern perception of the difference between leg yield and shoulder in. This blog entry will deal with the performance of the horse, that is what the horse should do, and in my next blog entry on the 29 of December I will tackle the topic of how the rider should ask the horse to move sideways.

According to the modern theory of riding, a horse should be straight in the spine in leg yield except for a very small bend in the neck (away from the direction of motion). When the horse is straight in the trunk, it will cross the inner front leg in front of the outer front leg, and also the inner rear leg in front of the outside rear leg.



Video of leg yield


However, in a shoulder in, the horse should be evenly bent through the whole spine. The result of this will be that the horse is moving sideways only crossing the front legs, not the hind legs. The inner hind leg will not cross in front of and over the outer hind leg, but it will be placed forward and in front of the outside hind leg so that it is placed under the horse's body where it will carry a maximum amount of the horse's weight. What you can see is that the horse is moving on three tracks, i.e. the inner rear hoof and the outside front hoof are travelling on the same line.



Video of shoulder in


But wait a minute. Can the horse bend evenly through the whole spine? No. Anatomical studies of the horse's spine clearly show that the horse has very limited ability to bend through the spine any further back than the withers.

In times of confusion it is always a good idea to go back and read about the original ideas, so therefore I turned to de la Guérinière. He was the first person to describe how to ride a shoulder in on a straight line, he did so 1731:

“Thus, once a horse has learned to trot freely in both directions on the circle and on the straight line, to move at a calm and even walk on these same lines, has become accustomed to executing halts and half halts and to carrying the head to the inside, it is then necessary to take him at a slow and slightly collected walk along the wall and place him such that his haunches make one line and his shoulders make another. The line of the haunches must be near the wall and the line of the shoulder must be about a foot and a half to two feet away from the wall, while keeping the horse bent in the direction in which he is moving. In other words, to explain myself more simply, instead of keeping a horse completely straight in the shoulder and the haunches on the straight line along the wall, it is necessary to turn his head and shoulders slightly inward toward the centre of the school, as if one actually wanted to turn him, and when he has assumed this oblique and circular posture, one must make him move forward along the wall while aiding him with the inside rein and leg (he absolutely cannot go forward in this posture without stepping-over or “chevaler” - the front inside leg over the outside and, similarly, the inside hind leg over the outside). This is easily seen in the figure of the shoulder-in which will make this still more visible.”

Part of the figure referred to in the quote is shown here:



The text and pictures describe, as far as I can tell, a horse that crosses both the front and hind legs. So, the father of modern riding describes a movement he calls shoulder in where the horse crosses the inner front and inner hind leg with the goal of producing suppleness in the horse since the horse is using the joints in the legs differently from when he travels on one track, whether that is straight or on a circle.

From what I can tell, whether or not the horse will cross the inside hind leg over the outside hind leg has more to do with the angle in which the horse is moving sideways, rather then if he is bent in the spine or not. A sufficiently small angle and the horse will bring the inner rear leg more forward under the body than crossing over the outer hind leg.

These ideas only apply if the horse moves on the straight line. As soon as the horse starts performing shoulder in on a curved line, both the inner front and the inner rear leg will cross over the outer ones.

Picture from Philippe Karl's “Twisted truths of modern dressage” showing sideways movements on circles and voltes:



Video showing shoulder in on the volte


Compare the sequence of footfalls as Yeats moves sideways in shoulder in on the volte with the sequence of footfall when moving in a side pass. When the front legs cross, the hind legs are far apart and vice versa.

Video showing side pass


My conclusion from this study of leg yield and shoulder in is that whenever the horse moves sideways crossing both the front and the hind legs this is suppling the horse, while a sideways movement when the horse is not crossing the hind legs but rather takes it forward and under the horse's belly is preparing the horse for collection.

Thanks to Mark Stanton of Horsemanship Magazine for proof reading! All remaining errors are my own.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Colic - part 1: Anatomy

It is ironic that I planned to dedicate today's post to colic and it turns out that my youngest son wakes us all by vomiting in the bed last night. The situation has now stabilised so that I can sit down at the computer for a while.

A difference being a human, compared to being a horse, is that we can get rid of disturbances in our digestion system at both ends but for the horse there is only one way out at the hind end.

To get all the facts in the right place, I have taken the help of Sara Beckman, farm agronomist. This will be a long posting, with lots of text and images. For the horse colic can turn into a life threatening condition and with that in mind this is given the place needed.

Colic is a generic term for painful conditions in the horse's belly. To understand why a horse may get colic, you need to know a little about what the horse's digestive system looks like and what happens in the digestive process.


(grovtarm=colon, tunntarm=small intestine, lever=liver, blindtarm=caecum)

The intestinal package fills the entire abdominal cavity behind the ribs on the horse and is separated from the chest cavity (where we find the heart and lungs) of by the diaphragm.


(magmun=orifice of the stomach, magsäck=stomach, mjälte=spleen)

The stomach of a horse is relatively small and can hardly be stretched. It is suitable for an animal that is constantly eating (12-16 hours per day). The muscle between the gullet (oesophagus) and stomach is very strong and the horse can not burp or vomit, everything they eat must pass through the intestine. The feed passes slowly from the stomach into the intestine as it is processed. If the horse eats too much of feeding that can swell, like oats or sugar beet pellets that has not been soaked enough, it can get cramp in the stomach. (colic due to over eating)


(tarmkäx=mesentery)

To avoid the intestines to move about in the abdomen, they are conected towards the spine by the mesentery. In horses mesentery is very long and loose and the small intestine can move about more than in many other animals. The small intestine is 16-24 feet long and absorbes easily soluble substances such as fat, simple carbohydrates, minerals and protein into the blood. If the feed contains toxins from harmful micro-organisms or substances too much gas can be produced with abnormal bowel movements as a result. If sand from contaminated feed or pasture is ingested it can stop the flow in the intestine and bowel movements are affected. (sand colic) In a horse with colic due to a stop, cramp or gas in the small intestines the gut literally "twist around itself", ileus, and if the blood supply is restricted the twisted part of the intestine dies fast - a very serious condition for the horse that can lead to death.



The horse's caecum (1 m) and colon (6-8 m) ads up to the largest volume in the abdomen (over 100 l). (Together they can fill half a bathtub.) Here, most of the degradation of forage is done with the help of microorganisms (bacteria, yeasts, fungi). The horse is completely dependent on their intestial flora to digest their feed - microbial waste products (proteins and fats) becomes food for the horse. Large amounts of gas is formed during the process that the horse has to let off.



The picture above shows the size of the colon. The horse can get colic from eating a diet rich in starch (long carbohydrate) with lot of concentrated feed, oats or barley and/or too little roughage. To much starch can lead to a growth of the gas-forming bacteria and to little roughage lessens the bowel movements. When the wrong micro-organisms grow you get a combination of improper intestinal flora with an increase in gas production and bad bowel movements that do not transport the gas quickly enough - the abdomen swells with great pain as a result. (gas colic or colon colic) A disturbed intestinal flora can also make the horse suffer from diarrhea. To restore the intestinal flora it may be necessary to give the horse freeze-dried lactic acid bacteria suitable for horses and/or live yeast.

A horse that eat enough of good quality roughage has good intestinal flora and bowel movements. If you place your ear close to the horses belly you should hear the rumbling sound of bowel movements and fermenting processes. The shape of the abdomen depends on the strenght of the abdominal muscles, the size and shape of the belly does not affect the horse's movements. A digestion that works fine is revealled by the look of the residual product's, solid ballshaped dung and a horse that is dry around the anus and under the tail.

A very common cause of colic is due to poor feed hygiene. Part 2 will focus on feed quality and hygiene.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Combing the reins

it is easy for the reader to see that a horse that is obedient to the hand is one who follow all of its movements and that the movements of the hand through the reins cause the bit to act in the horse's mouth.”

This is a quote by de la Guérinière. It is from chapter 7 in his School of Horsemanship where de la Guérinière discusses the rider's hand as the primary aid.

For the horse to follow the rider's hand, the horse can not fear the bit nor withdraw from it. The horse must, as the popular saying goes, seek the bit. Now, the perfectly schooled horse should never lean on the bit, resist a small lifting action of the rider's hands, nor hesitate to follow the bit forward, down and out. The horse should follow the bit both up, to the left, to the right as well as down.

Some horses do however withdraw from the connection with the rider's hand, which may cause the horse to either go behind the bit, or nervously throw it's head up. In both cases I have had great success with a technique called “combing the reins”. This technique teaches the horse that the rider's hand is nothing to fear. It is quite easy to do but hard to explain so Maria volunteered to demonstrate it on her three year old gelding Amaretto. If you look closely you can see that Maria is currently introducing Amaretto to the mysteries of being a riding horse using a bitless bridle but the technique is just the same weather you are using a bit or not. Look at Maria's hands, she is gently combing the reins with relaxed fingers and when Amaretto stretches forward, down and out with his nose, head and neck she lets the reins slide through her fingers.



For this technique to work you need to have plain leather reins. You should take care not to grab hold of the reins no matter what the horse does with its head (unless the horse takes off, of course!). Start out in standing still like on the video, and progress to walk. For some horses this work is best introduced when walking back to the barn after a nice ride out doors. Since most horses have a tendency to walk energetically towards home, it is usually easier to have them take contact with the bit and the rider's hand in this situation. Praise your horse when he does what you want, and take care he doesn’t start pulling the reins out of your hands! Too much of any one thing is not necessarily better.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

The body as an equipage

Just as the horse, we have a stronger and a weaker side. It is often related to us being right or left handed, but it is not always so.

In those who are right-handed, the right side is working more and muscles work by contracting themselves. If you, as a right-handed sit at your desk, it is quite common that the right arm is pulled forwards and that in turn effects the entire muscular system in the body.

Today I worked with a client whose right side was willing to work and fast to take action. There where muscular discomfort in the shoulders, lower back and the movement of the hip joint on the right side was impaired. The left side was much softer and more pliable.

But soft and flexible is not always something to strive for if the soft and pliable really is floppy and without any supportive tension.

Then, and just when I thought of when I drove my anglo arabians two-in-hand. My client's right side was acting like my anglo filly; quick to action, eager to work - alert. While the gelding was more like the left side of the body a little more laid back, slow to start and passive.

Early on it happened that I gave them the que to start and the mare stepped forward, just to be met with opposition in her mouth (the reins in a pair is connected so that the horses left and right side are brought together) because the gelding had not reacted to the que.

To avoid that the slightly slower gelding would nag the mare in her mouth, I had to be careful to wake him with a touch of the whip before I gave the start signal and that made the take off much smoother for my mare. While driving, I also had to keep an eye on the gelding so that he remembered to do his part of the job, he tried to back off from pulling and by that place most of the work load on the mare.

So I asked my client (who also drives pair) to think about the body as a two-in-hand equipage and start as many chores as possible by making the left side aware of that it is time to wake up and take its share of responsibility for the daily work load before starting to work.

I usually say that we as riders should strive for a trunk with four free tentacles. By free I mean that they can move independently of each other even if they are in contact with each other through the spine.

It could perhaps be likened to a equipage of four horses in hand, with its forerunner and rod horses. Each horse has its role in the team and need to do the task in such a way that the other horses are free to perform their work. The chest/ arms are associated with forerunner and in the pelvis/legs with rod horses. They need to be able to move independent of each other, but get their position from the rod - the spine.

The head is the driver and gives the equipage its direction, but the where the driver/head is placed I leave to your own vivid imagination.

"No philosopher so thoroughly comprehend us as horses."
Herman Melville


PS! My knowledge of horse driving in English is quite shallow so if you feel I ought to change a word or two don't hesitate to contact me.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Travers, renvers and half pass but mostly travers

Travers is the English term for when a horse moves sideways and look in the direction of travel. More precisely travers is one of three different terms for this. In Sweden we like to keep it simple and call all sideways movement where the horse looks in the direction of travel for “sluta” regardless of where in the arena the horse performs this or if it is on a straight or curved line. Not so in English. A “sluta” either by the wall or on a curved line where the horse have the head to the wall or to the outside of the circle is called a travers. A “sluta” either by the wall or on a curved line where the horse have the tail to the wall or to the outside of the circle is called renver. And a “sluta” on any diagonal line is called a half pass. Since the videos below show me riding travers (head to the wall and the horse looking in the direction of travel) I will from here on in this particular blog entry just say travers.

The short summary of the perfect aids for the perfect travers are: none! When the horse is executing the task it has been asked to do my job as the rider is to be the best, non-disturbing passenger I can be.

The hand is the primary aid according to the father of classical equitation de la Gueriniere and the unquestionable minimum requirement for the relationship between the rider's hand and the horse´s mouth is that neither the rider or the horse is pulling or leaning on the bit. The contact have to consistent of only the weight of the rein.

There is also a whole bunch of cool stuff about how to balance the horse with the reins (see for instance the blog entry about the figure of 8 and inside vs outside rein) but I will not go into that in any more detail here in regard to travers becasue this blog entry would turn into a smaller book then. You can not see how I balance the horse with the use of my reins in the video but believe me when I say I do.

I will however mention something about the seat and the weight as an aid since I touch upon this in my comments. In all sideways movement, if I choose to use my weight as an aid it should always be in the direction of travel. So in the video where I ride right travers I strive to have my weight to the right, and the other way around, in left travers I strive to have the weight to the left.

Right travers means the horse's right shoulder are on the inside of the bend, and the horse is also traveling to the right. And of course it is the other way around for left travers. Here is a simple drawing of a horse seen from above in right travers with little horsy ears and little horsy feet:




To make it so much more interesting, all horses are from birth crooked either to the right or to the left which causes the horse to easier perform either right or left travers.

Below are two short videos with me riding my horse Hagens Yeats (a 14 year old Connemara gelding) in right and left travers. I've also added my comments for you to read.

Right travers



So what am I doing with my head? I've forgot to lift my chin and let my breast bone come up. I also have just to short reins. If I remember correctly I was busy enjoying my talented, focused and supple pony:). The just to short reins cause my elbows to be in front of my torso instead of hanging relaxed from my shoulders. The inner leg is slightly forward as it should and dangles more or less relaxed with the movements of my horse. Almost half way through the video I raise my inside hand. I do this in order to ask Yeats to keep the round outline of his neck. It dosen't really show but Yeats should have given his mouth, softening in the jaw and lifting the bite with his tongue in response to the presence in the corner of his lip. As a result of this soft mobility he also softened in the neck which restored his relaxed and round neck. At the end of the movie Yeats responds perfectly when I give with the hand and he is stretching his neck forward and his nose down and out in what in the School of lightness is called ”neck extension.

Left travers



Here I would like to tell myself to sit over more to the left in order to be more with the movement instead of behind it. My upper arms falls relaxed straight down so that my elbows are resting lightly against the sides of my torso. The careful observer can see that the right leg is slightly drawn back (the heel is a bit more lifted than on the right side) and that the leg is more quiet than the left, this leg is the positional leg, ie the leg that the horse moves away from, not because I press with it but because the horse feel its presence more since I've limited the movements in my knee. The left leg, on the other hand, is swinging freely with the horse's movement and enables the horse to move freely move sideways to the left.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

A mindful rest

FM Alexander insisted that man is a psycho-physical unity - body and mind is an undivideable entity. Anything that affects our mind will reflect itself in our body and vice versa. I have yet to meet the man who contradicts this, but every day I meet people who still have to embrace this truth in their own lives. Alexander also advised that we need to practice our response (reaction) to what is happening (stimuli) so that we try to avoid to be too hasty. To cultivate an inner peace that allows us retain our ability to make sensible decisions, both in terms of what we do and what we say.

The Alexander rest (or semi supine) is a fantastic tool to help yourself along the road to become a psycho-physical unity. The foundation is laid by giving yourself 15-20 minutes of Alexander rest as I described earlier (posted in August-October). Once you become familiar with your body and have let it benefit from the passive stretching that the semi supine gives, you've also got a feel for how it feels when your back is resting on the floor, a feeling that you can recall standing up. You have arrived to the point that your body can give its weight to the floor more quickly because it has learned to appreciate both the rest and safety of being carried by the floor.

At this point you can start using the Alexander rest as an arena to make perceptive assessments of your internal, mental, processes. I usually lie down and allow me to settle before I start to think through a "challenge" that I have before me. It can be anything; a meeting, a presentation, a training session with the horse, a busy day. When I do this review, I notice what happens in my body, is my breathing is affected, do I become tense somewhere, does my heart rate increase. If I notice that I get a reaction from my "mental stimuli" that I want to avoid I pause and consciously strive to let go of any unnecessary tension before I let my inner film continue to roll.

If I, in a real situation, notice that I get nervous or stressed with an increased tension I can "return to my previous work", if only for a millisecond, and it becomes quiet both in the body and mind.

This way of working with your psyche and your body and seek to pre-program desired connections in the nervous system is nowadays called mental training. Alexander Technique is a sophisticated form of mental training. It gives the body a relaxed relationship to gravity, it will help you become aware ot the direction you want to keep and when you meet challenges it helps you to find time for reconsideration in the feel of security that comes from knowing where you have your back.

"This inability to stay calm, this annoying desire to immediately take action, is one of humanity's most obvious defects."
Walter Bagehot

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Videos of shoulder in

Instead of me writing about my perception of the horse world this week, I thought I should show you two short videos of me and my horse doing the shoulder in and let you tell me what you think. I know what I'm happy with and what I want to improve, but what do you see?



Thursday, 27 October 2011

Do the Twist

An personal abbreviation and interpretation of Dr. Tim Cacciatore research approach “Increased dynamic regulation of postural tone through Alexander Technique training.”

Having a good posture is really a question of standing upright with the head above the feet with a body in between. Surely the muscles that work to keep the head on top need to have some muscle tone (tension) in order to do the job, the question is how much do they need to hold for us to be stable but not stiff?

This research report was published in Human Movement Science (2010) and I make a brief summary of the same.

The brain regulate the degree of tension muscles need to have to be able to support the body in relationship to gravity. This long-lasting muscle activity is called postural muscle tone and is especially important around the body's longitudinal axis to prevent the spine from collapsing.

It is easy to take for granted that the postural muscle tone has been studied thoroughly and that it is scientifically explained. But it's not. This is mainly due to the fact that postural muscle tone is difficult to measure. It works in a quiet manner over a long time and involves many muscles and that makes it difficult to quantify.

Balance, on the other hand (how we place our mass over our feet), is an entirely different phenomenon that is much more studied and whose function is more understood. This is due to the frequent movements back and forth that occurs when we balance ourselves are easy to measure, in contrast to the continuous forces that respond to gravity.

In order to measure the postural tonus Cacciatore used our ability to rotate around our own axis (the spine). The spiral-like movement, referred to as the Twist, is not working as a support against gravity, any resistance in the twist would reflect an individual's muscular tension in response to gravity.

The measurements were taken at the neck, torso and hip. Measurements showed how muscle activity in each region integrated instead of measuring the activity of a single muscle.

Rigid people are 3-4 times as stiff as less rigid people. The difference in postural muscle tone may be due to two things 1) the degree of muscular tension 2) how the tension can be adjusted dynamically in relation to posture or work load. An individual with low levels of tension can either have a low tonus to begin with or adapt dynamically during the turn - by "letting go" (reduced activity) in the muscles that need to be extended and "take up the slack" (increased activity) in the muscle that is shortened. The results of the study gave was that the muscle activity was fixed with rigid people while the muscle tone were more dynamic in those who were less rigid.

The study showed that AT-teachers showed significantly less resistance to rotation than the control group, the average resistance in an AT teacher was half the size at all measurement points.

It is not yet possible to distinguish the amount due to the level of tension or due to the adaptability of tension but it is possible to measure how muscle tone adapts and measurements showed that the postural muscle tone in the AT teachers were more adaptive than in the control group.

In another study of people with back pain, the same method of measurement were used before and after a series of 20 AT lessons. The study showed less stiffness around hip and torso after the period of lessons.

Being able to stay upright relative to gravity without undue tension promotes mobility. This in turn promotes suppleness to us as riders. As I see it, you can now do a "self check" of your own muscle tone. Rotate slowly around your own axis (the spine) in both directions. Do you feel strain anywhere? Does your shoulders tilt in any direction? What about the contact between feet and floor? Does it affect your breathing?

"God must be fond of dancing, otherwise he would not have ensured that most objects in space revolves around itself and around something else."

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Curb or no curb?

”My horse likes the curb” is an argument I sometimes hear for why a rider chooses to ride with a curb bit instead of a normal snaffle. I assume that the horse in question when ridden in a snaffle can choose to pull, lean on the bit or go against the rider's hand (resistance of force), but since the horse chooses not to do this when ridden in a curb, the rider feels that the contact with the horse's mouth is lighter and smoother. But is it the horse or the rider who thrives with the curb?

Maybe it's wrong of me to say that it is the rider who likes the curb. Of course it's nice that the horse doesn't hang your hand! That is not something I want no matter what bit I choose to ride with. What I mean is that the rider may lack practical knowledge of how she could train her horse not to pull or lean on the snaffle. This knowledge exists, for instance, within the tradition of French classical riding.

I would also like to point out that whatever bit you choose, it's you as a rider who has the ultimate responsibility for the quality of the contact between your hand and the horse's mouth. Horses can, unfortunately, accept far too much pressure in the mouth with either the snaffle or curb. A curb does not guarantee that the horse does not get injuries in the mouth. We as riders should not put the responsibility on the horse to let us know what contact is OK, regardless of the bit we choose. I strive to have the weight of the rein and nothing more in my hand, what do you strive for?

Whatever bit you choose, you as a rider are responsible for:
1) training your seat and balance so that you don't use the reins for support. You should be able to follow the horse in all gaits with loose reins without holding on with your hands, or if you need to hold with a hand you should do so by holding the mane or the pommel, and not use the reins
2) training your coordination and body awareness so that you do not accidentally or without being aware of it tense or move your fingers, hands or arms, especially not backwards
3) getting yourself a decent idea of what is a proper contact.

For myself I normally choose to ride with the snaffle. The double bridle or curb are tools for precise and delicate communication that I only use on the highly schooled horse. The snaffle bit, properly used, is the most effective way to supple a horse. A supple horse has a calm and gentle activity of the mouth. He swallows, plays with and lifts the bit with his tongue. A supple horse can, in halt, walk and trot bend his neck 90 degrees. In canter the bending is slightly less. A supple horse can raise the neck and above all, he can lower his neck while extending his nose forward so that it will never be behind the vertical. This is what, in the School of Légèreté, is called neck extension.

In the end I believe it is the rider's body awareness and control, and her ideas about what is a good contact that determines which bit a horse likes.

Thanks to Mark Stanton of Horsemanship Magazine for proof reading! All remaining errors are my own.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Back part 4 stress management

Now, when I've reached the goal of my travel I'm sitting at a desk with the computer connected to a broadband with a speed that almost scares me!

If you have been doing your home work from the first posting you now have familiarised yourself with your back 30 times. You have begun to explore how movement of the limbs affects the contact your back has with the surface and you have had an opportunity to recognise the feeling of your back resting on the floor even when you're upright.

Today's theme in the supine position series is the power it has on our mind. A typical day brings with it many moments and situations that increase the level of mental tension or stress. Stress (including what we may perceive as positive stress!) is always an increased strain on the body and what you've learned by lying down on the floor can now help you to reduce the effects that stress has on you.

First and foremost, stress leads to increased muscle tone, ie our muscle costume actually shrinks slightly. That shrinking affects both joint mobility and breathing. If you feel excitement or stress take hold of you, inhibit - pause and find the "floor behind your back", just allow yourself get back to your back.

Your moments on the floor has given you a great tool for self evaluation, make use of it! Lying down has presented you with the opportunity to explore how your body feels in a neutral position. Tune in where and how your body is affected by stress. If the jaws have become more tense ease off the tension by just visit them briefly in your thoughts.

We all have a uniquely positioned "stress indicator" where tension gets to us first. My spot is situated on the right side, midway between the spine and the lower part of the scapula, if I start to feel tension there I know that I am under a high mental workload.

If I visit that point often, ease the tension, I can "get through" stress without the body goes into a stress-locked position and the nice part is, as I do it consciously, it may be a pretty tough situation and never the less I feel I still have it in my hand. I can continue to act, which is much better than simply react to the challenge and immensely much better than to capitulate to it.

What I do when I feel I am under stress is that I rest "in the feel of the floor", it helps me to keep my chest open in the front and keep the shoulder blades resting on the thoracic spine. With that direction in my body I minimise the tension around the chest and my breathing is relatively undisturbed. If the breathing works oxygen reaches the brain and the mind can actively work to find a solution or an alternative course of action.

Without a functioning breathing, stress leads to a double burden, both physical (I am suffocating!) and a psychic (I can not handle this!) and the stress increases.

Even under pressure, there are choices, the better you become at maintaining a focused calmness and relaxation, the greater your chance is to see where the situation is heading, you can see the options that pop up and choose how to proceed. You can to some extent, therefore, choose the way in which the battle is being fought, or if there is a need for a conflict at all. All that is needed is perhaps a liberating laughter before continuing with the task.

Stress is basically a disconnection from the earth, a forgetting of the breath. Stress is an ignorant state. It believes that everything is an emergency. Nothing is that important. Just lie down.
Natalie Goldberg

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Inside or outside rein?

I remember from my time as a child at the local riding school here in Sweden that I was told to use the outside rein to get the horse back on the track by the wall. This never worked very well for me. Normally the horse would just turn his head to the outside and walk further away from the wall.

Many years later I met Craig Stevens, a master rider who turned many of my ideas about riding upside down. He told me to use a so-called indirect rein on the horse's inside to bring the horse back to the track. It worked much better!

Why does the inside rein work so much better? For my part, it was not just about which rein I used, it was also the way I used the rein. In my days as a beginner rider, I probably pulled a lot on the rein. Nor had I mastered the skill of timing my signals to the horse's balance, weight distribution and biomechanics. Now I can do that it makes a big difference. So when I once again received the instruction to use the outside rein from Bea Borelle to return the horse to the track, it worked splendidly.

The reasons I could not get it to work when I was an inexperienced rider were two fold: 1) I was pulling backwards, and 2) I could not coordinate the use of my two hands. When Craig asked me to use only the inside rein and ignore the outside rein, I had the opportunity to develop the feel of when and how I should influence my horse. Without this practice I would not have managed the task of coordinating my hands.

In addition, today I can choose to do it either way, depending on the situation and what kind of horse I'm riding. And that is not a bad thing!

The indirect rein on the inside will get the horse back on the track by the wall by shifting the horse's weight to the outside rear leg. This will unload the forehand and make it easy for the horse to move the forehand back to the track. When you use the inside indirect rein, the horse might also bend to the inside. The horse can do this since he is no longer leaning on the inside shoulder. A horse cannot bend to the inside and "lean" to the inside at the same time.

However, most horses often have one side which they don't bend so easily.

On this side it is not at all certain that the horse responds to the indirect rein with bending. The horse can still move away from the indirect rein, but it is quite possible that the horse won't bend towards the indirect rein as well.

In this case, you may need to coordinate the reins. You bend the horse by turning the inside hand and then raising it. You can then shorten the rein and lower the hand and the horse should remain bent without you having to take the hand backwards.

In short, the hand that bends the horse dose not move sideways or horizontally, only vertically. The hand that influences the balance, and thus where the horse is going, is moved horizontally (direct or indirect rein). When I have set the bend and the horse accepts the bend, that is he is not pulling on the reins, then I can choose to use a direct rein on the outside, or an indirect rein on the inside, to keep my horse on a straight line. But if my horse for some reason do not accept the bend, then I need to use the inside hand to ask for the bend by turning the wrist and maybe even raising the hand, in combination with the outside direct rein to ask the horse to remain on the track. With this division of use of the inner and outer hand, and between effects (hand sideways affects balance, hand used vertically to set the bend) it becomes easy to bend the horse either to the inside or the outside and to follow a straight or curved line.

Try it!

Thanks to Mark Stanton of Horsemanship Magazine for proof reading! All remaining errors are my own.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Back part 3

Alexander Technique is a gentle technique, but its purpose is, nevertheless, to make life and movement easier. With another 10-day "rest" in the back, it's time to move.

The gentle stretching that the Alexander rest gives has a purpose to restore the back and help it to return to its natural length, our back correspond to the horse's top line and in riding we seek to lenghten the horse´s top line.

How do you know that your back has regained its natural length? The check is done through movements.

Lie down on the floor with your head on the books and knees bent. Lighten your toes slightly from the surface and let one leg slide, on the heel, to stretch the leg. Pay attention to what happens in the rest of the body; does the head's contact with books change, is the lower back lifted, is it starting to tighten across the hip joint, is the breathing affected?

If you notice a change somewhere in the body, pause, inhibit, wait until tensions have released or make a decision. If there are big changes - bring the heel back towards your bum, back/torso and legs need more time to find their proper relationship.

If you can let go of the tensions, let the leg stretch and flex with the foot, ie move the feet in the ankle so the toes are pointing towards the ceiling. At first, it's good to straighten one leg at a time, observe yourself and notice what happens both in the diagonal and the lateral side of your body.

To bring the leg back to the starting position, without being tempted to lift it and thereby tighten the abdominal muscles, I recommend the following: let the leg fall out from the hip, the foot is "rolling" on the heel when the leg turns outward. Place your attention on the heel and let it slide up and in towards your bum, it'll bend the knee. At a certain point it will be natural to turn around the femur in the hip joint so that the knee is turned up toward the ceiling. If this move creates any tension, pause and inhibit before continuing.

When the leg can be straightened out and the rest of the body is left undisturbed, try to straighten both legs simultaneously. When you can lie without books under your head, with your arms at your side without the shoulder blades being pulled at and lifted, when your legs can rest stretched without the torso and lower back being affected then you have regained your natural length in the back.

A word about pain. Alexander rest can be a painful experience if there is huge muscular troubles in the body. There are different types of pain, some is superficial and it's ok to stay as long as the pain is bearable.

But there is pain that is structural and in those cases you should lie down just as long as you are pain free! If it starts to get sore, stop! To get the Alexander rest to work, the situation has to be comfortable and safe. If you get in pain after only 2 minutes, stop. Next time you can lay down for 3 and so on. Respect pain signals and the minutes of relaxation will increase. I know this from experience.

This should maybe have been a part of the first posting...but better late than never. To end the rest and to come up on your feet I want you to roll over to one side. And pause. Then you can decide to come up on all four for a while or come up to a sitting position before you get up on your feet. Avoid doing movements similar to sit ups.

Now that you have 20 Alexander rests in your back, you can at any time, standing or sitting, evoke the feeling of the floor behind your back. That will help you to become aware of what goes on in your body at that moment, if your back/topline is shortened this helps the muscles in the front of the body to let go of the back - you'll spring upwards and backwards, become tall and strong at a fraction of a second.

Congratulations! You are now your best friend!

"If you do not take care of your body, where will you live?"
Peggy Ayala

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Notes from lessons with Craig Stevens, part 2

You can read part 1 of my notes from lessons with Craig Stevens here.

The horse should use his muscles to perform a movement, not his weight. Resistance of weight means the horse's legs are not underneath him. The horse “leans” in one direction. Resistance of force means the horse is tightening his muscles.

Turning by the use of weight



The horse puts weight on the inside shoulder (here the right shoulder) and its head to the outside. The horse turns by “falling”, that is the horse is running to catch up with its own weight.

The horse is out of balance and has a hard time controlling the speed in the turn.

This is not desirable.


Turning by the use of muscles



The horse uses the outside diagonal (here left front and right hind leg) for carrying his own and the rider's weight. The inside front leg is relatively lighter than in the case above, which makes canter departs easier.

This is desirable.

All correct and easily executed movements by the horse are proof of balance. Balance means the horse is using his muscles, not displacement of his weight, to initiate movements.

First give the horse the position and balance it needs for a movement, then let the horse execute the movement without disturbing him.

Precision in timing
Use a direct rein when the front hoof on the same side is on the way down or on the ground. Use an indirect rein when the front hoof on the same side is off the ground.

Attention
If you lose the horse's attention, tap with the whip.

Thanks to Mark Stanton of Horsemanship Magazine for proof reading! All remaining errors are my own.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Back part 2

Lena wrote in last weeks posting about the horse's inherent asymmetry and it is something that also applies to us humans.

When you lie on your back with books under your head and on a relatively hard surface, you have every opportunity to familiarize yourself with your own asymmetry. What you should pay attention to is the weight-bearing points that are in contact with the surface; the back of the head on the books and the contact the shoulder- blades, sacrum and soles of your feet have with the surface.

If you have done your homework you've had 10 occasions to check yourself. Does your head tend to fall to one side or the other? Is one shoulder blade against the floor while the other is lifted off the surface? Are your weight more on the tip of the tailbone than on the upper part of the sacrum? Is your lower back arched in such a way that you easily can slide your hand inbetween the back and the floor? Are both the inside and the outside rim of the feet in contact with the floor? Does your feet stay on the floor or do they tend to slide off away from you? Do you have as much weight on the left and right diagonal (scapula - sacrum)?

Now I want to emphasize that perception is more important than perfection! I do not think you can be 100% equilateral, the importance of this work is to become more aware of yourself and your asymmetry. That knowledge allows you to know when you need to be more focused on the Means-Where-By so that you and the horse are properly prepared in riding different excersises.

For the next period of homework, I like to give you some tips and hints to bring the process further forward.

If the head tends to tilt to one side it is often due to the muscles on that side being more contracted. One way to help yourself to keep your head still in a neutral position is to make use of your eyes. Aim at a point midway between the knees up towards the ceiling, keep looking in that direction.

If one shoulder-blade is kept a little above the floor I have a personal favorite. Place your arms straight out sideways from the body (you will be like a cross). Be aware of that the muscles of the arms can be shortened so there may be a reason to have pillows to rest the forearm against in the beginning.

When you want to bring your arms back to rest your hands on your belly or the iliac crest it is important that you do not lift your arms off the floor but allow them to slide on the surface toward the body. Keep track of how the movment affects the shoulder, elbow and wrist, if you notice any muscle tension, pause - become active passive (inhibit) - and continue with the movement when the tension has subsided.

If you easily get your hand under your lower back I urge you not to press down the back towards the floor. It is far better to place the lower legs (calf) on a chair seat or sofa in order to free the torso completely from the weight of the leg and allow the muscles in the leg to disengage.

If your feet tend to slip away or you have an uneven contact between the inside and outside of the foot, focus on your knees, make sure they always have a direction straight up toward the ceiling.

Breath, notice your own breathing, were does the breathing become visible in you? Where is your chest influenced?

“When anything is pointed out, our only idea is to go from wrong to right; in spite of the fact that it has taken us years to get to wrong we try to get right in a moment.” F M Alexander

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Natural crookedness

One main goal in schooling a horse is to teach the horse to become straight, that is move straight on a straight line, turn as easily to the right as to the left etc. All horses are either bent to the left or to the right. I've heard various explanations for this, one being this natural crookedness is formed due to the way the foal is laying in the mare's womb. This could explain why there seem to be just as many horses that are bent to the right as to the left. Whatever the reason, an untouched horse is never straight.



A horse that is bent to the right will:
*) carry its head to the right
*) overload the left shoulder
*) carry the haunches to the right
*) the right hind leg will advance more than the left, but it escapes to the side. It reaches more than pushes
*) the left hind will push, but only engage to a small extent
*) the horse tends to weight the left lateral pair (the convex side) more than the right
*) the right lateral pair is shortened (concave side) and carries less weight


When riding or lunging a horse that is bent to the right, the horse will turn easily to the right with a tendency to enlarge the circle since the outside shoulder carries more weight than the inside one. On the other hand, the horse turns to the left by falling onto the inside (left) shoulder in the direction of the turn, while carrying its head to the outside. Usually the horse canters more easily on the right lead, but with its haunches in.

What you feel when you ride:
*) The horse has a nice contact on the left rein, but refuses to take contact on the right rein
*) Your seat drops more to the right than the left in each stride and your right leg is near the horse while the left leg is pushed away from the left hindquarters.
*) In lateral work it is easier for the horse to move its shoulder to the left and its haunches to the right.

“In all work on the right rein, the horse seems flexible and 'balanced', on the left rein it seems to be stiff and 'out of balance'.“ P. Karl, Twisted truths of modern dressage (2008)


Thanks to Mark Stanton of Horsemanship Magazine for proof reading! All remaining errors are my own.

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

A rest to stretch

Something that is significant for the Alexander Technique is that there are virtually no drills. If you want to do somethingfor yourself with an Alexander technique approach I warmly recommend this procedure, laying in semi-supine or the Alexander rest.

The purpose is to give you the opportunity to observe what is happening in your body and give your muscles a chance to ease. An important prerequisite of this work with yourself is that you are observing without evaluating.

This is a short note on semi-supine.



This position is certainly familiar to many already. My dad told me that during the harvest when he was a child, grandfather rolled up his shirt into a hard roll and had a lay down on the meadow (like the picture) with the roll under his head, waiting for Grandma to come with the coffee basket.

This position offers the body a posibility to good rest, it gives the disks in the spine a chance to rehydrate and thus swell up again and it can - if you rest consciously - teach you where you accumulate unnecessary muscular tension and also contribute to an active ease (not to mix with relaxation which is something completely different!).

What you need is a warm rug or mat to lie on and a couple of paperback books to put under your head.

The way you choose to get to the floor may be different but once you are laying on the floor there are some things to pay attention to.

1, allow yourself to settle, take a few breaths - do not adjust anything
2, note how you perceive the weight through the back of the head on the books, how the contact between the floor and scapula, sacrum and feet feel.
3, be aware that your knees have a direction towards the ceiling. (If your legs feel unstable or trembling, it is better that you let your knees fall against one another than to try to hold them in place).
4, the hands can rest of the stomach, chest or iliac crest.
5, keep you eyes open - keep looking.

What happens without you having to "do anything" is that the muscles on the front of the body such as chest muscles, abdominal muscles, hip flexor muscles will become more supple and therefor make it possible for the back to come into a closer contact with the surface.

A strained hip flexor muscle pulls the lower back against the femur and contributes to an increased lordosis and a restricted movement of the hip joint. It affects your ability to smooth sitting trot or gallop. Shortened chest muscles pulls on the shoulders (rounded shoulders), and this in turn limits the movement of the shoulder joint and affect the quality of your hands.

If you give yourself 15-20 minutes of semi-supine five days a week your muscles will have got a regular dose of mild "gravity based" stretching and the bending muscles at the front of the body have let go of the back muscles and you end up being straigther.

Once you have been laing for some days in a row, you will be able to evoke the feeling of how your back rests on the floor while sitting on a chair at the desk. The kinesthetic memory is precious, you'll be able discover how the the shoulders are brought forwards to the keyboard when you're working for example, and you will be able to "release them back" again just by knowing which direction the releas has to go.

What you learn about yourself when you refine your body image will affect your everyday life on many levels. Start your journey today, visit yourself through the Alexander rest.

”Clear thinkers try to find the causes, while the average look for escapes from effects.” ~~~ Barbara Anna Brennan

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Notes from lessons with Craig Stevens

The person who first showed me there was another way of riding which was not based on push and pull was Craig Stevens. I met him for the first time in 1999 when he held a clinic near where I live in Sweden. That my horse liked what he taught me was apparent when my horse, a thoroughbred I've been riding for 13 years, started to offer both piaffe and flying changes. Not bad for a horse that, according to my previous trainers, lacked any trace of talent and positive work ethic.

Here are some notes from my clinics with Craig in 1999-2000.

Riding according to the old French model:
Direct rein - video with Craig explaning direct rein
Indirect rein - video with Craig explaning indirect rein
Half halt

The legs = forward impulsion
The hand = slowing down
Opposing each other, can cause the horse to become docile, therefore hand without legs, legs without hand. This will also make mistakes done by either hand or legs visible.

Hand without legs, legs without hand unless there is a reason to do something else, such as the combined effect.

I create everything that is riding, even in the horse's head.

Two types of resistance in horse and rider:
1) weight – the horse leans on the rider's hand because the horse doesn’t have his four legs underneath him. Is fixed with the half halt (demi arret). The rider doesn't sit aligned on the horse.
2) force – resistance of force, is caused by the way the muscles are used. Is eliminated through vibration from the rider's wrist.

One of the largest muscles for resisting is the underside of the neck. By elevating the horse's head this muscle is stretched, when the horse then lowers its head the muscle will be relaxed.

Horses are faster, stronger and weigh more than humans. Therefore we can't control horses with physical strength, only psychological effects.

The riders seat = relaxed
Hip – knee – ankle : these are the joints, plus the loin, that control the horse, not my muscles! The first job for the seat is to follow the horse. Give aids with the skeleton. “Learn to do nothing on horse back”. Most people have difficulties doing four, five things at the same time. Strength causes imbalance and the control of the horse is gone.

Calm, forward, straight/directed

Touch – non touch. Minute difference. Avoid denting! Don't cause the muscles to change shape, don't grab the skeleton.

Touch – non touch, this applies to both the hand and the legs.

Never pull backwards! The horse is 5-6 times faster, every time I pull/take the hand backwards the horse will perceive it as an attack.

Thanks to Mark Stanton of Horsemanship Magazine for proof reading! All remaining errors are all my own.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

To stand tall

Take a look at the picture below, notice the directions of the arrows



and then pay attention to yourself, right at this very moment.

What direction does the arrows have in you?

Our spine is made up of 33 vertebrae, at the top of the spine we carry our head, like a ball on a weight-lifters bar, and at the bottom the sacrum and pelvis represents the next ball.

The spine is not straight and stiff as a weight-lifters bar, it curves its way smoothly between the head and pelvis. Some vertebrae have a greater mobility between each other than others. The biggest movement we have in the neck and lower back - that's why it is a common location for slipped discs. Vertebrae in the thoracic part of the spine is more fixed by the ribs and sternum. The sacral vertebrae are completely fused.

The Alexander Technique aims to help you reach your full height, as in the left body. Not by forcing you to stand upright with strained muscles (the military way with the sucked in belly and pulled up, extended chest) but in such a way that the head is allowed to be carried on top of the spine and the pelvis may act as a counterweight at the other end of the spine. Between these "spheres" (the head and pelvis) muscles are stretched. Just as a lead-line works when you hang a weight at the lower end of it, but a lead-line without anchor at the top is collapsing on the floor, just as the right body does in the picture.

Alexander Technique helps you find the way to let the head and the pelvis be each others counterweights. When the lift of the head allows the pelvis to hang freely they provide the muscle that keeps your back upright with proper muscular tonus/tension. You are thereby able to stand tall without having to hold and stretch the muscles to acchieve it.

“People do not decide their futures, they decide their habits and their habits decide their futures.” - FM Alexander

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Training to be a good leader: Six keys to harmony

In last week's blog Maria discussed the difference between leader and trainer.

For me it has in a way been a relief to see myself as a trainer of my horse, rather than the leader. When the horse did not respond to my request as I wanted him to, rather than think my leadership had been faulty, I could think “oops, this we need to train some more on”.

The problem for me was that I used to think leadership was an inherent quality that some people have and some don't. The logic would then be that I could not change or influence my faulty leadership, which would cause negative emotions like frustration, sadness, anger etc. But now I believe that leadership, or the ability to present my request to the horse in such a way that he can understand it, is a skill that can be thought, learned and perfected with training just like any other skill.

I do however have one objection to Andrew's reasoning as Maria presents it: “One of the reasons that Andrew would prefer to call us trainers instead of leaders has to do with the horse. Everything the horse does for us it does after it has undergone training. A horse that shies away from a flowerpot does not reveal a bad leadership from the rider's side, only lack of training.

I agree that the horse who shies away from the flowerpot does it because I have not taught the horse that it need not be afraid of the flowerpot. What I react to is"everything the horse does for us it does after it has undergone training". The horse's reaction depends not only on the training, but also on its inherent instincts (for instance the flight instinct). Individual horses also have their personality, for instance different thresholds to trigger that instinct. One horse looks a little at the flowerpot and dose not react any more to it, while another has a major reaction and a near-death experience. These reactions are, as I see it, not the result of training but a result of the horse's instincts and personality.

The individual horse's behaviour on a certain day is the sum of the horse's general nature (its inherent instincts), the individual's personality and mood on the day, as well as the training it has perceived.

As I see it, it is my job as the trainer (or leader) of my horse to be consistent (the same signal always means the same thing), to be clear (just to give one signal at a time), to lead myself so I'm emotionally stable (calm, present, focused), to avoid hidden agendas (not hide the halter behind my back and then surprise the horse with it once I'm close t to him).That way I do everything I can to help my horse understand what I ask of him.

On the subject of the horse being my equal partner or not, my mind is made up: I am the one who leads the dance and the horse follows. I take all initiative regarding speed and direction. If I want to make those decisions and have the horse pay attention to me when it really matters, there are no exceptions. The horse is not my equal partner. If I ask the horse to back up, I make sure the horse backs up and the horse has not responded to my request until his feet have moved back. In my role as trainer of, or leader of, my horse, it is my responsibility to do everything I can in order for the horse to understand what I'm asking for (see the paragraph above), to confirm when he gets it right (stopping the request and giving praise), not asking for something that the horse cannot do and to give the horse all the freedom it needs to carry out what I ask for (when riding, this means that I for example do not pull on the reins nor keep a heavy pressure on the reins and in the horse's mouth).


Both Maria and I study with Ed Dabney, a soft-spoken cowboy from the USA who has put his unique stamp on Natural Horsemanship. The exercises included in Ed's Six Keys To Harmony are the same as in most other NH systems. The difference is the accuracy of how the horse is asked to place his feet, and the focus on the horse's ability to read the intent behind our body language. This system is a very user friendly tool to train the horse, and yourself, to an amazingly subtle and light communication between human and horse.

I've trained myself and my horse using this system, which has made the day to day handling of my horse easy and safe for both of us. The exercises in themselves are also a good basic gymnastic for the horse. The video shows me as I handle my horse in some day to day situations, and also some of the exercises in the Six Keys To Harmony. The video is produced for my Swedish students so it will be an opportunity for you English viewers to brush up on your Swedish. However, the pictures speak for themselves in showing what it is possible to ask for from any and all horses.



Thanks to Mark Stanton of Horsemanship Magazine for proof reading! All remaining errors are all my own.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Leader - Trainer, Teacher - Therapist

The readings of this summer has brought me to think about the words leader, trainer, teacher and therapist.

Teacher - Therapist in relation to people
My job title is Teacher of the Alexander Technique. When I work I teach people a different, and sometimes new, approach towards themselves. Therapists provide treatments, sometimes these are targeted on a specific problem.

A session with me is a lesson in which I strive to impart knowledge that can be used by the students on their own. Nevertheless, it happens both during lessons and afterwards that physical concerns experienced by the student has been alleviated.

A doctor, and also an AT teacher, describes AT as a "learning process with therapeutic effects." Alexander Technique can provide an opportunity for relief but it's a bonus that comes from the knowledge that the student accuires about himself.

Leader - Trainer in relation to horses
Andrew McLean, President of ISES, spoke at last year's conference of the importance that we as horse owners/riders should make an effort to learn more about learning theory. We would, according to him, leave the concept of leader/leadership behind us and instead call ourselves trainers.

He feels that we have every opportunity to abandon the myths, the old truths, the wrong training methods and start working horses on a more scientific basis.

According to Andrew McLean, there is a believe in many riders that domestic horses have "innate buttons" corresponding to the rein and leg aids we give. This in turn means that a horse who does not obey the aids is considered to be disobedient or defiant instead of seeing the reactionss as sign of a training system that has failed.

Horses learn through trial and error and a system in which each signal is easy for the horse to distinguish, the animal will easier decipher, and this in turn makes it possible for the horse to give the right response.

One of the reasons that Andrew would prefer to call us trainers instead of leaders has to do with the horse. Everything the horse does for us it does after it has undergone training. A horse that shyes away from a flower pot does not reveal a bad leadership from the rider's side, only lack of training.

The concepts of 'partnership' and 'cooperation' that is often used today suggests, according to Andrew, that the horse in any way is responsible for its behavior during training and that it willingly participate in the process, when in fact the horse is the one who is completely blameless in the relationship between horse and human.

The horse will become what we make of it. The horse is a herd animal that can coexist with us and it can learn a lot when given clear and unambiguous signals.

According to Andrew horse needs no other leader than another horse. What it do need in order to succeed in its relationship with human is a trainer that follows a trainings system in which the horse is given the chance to do "the right thing" many times - by those means learning right is light.

"Behaviour practised is behaviour repeted."
Andrew McLean

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Neck extension

Neck extension is a central term in the School of Légèreté and part of the flexions. The purpose of neck extension is to have the horse lowering its neck to the point that the ears are at the same height as the wither, and the nose well out in front of the vertical.



and in doing this, stretching the topline, more precisely the ilio-spinal muscle. This muscle is stretched when the spinal processes on the withers are pulled forward by the ligaments and muscles in the neck when the neck is extended horizontally. If the horse goes behind the vertical, the ilio-spinal muscle will not be stretched.



You ask the horse for neck extension by raising the hand so that you come into a steady, even, contact with the corner of the horse's mouth. When the horse wants to lower its head, let your hand follow down and forward.

These are my note about neck extension from my last clinic with Bea Borelle:

1) When the horse's head is high, the rider's hands are high so as to act on the corner of the horse's mouth, this avoids pressure on the horse's tongue.
2) Action (the horse lifts its head and the rider raises his hand, see above) – Reaction (the horse lower its head from and the rider's hand follow softly) start with the opening of the poll.
3) Demi-arrêt (French for half halt according to de la Guérinière) to open the poll.
4) The lower the neck, the further the nose out in front of the vertical (and the rider's hand forward!).
5) Being on the vertical is the beginning of a mistake.
6) Vertical balance has priority over neck extension (the horse should not speed up or lean on the bit when extending the neck. If it does, correct it with the demi-arrêt).
7) Lateral balance has priority over neck extension (the horse should not lean on the inside shoulder when turning in neck extension).
8) The steady bend keeps a steady position.
9) Légèreté doesn’t always start with légèreté, some horses need to be schooled to seek the contact with the rider's hands.
10) Neck extension is usually a lower position of the horse's neck than you think.
11) To repeat the signal tells the horse to extend more, or (in case the horse has raised its head again) to return to neck extension.
12) The bend cultivates the way of extension. For instance when the horse learns too well and start leaning on the bit, the bend will help the horse develop a soft extension without leaning.

Thanks to Mark Stanton of Natural Horsemanship Magazine for proof reading! All remaining errors are all my own.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Different models for keeping horses

At a scientific kitchen table conference, I got the book Hidden Horses by Mark Hanson put in my hands. It is an interesting read about the shared history of horse and man, how we worked together over the years and how horses have improved our lives. In his book Mark urges us, now when the horses in our part of the world no longer is the difference between life and death, to really make an effort to give our horses a "horsey life" during the hours we do not use them.

Mark presents four models of horse keeping that defines our relationship to horses, there are no solid walls between them. We can in various degrees be influenced by them and I do think that we can recognize ourselves (and others!) in them.

The Utility model:
The model is based on tradition, history and the culture in which horses were made “useful”. They could play a part in warfare, in agriculture, in industry. In our Western culture the horse was a kept for a reason and few individuals were kept just for pleasure.

Horses played a significant role in the military and that affects the key ingredients for utility model, that is control (via the reins, bits, proper seat), dominance and discipline. Dressage competitions are traces of that era in which horse and rider's performance is assessed based on predetermined ideals of obedience and control through gaites and turnes in geometric patterns. Western riding also falls into the utility model: the horse was expected to do a job on the ranch.

Professions such as veterinarians, farriers, trainers, agronomists are often trained with the utility model as a basis for their education.

A brief summary of the utility model:
* Horse is defined by what it is to be used for, everything that falls out of this definition is irrelevant (unless it would increase the horse's performance)
* the model is simple, straightforward, practical and effective, based on "things that work" even though it may be a question of beliefs rather than knowledge in certain situations
* the model is created by men for men, it is rigid and difficult to change
* The horse has nothing to say in this model and many horses fall-out early

The Anthropomorphic model:
Anthropomorphism is a term coined during 1700 to describe how people look for human characteristics in animals, plants, and phenomena such as storms. The model is interpreting the horse's behavior in terms of human behavior.

According to Mark, this model is the most dangerous threat to horses and people in the world today, even though it is based on human qualities as benevolence and kindness.

In this model there are four rules.
1, Anthropomorphism is alway rewardig for the human
2, the more like the human environment we can make the horse's environment, the more we feel like we take care of it
3, because it is rewarding to the human in itself the feedback for humans is strong in the model
4, despite the best intentions the model may often have the opposite effect on the horse.

Significant features of this model are shopping (treats, compound feed, blankets and other equipment), an overly protective attitude that prevents the horse from being in the paddock with other horses, being out in rough weather, and forces it to be covered for long periods of the year. The horse is completely dependent on the owner's personal beliefs about what is best for the horse, often based more on others' perceptions and sometimes pure misunderstandings than facts.

For the horse does this model include increased risk of obesity, laminitis, stress and various behavioral disorders.

The Horsemanship model:
This model Mark sees as a step forward in keeping and training horses. The model focuses on communication rather than control of the horse, something the previous models are based on.

The disadvantage of this model is that it is a system which, like other systems (utilitylmodel), do not adapt to the individual. The downside is that the horse learns “compliance" instead of wanting to be a active part of the training. Mark points out that horses are trained by this method easily learns to look for "the easy way out/the minimum effort" to get the release from the pressure that the trainer uses.

The origin of this model comes from how horses behave towards each other, where the threat and submissiveness is an important part in the daily life of the heard. What distinguishes the horses' use of these method is that when the high ranked horse has presented her threat and the low ranked horse has yielded there is all there is to it.

When we are training the horse by this method we will continue our threat during the time we train and we do not stop when the horse "yields" the first time but instead progress to the next exercise. One obvious danger with this model is that the trainer can easily create a horse that turns off.

The Natural Horse Keeping model:
The last model is the one that Mark advocates. In that model, he wants the horse to be in paddocks that stimulates the horse to walk and eat and to be part of a heard. The feeding is based on the fact that the horse digest food through microbiotic fermentation. It should be covered as late as possible and the blanked should be removed as soon as possible. The equipment must be suited for the job the horse will do and with no auxilliary reins.

The training of the horse is done through 'positive reinforcement, clicker training, where the horse learns to actively seek to do what leads to the reward (Mark stresses that the goal is that the horse will learn to work for the click and the sweet becomes secondary).

I have taken myself to the horsemanshipmodellen and I find it interesting to read about what Mark describes as the next level in the relationship horse-human. I can agree with what he writes about how we can improve the horse's environment.There is plenty of room for improvement for many horses in Sweden today.

Clicker training as opposed to horsemanship then? My own experience comes from horsemanship, I have not myself tried clicker training. However, I have seen good and bad effects of both kinds. When it comes to training models, I believe in what he says about system in general - namely, that they can leave the individual behind and that goes for both man and horse.

I personally believe that we could become more "means where by" focused in our training of the horse (and ourselves), be aware of our desired goals and humbled by the journey. If we manage that I think we can work together as two happy individuals.

PST!
In response to post about BT-circumference, here is a link to a page that gives more information.

"There really is a hidden horse in our horses, it is sometimes a little strange anf always rather wonderful and it is waiting for you to discover it."
Mark Hanson

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Philippe Karl's training chart

I'm getting ready for the “School of Légèreté” clinic with Bea Borelle next week. Part of my preparation is to go over my notes from the previous clinic. I wanted to share with you Philippe Karl's circular chart to horse-training. The chart focuses on what to train rather than the result of the training (rhythm, relaxation, contact, impulsion, straightness and collection). The start, and end, of all training is the horse's lightness to the rider's hand. But before I go into the sequence of what to train, let's look at what is in the centre of the circle.



Respect to the horse
Respect to the horse means knowing about the nature of the horse's psyche in order to be able to present the request you have so the horse can understand you. Horses don't speak English, Swedish or any other spoken or written language. They speak horse. To respect the horse also means to know about the biomechanics of the horse, how the horse balances himself and how he carries his weight distributed over his four legs. It also includes respecting and seeing the individual horse and recognising both similarities with and differences from other horses.

Lightness to the hand, balance and impulsion
Lightness to the hand is the starting point in Philippe Karl's training chart. Without lightness to the hand the horse is not in a proper balance. Impulsion (lightness to the legs) is only of use if the horse is in balance and light in hand. These three concepts cannot be separated, therefore there are arrows connecting all three of them.

1) Lightness to the hand
Lightness to the hand means that the horse neither leans on the bit (again balance as mentioned above. This can also be phrased as resistance of weight) nor contracts the jaw (resistance of force). Lightness to the hand means that the horse is gently playing with the bit, lifting it with its tongue and that the horse can easily swallow. This is something the horse can and should be trained to do. For the horse to be able to express lightness to the hand, the nose band (if used at all) should be loosely fitted, and the rider cannot act backwards with her hands.

2) Flexibility
The part of the horse's spine that is the most flexible is the horse's neck. Contrary to popular belief, the horse's anatomy does not allow the horse to bend laterally in its spine throughout its whole longitudinal axis. The only part of the horse's body the rider really can influence with stretching exercise is the horse's neck. Exercises to improve flexibility are the flexion of the horse's neck up and down, to the right and to the left in halt, walk, trot and canter. These exercises will lead to suppleness and, together with “3) Mobility”, also to straightness and rhythm in all gaits. The double headed arrow indicates that when a horse becomes more flexible, he will also get lighter in hand.

3) Mobility
To train mobility in the horse includes bending the horse in both directions, turning in both directions and also practicing sideways movements like shoulder in, travers, renvers and half pass. A horse is said to be straight when it can just as easily be turned to the right as to the left, perform right shoulder in as well as left etc. When the horse is light in hand, flexible and mobile, he will also move with rhythm. The double headed arrow indicates that when a horse becomes more mobile, he will also get more flexible.

4) Collection
Collection means the horse is carrying more of its weight on its hind legs by flexing the joints in the hind legs and in doing so engage the hind legs under the body. Transitions and rein-back where the horse lightens the forehand (raises the neck) and remains light in hand, together with lightness to the rider's legs (impulsion) are used to achieve collection. The circle is complete since as the horse develops the ability to collect, he will also become lighter in hand. The double headed arrow indicates that when a horse becomes lighter in hand, he will also develop a more brilliant collection.

Thanks to Mark Stanton of Natural Horsemanship Magazine for proof reading! All remaining errors are all my own.