No matter what your riding style, the key to riding effectively is a calm yet alert mental state, and the ability to use your mind and body to direct and respond sympathetically with your horse. Riders need a strong center of gravity, excellent body control, and the ability to move with softness yet strength. All of these skills are taught very effectively by Tai Chi and the Alexander Technique. Sally Swift's work drew from both of these disciplines in the creation of her popular Centered Riding books and courses. If you like Centered Riding, then you will find lessons in the Alexander Technique and Tai Chi will greatly deepen and enrich your riding experience.
Alexander Technique for Riders
Noted dressage teacher Eric Herbermann has said that "excess tension is the single greatest enemy of good riding." The Alexander Technique is especially well suited to helping riders learn specific skills for identifying and releasing excess muscle tension. Because much of our habitual tension is unconscious, it is difficult to detect and release tension on our own. With the help of a skilled Alexander teacher, riders are able to identify their own unique patterns of reaction, holding and tension. Once under conscious control, excess tension can be swiftly recognized and specific skills for release of tension learned. Free of excess tension, balance and suppleness in the saddle improve.
The Alexander Technique also teaches riders how to improve the balance their head and torso over their center of gravity, and learn how to release and drape their legs around the horse's center. Once riders achieve greater balance, freedom of movement, and appropriate muscle tone, they are better able to follow the movements of their horse. Improved body awareness and control allow riders to communicate more clearly with their horse through clear and precise application of their aids. Free of excess tension and compression, able to balance easily in the saddle, riders can create a relaxed and attentive focus that will allow their relationship with their horse to thrive.
Lessons for riders are based on studio work on a stationary horse and table. Mounted lessons for students with their own horse are available by arrangement. Workshops and presentations for small groups are also available by request.
Tai Chi for Riders
If you are looking for an activity that compliments and furthers your riding skills, Tai Chi is an excellent choice. Riders find that Tai Chi improves body alignment and balances strength with suppleness. Tai Chi develops the deep stabilizer muscles of the core of the body that are essential to strength and endurance in the saddle. Balance and strength are further enhanced as students learn to center themselves from their "dan tian" or energy center located in the cradle of the pelvis. As students follow a choreographed Tai Chi sequence, their ability to direct and coordinate independent movements of the arms and legs improves steadily. Fluidity, coordination, balance and agility are some of the many benefits that translate directly into riding success.
Tai Chi also presents the opportunity for riders to cultivate the inner awareness and quiet mind or "jing" that increases enjoyment of riding, and helps to create a calm mental state in both horse and rider. Tai Chi students learn how to "song" the joints, or gently open the joints from within to create a responsive, elastic quality. The development of jing and song allows riders to yield, absorb and redirect energy. To the observer, the rider appears motionless in the saddle and moves as one with their horse.
With continued practice, students become sensitive to the flow of "qi" or life force that circulates throughout the body. Just as riders seek to follow and direct the energy flow of their horse, practitioners of Tai Chi seek to follow and direct the flow of energy in their own bodies. Once able to cultivate and direct energy flow, riders are able to form an even deeper partnership with their horse.
For more on Jo Ann's Tai Chi teaching, please visit the Tai Chi page. In addition to regular Tai Chi classes offered in the Mechanicsville area that riders are welcome to attend, workshops and presentations on Tai Chi for riders are available upon request.
Riders Talk About Their Alexander Technique Lessons
I came across the topic of AT on one of my riding bulletin boards, UK-based Enlightened Equitation. AT was described as a method that helped riders to identify areas of tenseness/tightness and learn to relax. I have always been tense in my shoulders while riding and, to a lesser degree, my hips. I was also having a lot of pain in my neck. I found Jo Ann's website and was encouraged to see that she was an equestrian, so I felt she would understand my riding issues. After my very first session, I noticed a huge improvement in my neck. As the sessions went on, I learned to correct myself when I tightened or tensed. AT has not only improved my riding, it has improved my daily well-being.
As a rider I always try to use my body very symmetrically, but I found out very quickly that life makes our bodies just a little bit short of perfect! In trying to be the best rider I can be I found a great help in the Alexander Technique and Jo Ann Widner. She has taught me how to feel and relax muscles and use my body in the correct way to get the results I desire. Having her help me on my horse was such a great help and the table work that she does on me is fantastic. Everyone should try this.
I trail ride and now don't have an aching back during and after my rides since taking Alexander Technique lessons with Jo Ann. My posture is better and I have a much better awareness of my body than before. I am able to alleviate tightness and improper body positions so much easier. I am much more relaxed and that translates into better riding and a better behaved horse.