I have been studying and applying The Alexander Technique for about three years now. I work directly with an Alexander Technique teacher in my area, and also with various teachers that I have met while travelling on the road for Centered Riding events. Spending this time outside of the saddle to really focus on my own posture and movement has greatly improved my riding and, also, my understanding of the structure, function, and movement of the human skeleton. I have been recently wondering how the ideals of the Alexander Technique can be implemented in the training and development of dressage horses.
One thing I have noticed is true of every Alexander teacher I have encountered thus far: the first lesson they teach you is always how to ‘free the neck.’ As humans, we tend to hold a lot of tension in our neck, as a result of stress, poor posture, sleeping in awkward positions, driving for long distances, etc. Sometimes, we may even think that we need to keep our necks tense to hold our head upright. By tensing our neck, we are pulling and shortening the neck muscles, causing the weight of our head to sit unbalanced on top of our spine. You can imagine what kind of effects this will cause in the long run: headaches, neck and shoulder pain, back pain. Also, if you are any type of performer (musician, dancer, horseback rider), you will need your neck to be free so that you can work toward the best posture to do your job effectively and with the greatest ease.
The next few lessons usually go something like this. You learn how to release tension in the neck so that your 10-lb head can balance properly on your spine. The spine comes up to meet the skull toward the back of the head rather than right up through the middle, as some people may have thought. This means that a good portion of the head and skull are out in front of the spine. In other words, the orientation of our head is ‘forward’ and ‘up.’ Thinking of freeing the muscles in your back and releasing your head forward and up allows much more freedom through these areas as you are walking, sitting, dancing, singing, riding etc. Consequently, your whole spine lengthens and your back widens. You may feel that you are taking up more room in space and that you are taller. Your bones and muscles are at their full length, and you feel free in your posture to move up, down, left, right, forward, back. It all becomes easier.
My horses are my greatest teachers and I have been doing some new things with their development as I have learned many wonderful new things this year. Watch for another blog post when I will discuss how I studied exercise science for the past year to become a certified personal trainer and how I relate it to horses and riders. Moving back to posture, I have been doing a lot of gymnastic exercises with my horses, for their coordination and fitness. By watching them travel while they are on the lunge, I notice they can do their jobs much easier when their neck is free and they extend their head forward and out, lengthening and widening their backs! As a result, their core becomes more engaged and the hind leg can come forward and under much more easily. I’d like to think that this is the kind of carriage we are after in the dressage world. When the horse is posturally correct, the muscles are at their optimum length and can be conditioned to work toward collection through the school exercises, transitions, and gymnastics. The horse’s ‘frame’ over time becomes a result of muscle development versus forced contraction of the skeleton as we are so often seeing in modern dressage : horses with short necks, heads behind the vertical, stiff and hollow backs, inactive hind ends.
So what if the first lesson we taught our horses was to ‘free the neck’ and followed it up with lessons on carrying the head forward and out in front of the vertical, lengthening the spine, and widening the back, creating freedom in his skeleton? Would it not be easier for him to do his job correctly? In fact, it has been my experience that a number of dressage riders take a very different approach to the first lessons for their dressage horses. Instead of freeing the neck, it is the goal to put the horse immediately together, shortening and tensing the neck. As many riders and trainers know, actions in one part of the body will always affect the rest of the body. So, what will be the consequences of a shortened neck? It will show up elsewhere in the body, either as a hollow back, heavy forehand, lost connection etc.
As I stated early on, I have been wondering how the Alexander Technique can be implemented in the training and development of dressage horses and will continue to work and ride my horses with the Alexander Technique in mind for both of us. As we progress through these ideals, I will be partnering up with my Alexander teacher to offer demonstrations.