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In the second part of this blog series, we continue our conversation with MBS students involved in horseback riding and riding instruction. In this installment, Tellington Touch Practitioner and riding instructor Martin Lasser joins in the conversation.
“You have to be there, open with them, and if you’re not, they will tell you. It’s a great way of knowing your mind, to be in this mindset. If you’re not, the animal will take off!” - Suzy Van Eijs
In the course of interviewing multiple riders and riding instructors, one particular horse fact kept coming up. Though it first seemed simply to be a stunning bit of trivia, by the end of our conversations, it became clear how central this little piece of information was to understanding horses and the people who really get to know them: It turns out, horses can feel a fly land anywhere on their bodies. A horse may weigh a thousand pounds, but it has an image of its body that’s dazzlingly detailed. As MBS student Suzy Van Eijs points out, “It’s not that because a horse is big, it has no feeling of its body. It’s actually very subtle.” As the various equestrians and teachers emphasized how much they learn from their horses, the skill they seem most to share with their equine partners, and most to value, is sensitivity.
Better Listening For Better Riding
Each of the current MBS students I spoke with noted how their experiences in MBS and with Feldenkrais have refined their perceptiveness, both internally and in the world around them. In describing what has most enhanced her riding, Ulrike Reiffenstein first notes the change in how she perceives her own body in relation to the horse. Through attending Feldenkrais workshops over many years, and now participating in the Foundation course, she reports, “I’m more aware of all of these connections through my body, and that helps in riding, that’s obvious.”
Certainly, with heightened sensitivity, a rider can better respond to a horse’s feedback. And that’s huge when you’re asking an animal five or ten times your size to perform highly complex maneuvers. While plenty of lip service is paid to the benefits of increasing awareness and improving one’s connection to the horse, MBS students who ride point out the importance of really learning to focus on simple, concrete differences in movements. That skill forms a foundation for what can become a deeply nuanced, intuitive interaction through extremely complicated feats. In essence, the rider learns to break down the horse’s feedback – a massive amount of information – into discrete, observable chunks. With practice, riders pick up on feedback of ever increasing subtlety.
Wendy Murdoch, founder of the Murdoch Method and returning MBS student, contrasts such a grounded approach with the vague kind of advice she finds that riders receive all too often from well-intentioned instructors. She explains, “People tell them that their movements influence the horse, but they don’t say how. It’s about your connection to the ground and how that moves through your body so the horse gets the message.”
Ulrike identifies the changes in her sense of her own body in extremely specific terms, since she first began attending Feldenkrais workshops:
“I notice it makes a big difference for riding a horse if you feel your pelvis as one thing, or if you feel that these bones you sit on, these sitting bones, as two halves and how they move, not separately, but in relation to one another. That changed my riding a lot. And still, there are situations when I get some stress or something, and the first thing that happens is that I contract the muscles in the pelvis, and then you lose the clear contact to he horse.”
As Ulrike describes her development as a rider, she notes, “My whole body is softer and more...” She pauses, searching for the English word for dürchlassig. A German-English dictionary only offers up “permeable,” though a strictly literal translation would be something like “letting it go through.” As Ulrike becomes more aware of the connections throughout her body, impulses from the horse can “go through” more easily. Getting quieter makes it easier to listen.
Dance or Domination
Riding instructor and current Foundation student Tessa Roos describes a recent interaction with a horse that took place entirely through nonverbal questions. “I used these very simple things that they teach us at MBS: just putting your hands there with a question. With a question in my head, I went, ‘Where does this go?’” With one hand on the horse’s sternum and one on the withers, she engaged the horse in a mutual exploration, simply asking “Where is your sternum?” By the end of the session, Tessa found dramatic changes not only in the horse’s movements, but in how the horse related to her, and in the sheer eagerness to follow Tessa’s continuing line of questions, as well as her requests.
To be sure, when a rider introduces this questioning approach with a horse, instead of solely giving commands, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the horse takes over. Tellington Touch practitioner and riding instructor Martin Lasser uses the metaphor of dance to describe how he works together with horses. It hardly seems a coincidence that the same comparison is so often used to describe hands-on MBS sessions. In each case, a dialogue takes place through physical interaction.
In the Tellington Touch Method, as Martin explains it, specific touching techniques are only one half of the equation. The other side is “the philosophy of respect to every living thing” and the gradual development of intuition. He stresses the importance of building up an intuitive sense of what’s needed at a particular moment, beyond learning a menu of maneuvers. “Of course,” he notes, ”you can touch the mouth for emotion and the ears for respiration and the heart… but, if you touch in the right time at the right spot, you can really change a lot.” Martin points out that in dancing, as in riding, someone must lead, but “in a kind way. If you’re a really good leader, you don’t be dominant. If you lead in this way, it will give the horses a lot of trust, so they will follow you because you are good. Not because you are dominant.”
For contrast, Martin points out the military underpinnings of most modern traditions of horsemanship and riding. He notes the historical precedent of a rote learning style, through force and conditioning, as much for horses as for soldiers.
“Of course,” he exclaims, “they used to train soldiers so they should not think so much, because otherwise they wouldn’t go to the war! So they trained them in a certain way, that they don’t think and are really obedient, and do the work without thinking. And so they trained also the horses in this way.”
The approaches offered through MBS as well as Tellington Touch couldn’t offer a more striking contrast. Instead of simply conditioning an animal to respond to an increasing number of commands, the rider engages in a learning process together with the horse.
Learning From Your Horse (And Learning Like A Horse Does)
Most of the riders and instructors I spoke with have been riding for most of their lives, and they each have at least one story of coming to a personal realization, a career change, or a simple riding discovery thanks to the counsel of some four-legged companion. Suzy talks about how her experiences with horses and with MBS helped prepare her for motherhood. When communicating with a newborn baby, she points out:
“You cannot explain what you want in words. You have to do it in feeling and intention. Actually, I learned from MBS how important intention is with people. I knew it from horses, but I hadn’t realized really that when someone touches you, how much their intention matters. From horses, I’d already known.”
This kind of non-verbal interaction isn’t just a necessary means of giving commands or asking questions. Both Wendy and Tessa chime in that often the most direct means for a rider to learn is completely non-verbal. As Wendy puts it, there’s an opportunity in riding, as in MBS and Feldenkrais, to learn “in the way animals learn.”
Wendy notes the widespread tendency to what she calls “frontal lobe”-type thinking, in which we heavily rely on those cognitive functions that horses do without. An example: “Horses look in the mirror and don’t recognize themselves. But they still experience the relationship to the ground, as whether they’re steady or unsteady.” The beauty in learning with a horse, Wendy suggests, is the chance to experience this “different sense of learning about balance. It’s using the parts that horses have, and learning to use them.” After all, she continues, ”if both the horse and rider have a better sense of their connection to the ground, they can get calmer, they can process, they can move. If they’re unsteady, without the sense of stability, then all the other things come in. You get a little off balance, your weight shifts, you’re gone.” Getting too caught up in the “flowery elaboration,” as she puts it, can interfere with the learning process and with your basic connection with your horse, in gravity.
Tessa, too, describes her new teaching and learning style as being more direct, more able to bypass whichever elements turn out to be excess trappings. From early on, she suspected that engaging multiple senses would help her students. She found partial successes as her students learned through looking, feeling, and sometimes even drawing their way to grasping horse physiology and movement. Yet, Tessa continued to come up against some limitation, feeling certain there must be a way the lessons could more fully translate into changes in her students’ riding.
Tessa makes a distinction between an academic orientation and a simpler kind of inquiry, which she sees produce much more lasting results. For example, in an academic approach, it wouldn’t do to point to a place on a horse skeleton and simply say, “Hey, this is an interesting bone!” or ask, “Which way does it move? How does it move?” In the past, she would have felt obliged to explain, “This is an interesting bone because it’s located here on the pelvis, and it corresponds to you there and….” (Which version sparks your curiosity more?)
Tessa adds, “There’s nothing wrong with the academic side. It’s just that at the end, I’m trying to teach [my students] to be better riders, which is about movement. It’s a conversation in movement.” “In the old days,” she considers, “I would have thought that was a roundabout way of saying something.” Now, she finds that saying less and feeling more often proves most accurate and most direct. As she sums it up, paraphrasing something Mia said in a recent course, “The movement teaches. We don’t answer the question – the movement does.”