Thursday, 24 February 2011

The horse's mouth: Cession de mâchoire

In my experience there are a few concepts that are central to classical riding which I have so far to encounter in other contexts. These are:
*) the made mouth of the horse
*) resistance of weight and resistance of force
*) the rider's hand as the primary aid
*) the counted walk
*) using the whip to calm and direct the horse's focus
*) the difference between the rider's leg when it allows movement and when it moves the horse sideways

What we choose to talk about is very important for our perception of the outside world. How we interpret what we see and feel is largely controlled by the language we use. The world around us is so complex that we literally do not see everything that surrounds us. Our brains are filters that sort and select the impressions for us. This filter is affected by the language and concepts that we use. The language gives us a mental readiness to interpret what we see, or in other words to see something as something.

For instance Maria, with her training as an Alexander Technique teacher, will not just see that the rider is on the horse, but will instantly “see” the rider's posture and use of self. I, on the other hand, with my training as an instructor will at a first glance ”see” how the rider is communicating with the horse. My father, who is not used to horses, might ”see” that the horse looks nice in general, or completely miss the horse and see the tractor instead.

Therefore the language and concepts we use direct our perception of the world around us.

In this post I want to write about a French expression, ”cession de mâchoire”, which in English literally translates to "yielding of the jaw". The French expression has a very specific meaning, namely that the horse gently moves his tongue, for example by lifting the bit, tasting the bit as if it were a piece of sugar, and then also gently moves the lower jaw.

When the horse is allowed to use her tongue and her lower jaw in this way it means she relaxes not only the tongue and the muscles in the lower jaw, but also the muscles of the lower part of the neck and chest. Herein lies the key for the rider to position the horse's neck easily: raising, lowering, right and left. So no more tightened noseband! At least two fingers between the noseband and nose, if you are at all in need of a noseband that is.

A horse that is light in hand in this way can be said to have ”a made mouth” which also includes how the horse is relating to the bit and the riders hand with the rest of her body.

Does your horse have a made mouth? Is she playing with the bit using her tongue?

Thanks to Mark Stanton of Natural Horsemanship Magazine for proof reading!

Thursday, 17 February 2011

The Classical Rider and the Alexander Technique

In the Alexander Technique, there are three concepts that are intimately connected with one another. It is the concepts of use - function – structure. In this triad there is both a mutually dependent and effect.

Each part of the triad may be the subject of an initial impact, which in turn brings changes (or adaptations!) in the other two.

Our structure influence both the way we function and our ability to use ourselves. A congenital disability will affect both function and use, for example.

It may also be that the way we use ourself have an impact on our structure and function. If we have a job with a lot of lifting (need not be heavy!) and we fail to maintain the width of the chest it may over time lead to us having rounded shoulders. In that case both our structure and function (breathing) is affected.

A disease can cause disturbance in our function, which naturally spills over to how we can use ourselves and our structure. A minor impact may be a fracture - a more comprehensive can be a stroke.

The same conditions apply to the horse. Even if the horse is allowed to just be a horse external events can lead to adjustments between these factors. Strictly speaking a rider is only an external influence on the horse. Our influence can be said to be extensive. We provide the horse with its living-space (paddocks, stables), feeding, training, exercise, welfare and health. And it is we who decide what the horse will do for and with us.

In everything we do with our horses we affect its own use, function and structure.

The horse has no goals of his own with the training, we are the ones setting the goals. It is therefore our responsibility to educate ourselves and the horse to reach those goals with as little negative impact on the horse's own use, function and structure (I'll use u-f-s from here on).

The training aims to strenghten the horse so that it can cope with what we desire. In Alexander Technique therminology we should focus on the means-where-by - to ensure that the way we choose to reach our goal ables the horse to reach that goal "intact" or, in other words, with as little impact on its u-f-s as possible.

Either the horse can carry out what the rider demands - or it can not. If it fails to meet the demands it's the rider that has to analyse what is happening. Checking if there has been any change in the horses u-f-s and either reduce his/her own ambitions or correct the choosen way of training. The rider may never consider the use of ”material doping” and with severe bitting, draw reins or coarse riding techniques force the horse. That kind of behaviour is refered to as end gaining, we put our own personal goals up front and it leads to a big impact on the horse u-f-s.

When we as a rider set our goals we must prepare ourselves for the task. We would need to train our own balance and body control, reduce muscular tension and address the distortions in our own bodies.

We would need to train both a lightness and swiftness of communication between our brain and body. It is this ability within ourselves that creates conditions for a light communication with the horse and a training that makes both horses and riders calm and satisfied with the work.

Alexander Technique is a training that contribute to the schooling of a rider in such a way that the rider becomes the rider that the horse both deserves and needs to fulfill our dreams, while still maintaining u-f-s. The horse has no ambitions of his own in regard to training but he will enjoy the work you initiate if you train dressage without your horse occasionally.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

The figure eight

In my last blog I wrote about the characteristics of a schooled horse:
1) calm
2) attentive
3) educated mouth
4) suppleness

Here is a deceitfully simple exercise that will school the two first items on the list above if done correctly. I've learned this exercise from Craig Stevens, a master in classical dressage.

Calm and attentive

Calmness and attentiveness go hand in hand. If the horse is not calm you will most likely not have its attention either. So if your horse is stressed, anxious or just full of energy and has its focus on everything other than you, here is what you can do: ride a figure of eight. Depending on the horse I ride this either on two 20-meter circles or on two 10 meter circles. By repeating the figure of eight over and over a stressed or anxious horse will become calm since the repetition in itself becomes familiar and almost hypnotic. By using a light touch on one rein you draw your horse's attention to this one aid which in itself will help the horse to stay focused, instead of trying to listen to five aids at the same time.

This exercise is therefore done using one rein. The goal is to have a big loop in the other rein so that you know for sure that your horse is listening to the rein that you are using. Use your common sense, if your horse is far from calm, focus on turning using only the direct rein since the direct rein will always work (if your horse takes off you can always turn using a not-so-light touch on the inside rein. This is what Western riders call a “one rein stop”). You can then let the circle control your horse's speed. The indirect rein is a trained aid. For it to work you'll need your horse's attention.

Direct rein
A direct rein is when you move your hand away from the horse's body. More precisely, you make a small action with your hand away from the horse. Your horse will shift weight to the front leg of the same side and thus turn to that side. As soon as your horse start to shift its weight and turn you cease the signal. If you continue, your horse will either do exactly as you say, that is turn more, or start ignoring you, that is not turn at all. It is the pauses between your signals that will make the horse attentive to you.

In the picture I've started with going to the right (1). If our right direct rein was too strong and thus made the horse turn too much, you'll have to compensate and use an indirect rein to get back on track.

Indirect rein
When you reach the point where the two circles meet you steer the horse onto the new circle using an indirect rein, still using only the right rein (2). Remember to cease the signal as soon as your horse stops turning so that your horse doesn't turn too tightly or, worse, start to ignore you.

An indirect rein is a movement towards the horse's neck. More precisely it's a small action towards the neck (never crossing over it). This will cause the horse to shift some of its weight to the diagonal rear leg and so the horse will start turning away from the rein.

If you've done too much you'll have to use a direct rein to get your horse back on track. If your horse starts going straight you'll have to make an indirect rein to keep the horse turning. If the horse is following the circle you concentrate on being the most agreeable passenger you can by not interfering (3). When you again reach the point where the two circles meet you direct your horse back on the first circle using a direct rein.

When you and your horse can do this on the right rein, you of course do the same on the left. When you train your horse you are really training two half horses. A straight horse is a horse that can use both its halves in an equal manner.

Thanks to Mark Stanton of Natural Horsemanship Magazine for proof reading!

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Flow – the absence of fear?

Athletes talk about flow and how to achieve it. To be in the flow is desireable since it gives a feeling of enhanced presens in both the moment and movement.

In the Alexander Technique we make references to something we call the startle pattern or fear reflex which is an involuntary movement in the body caused by something that either scare or surprise us.

The reaction is similar to the one you would experience if you took a shower and the water turns out to be cold as ice. You'd pull your head down and raise your shoulders at the same time, bring your arms to your side, gasp and hold your breath for a split second. Your entire body thightens and your thought process is blocked.

This fear reaction is often seen in riders, it can be triggered by almost anything. Anxiety for what the horse might do, the hight of a fence, speed of gate, fear of failing as a rider - simply anything that frightens us. In that moment of tension we are unable to move, think and act. We are incapacitated for a split second and that brings us away from the moment and movement. When the tension releases we find ourselves in a situation we have to deal with. We have become followers instead of leaders.

When I became a mother Sean Scary and Fanny Fear entered my life and also my life with horses. I've had to work with the effect fear had on me. In my case it took a while just to grasp that I was actually scared. I had to acknowledge my fear to be able to get conscious control over the thought mechanisms that created anxiety in me and that was through the use of inhibition and direction.

With our new horse fear was a fact again, the knowledge I had in horsemanship was not enough to handle her forceful and vigourous gestures. Ed's visit in August was an absolute must in order to give me knowledge and confidence to overcome my fear and to continue to work our young horse.

So now, when I find myself capable of handling the rope halter and lead rope without having to look at it, when I've become better at positioning my body in regard to her body, when my feet are moving instead of being paralysed by fear we are making progress.

I've gone from reacting to her behaviour (read: follow her whims) to make her follow my descisions. She still argues but since I'm no longer afraid I can sense her reactions before they take place. I'm in the moment and movement - I'm in a flow!

and then a mail was passed forward from an AT collegue of mine

--- But the articles from this blog (The quest for Equipoise) of two Swedish ladies are just brilliant. It's all about Classical horse riding and Alexander Technique (AT). And I think they have a lot to do with what we do at KaizenTao from a different perspective, especially what Thong has been teaching us the "magic" works.

You'll find jewels every where. Thanks for your post of a skeleton photo from that blog site a while back. That led me to the discovery of this treasure place.

Mitchell Wu

As you can imagine my smile reached all the way to the ears! Thanks for your support Mitchell!