A person lies quietly on the floor. Slowly, gently, the person moves a little – and rests. Moves a little – and rests.
Horse and rider walk in a circle. Gently, imperceptibly, the rider shifts her balance. The horse turns. The rider shifts back to neutral. The horse straightens. Neutral-shift-turn – return to neutral. Neutral-shift-turn – return to neutral.
The pause, the rest, the home-base neutrality is the frame within which balance-shifts and action spring to life.
When the surface of a pond is disturbed by chop and wind, dropping a pebble in the water goes unnoticed. The ripples become known, significant, only on a still, quiet surface. Without stillness, ripples are obliterated. The signal is lost in the noise.
The quiet, the space in a receptive nervous system, is where the significance of subtle changes can be felt, recognized, organized. These are the conditions within which learning, balance, and well-being grow. The Feldenkrais Method® of movement awareness fosters those conditions in humans. And those conditions work just as truly for humans and horses together.
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A friend of mine lives in the country near my home town of Fayetteville, Arkansas. A few years ago, she clipped an article for me about an upcoming horse clicker-training workshop. She knew that I adore horses and I had begun to do hands-on Feldenkrais practice with them. I was electrified to read that the visiting trainer incorporated Feldenkrais into her work.
The trainer was Alexandra Kurland, of upstate New York. Alex was the first, around twenty-five years ago, to systematically adapt clicker-training and positive-reinforcement techniques to horse-handling. She is the author of numerous books and video series and she has become a leading voice in the use of clicker training to improve performance, enhance the relationship between people and horses, and, as she puts it, “for just plain putting fun back into training.” She is famous for having schooled a miniature horse to be companion-guide to a blind person.
In studying with Alex, I have come to understand that Feldenkrais is for humans, for horses, and for humans and horses together.
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I was thinking about how chaos muddles relationships. About how ambivalence, or mixed signals, or emotional confusion can muddle communication. How muddle leads to frustration, and a rising temptation to escalate into using force that’s painful for all concerned.
This can arise in our own internal miscommunications between brain and senses and the rest of our physical self. The muddle is magnified when we try to communicate with another being. How important it is to settle down, to modulate an urge – to tone it down – so that the act following the urge is cooperative, and is not drowned out by chaos, by impatience, pushing through, grasping at results. The pauses in the Feldenkrais movement work, the quiet hiatuses, are vital, crucial, to the movement toward elegance and grace.
Alex’s clicker work builds on similar essentials. For instance, she calls one of her foundational behaviors “grown-ups are talking, please don’t interrupt.” By this, she shapes her horses to stand quietly by the handler, in a well-mannered and settled fashion. This creates physical and emotional balance, in both horse and handler. “Grown-ups” is the beginning of that learning for both.
I spoke at Alex’s clinic about the importance of the pause, the neutrality, the balance found in the resting state. I said: “Subtle shifts in balance have meaning if you start from a strong neutral position.”
We took this “strong neutral” idea out into the arena. Horse-less, we paced around cones set out in a circular path. Using a clock-face image that’s familiar to Feldenkrais students, we found “neutral” when our shoulders and hips were squared in the twelve o’clock – six o’clock orientation. We came off “neutral,” turning inward with shoulders toward eleven and hips lined up at five. We shifted out with shoulders at one o’clock and hips at seven. Balance-shift-inward – return to neutral. Balance-shift-outward – return to neutral.
Then a rider tried this under saddle at a walk. It was remarkable how the subtle balance-shift in the rider’s hips and shoulders – not pulling through the horse’s mouth and neck, only shifting balance centrally, through the seat and the horse’s spine and midsection – communicated to the horse. Later the rider said: “If I came from a position of quiet and stillness, then when I moved, it had meaning to my horse. My horse mirrored my movements. All it took was subtle shifts, subtle movements. When I tried to make it happen, it didn’t happen. My horse got confused. I got frustrated.” It worked, she said, “when I allowed it to flow gently.” Rhythmically. Patiently.
Alex amplified: “You don’t want to just be ricocheting, fish-tailing back and forth, back and forth. Straightness is the perfection of left and right. You have to visit straightness, not just zip past it. Being able to stabilize there, and explore bending in the horse from there – in exploring these subtle shifts in balance that are mirrored in the bending of the horse’s body – we create more possibilities for the horse. We discover the orientation that gives him greatest comfort, balance, functionality.”
She says: “Emotional balance very much evolves out of physical balance.” The bend, the ability to flex on one side while extending the other, “is key to maintaining both long-term physical soundness and the emotional stability that I look for in a safe riding horse.” The stillness, she says, the “calm between all the doing, gives your learner time to think, to notice what you’re asking him to do, and to figure out the connections.”
To think, to notice, to figure out connections. This describes the Feldenkrais learning process, too.
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Horses or humans – we have brains and spines. We share memory. We feel at ease when we are well and distress when we’re hurt or uncomfortable or pressured to excess. The process toward building balance, fluidity, and peace of mind is the same in both horses and humans. Start from home-base neutrality. Add a droplet of information, of movement, of balance-shift. Pause. From the still pond of a calm nervous system, drop the pebble in, introduce light but definite and clear movement changes, and then pause again to regard and consider the resulting ripples.
No force is necessary. No coercion. No threat. No escalation. Simply go gently, take time to think, to notice, to connect. This is how living beings learn, horses or humans.
As Alex says: “Patience is just knowledge in disguise.”
P.S. Alex writes a wonderful blog about her training adventures. These days she’s working with goats. Really, goats. Enjoy her here.
Rights to this article are shared with the Feldenkrais Guild of North America and with Senseability magazine.