While attending a MBS seminar, you may find yourself rolling vigorously on your mat or using your fingertips to gently trace the vertebrae along the back of your neck, perhaps getting a picture of them for the first time. Whatever the lesson’s focus, the learning always uses the movements of the human body as the means of developing one’s awareness. So it may come as a surprise, even to those seasoned in MBS or Feldenkrais work, that the same principles learned through group class, demos and hands-on partner work also find useful application when used with horses and other animals. Whether using touch to enlarge a horse’s awareness of its own body, or leading a class of riders to better understand and refine their own physical organization, both professional and amateur equestrians can benefit from an enriched picture of their own movements and those of their horses.
The students who come to MBS courses hail from a diverse range of backgrounds, including performers from the arts and athletics; therapists and coaches who treat both body and mind; as well as many individuals looking to alleviate pain, expand their capacity as learners, or simply enhance their sense of well-being. In the current MBS Foundation Program in Bad Toelz, Germany, many students come from the world of horseback riding. Now entering their final year of training, they already report changes in how they teach their riding students or train and connect with their horses.
Becoming One’s Own Teacher
The riding instructors currently training with MBS identify a primary goal as helping their own students to become more independent. Current student Suzy Van Eijs points to the danger in riders becoming overly reliant on their instructors, those situations where over the course of years “you’re going and going,” unable to achieve the same performance without a trainer standing by. She’s long worked to help riders teach themselves; as she recalls, “I’ve always had the intention of getting them to know themselves and to solve normal daily problems by giving them a place to start.” As Suzy describes it, her original orientation of helping students to become their own problem-solvers has only strengthened through training in the Foundation course. “At first, it was more a gut feeling…. Now I’ve gotten to test it out, with my own body or with horses.”
In order to give them that “place to start”, Suzy has focused on getting her students to refine their sensitivity to differences. “MBS taught me how to see, how to help someone else to see the little differences. Getting to the simple stuff – what’s getting longer, what’s getting shorter? Getting the sensitivity back into the rider’s eye and the horse’s body, that’s a great thing.” She’s also well aware of the challenges she faces, even in presenting something so simple. “Not all students want it, because they want to do the difficult stuff.” She laughs, “I think you have to get the basic movements first, and then the difficult movements aren’t so difficult anymore!”
Wendy Murdoch, developer of The Murdoch Method of Horseback Riding (http://murdochmethod.com), aims to equip riders to become more responsive, empowered learners. As she puts it, “My goal is not to have them [the students] dependent on me, but for them to think about it. Instead of just doing what somebody tells them, suddenly, they become their own teacher. You still need the objective observer, but they start to look for themselves. They can see, ‘Oh, I did that…and (the horse) did that!’ Self-investigation rather than the dependency on someone else.”
Riding instructor and current Foundation student Tessa Roos underscores how her students are expanding a sense of independence in their learning. “The important part is not just teaching people the what, why and how of riding skills, but it’s the learning how to learn part.” She contrasts her earlier teaching strategies for unmounted classes with how she conducts them now, noting how much more her students are able to integrate what they learn into their everyday riding:
“In the past, (my students) would get it in the moment itself, and yet it didn’t change much of how they would look at their horse or the riding or the training. So in the end, it kind of didn’t work. In the moment they understood, but I couldn’t see much change in the way they were riding or thinking about their riding. What I learn at MBS about learning through touch and movement gives me a way to connect thinking and doing that make my classes way more effective .”
Much, as Tessa describes, can be traced back to keeping her approach grounded and focused on simple differences. “What MBS teaches me is how to be learning and feeling in the moment, and then responding to it with simple things- in both my riding and teaching.”
Back to the Beginning
In a group MBS class, students are often prompted to notice how or where they initiate a movement. In the very beginning, right on the cusp between imagination and motion, the entire “DNA” of the movement pattern is already available. In many respects, listening to riding instructors reflect on their continuing development as teachers and riders has been a study in beginnings. Many report that their ongoing studies are dynamically changing how they teach, though often in a way that ultimately brings them closer to underlying principles they had already intuited. Instead of adding complexity to their lessons, they stress the importance of simple, grounded instruction. As they see their own students become increasingly sophisticated and sensitive riders, they often aid the progress by helping to rediscover a sense of playfulness and exploration.
Wendy says of her continuing study with MBS, “I think what it does more than anything is reinforce what I’ve always looked for and given me more tools. I’ve always felt the rider has to be in an organization in gravity that’s going to be efficient and lets the horse do what it needs to do.” As for tools, she praises the grounded techniques that help students stay present, retaining the ‘beginner’s mind’, in Zen-speak. Wendy adds, “That’s the art, staying there, staying present, not abandoning it. That’s the thing that Mia’s work has really helped with, just keeping it simple and keeping very clear parameters that anyone can find.”
Suzy, too, describes how her most recent developments in teaching ultimately bring her back to the initial sense of fun and curiosity from her earliest years of riding. Even before joining MBS, she had found tremendous value in starting from scratch when necessary. As an accomplished competitive rider, herself, she hit a point when she “just went back to zero to get myself sorted out, in a way, because I lost my fun. Then, I started off from zero, as far as you can when you’ve been on a horse for fifteen years, doing stuff that you usually do when you’ve been riding for two weeks. So, building up your feeling again. Letting all tension go and seeing, ‘How far can I go when I make this movement without struggling?’” With unmounted group MBS classes, she’s starting to help other riders recognize the benefit in returning to the beginning and exploring from there.
Current MBS student Ulrike Reiffenstein notes how her own riding has changed as she attended Feldenkrais seminars over decades, and now in the Foundation program. Each time she gets on a horse after a seminar, things have changed and she begins freshly. “Every time I get on a horse, it’s new. I have to adjust myself. I have to listen, ‘Okay, what is coming from what is underneath me and how do I react to it? Or what impulse do I give and how does this animal react? How smoothly can I react?”
Riding With Gratitude
Ulrike echoes Wendy’s sentiments of the great benefit and privilege of receiving feedback from a horse. “Even people who don’t ride, who don’t want to learn riding, could learn something about their capacity to let go of things,” she suggests. (Within twenty-four hours of our conversation, she has her interviewer on horseback for the first time, in true MBS style, directly demonstrating the difference between conceptual and grounded, somatic learning.) She continues, “in a way, the horse replaces the floor, and that’s another kind of feedback. You can very well feel your ability or your way of receiving feedback. Whether you go with it, whether you don’t notice, whether you follow.”
A sense of gratitude fills the conversations with each of the riders: gratitude to their various teachers, both human and equine. As Ulrike puts it, “What I want in riding is to have a good time with the horse, to be in a good contact with it. That’s what I like. And of course, hopefully, it’s changing the experience for the horse. They are so patient, these animals. And it’s so amazing how willing they are, finally, what they are willing to learn and what they are willing to do.”
Tessa describes working in-hand with a so-called “problem horse”, simply holding “a question in her hands”: “Problem horses are often even more sensitive than other horses, which is what gets them into trouble in the first place. There is major potential for disaster there. But when you get it right with a horse like that, you can get beautiful, beautiful things. I was just standing next to her, holding the reins and doing nothing more than thinking of a question, and she would go, ‘Yeah, sure,’ and move off exactly as I had asked. At the end, she lightly rested her nose on my hand, which they do if they want to make contact. It feels like a gift.”
Stay tuned to Part II of our Riding with Awareness Series!