Horses and riding are my lifelong passion. One of my first memories of horses was sitting on my neighbor’s horse as a very young child. Every time my parents tried to take me off the horse I would cry! There was an immediate electric connection between the two of us. As a child all I wanted was to sit on that horse, and riding horses is all I have wanted to do ever since. I have been riding since I was 9 and, with my own horses, I often trail rode over 50 miles a week, which is many hours of sitting in the saddle. So of course when I think of sitting, I think of sitting on a horse.
I was first introduced to the Feldenkrais Method® at a Linda Tellington-Jones equine clinic. I was intrigued and began my Feldenkrais Method training in 1987. My practice began to develop working with people who had serious injuries and wanted to recover their ability and reduce pain and discomfort. Many were equestrians. With my background in riding and horses I understood the desire to ride and the movement necessary to ride and focused on sessions that were specific to riding.
One of my equestrian clients said after a lesson in my office “ I wish you could do this while I’m on my horse”. I said “Sure we can do that.” We met at her barn. While she rode her horse I guided her through movements that improved her ease and riding skills. Since then I’ve done private, group lessons and developed workshops for riders that incorporate both aspects of the Feldenkrais Method; group Awareness Through Movement® classes and private hands-on Functional Integration® mounted lessons. I was also inspired by Linda Tellington-Jones’ Riding with Awareness and Sally Swift’s Centered Riding®, having the opportunity to study with both intensively.
A sitting lesson on a horse is not the same as a riding lesson. There are elements that I can include from riding skills to my Riding Functional Integration® lessons. The difference is feeling their body in a new way, especially sitting in the saddle. Whether working with novice or experienced riders, what I notice is that as they increase their kinesthetic awareness of sitting in the saddle it enriches their athletic ability and sense of connection to their horse. Often accomplishing a riding instructor’s directions are frustrating for the rider and the horse. Riding is a complex combination of subtle movements. A rider understands them cognitively but accomplishing the physical coordination can be difficult.
One rider said she was told over and over to move her left leg to a certain position but she couldn’t keep it there. She did not have a sense of how to move her leg that allowed her to keep it in place, be in the saddle and direct her horse. Both she and her trainer were focused on her left leg but I could see that wasn’t the problem. Her pelvis and back weren’t moving with the motion of her horse as freely on her left side. By improving the movement of her seat she could comfortably and easily keep her leg in the correct position.
A focus of the Feldenkrais Method is awareness of oneself in movement. For the rider this awareness improves the ability to cue the horse, making communication between horse and rider more sublime. I love giving Functional Integration lessons® (FI®) to equestrians sitting on their horses. For riders the sit bones and pelvis sit in the saddle, yet the ‘seat’ is a sense of feeling the horse that riders strive for, a simultaneous awareness of their movement and the horse’s movement.
What rider’s call the ‘seat’ is how you stay on a horse in any riding discipline, Western or English. The ‘seat’ involves the rider’s posture, balance and ease in the saddle. It is a tangible skill and an intangible feeling which includes the ease of sitting in the saddle, the evenness of the sit bones, and the ability to move the pelvis side to side, diagonally, and forward and back in the saddle. The ‘seat’ is a line of communication between horse and rider which communicates as much or more than the hands and reins. It includes what a rider does to keep their balance jumping an obstacle or going for a pleasure ride. Sometimes the pelvis is in the saddle, sometimes it hovers over the saddle as the horse moves. The ‘seat’ on a horse is fluid and dynamic, connected if not always in contact.
An example of all these necessary components of the ‘seat’ is a rider and horse on a jumping course. To guide the horse confidently and safely over a jump, the rider must use their ‘seat’, legs, head, and eyes to keep their horse precisely in the right path to jump cleanly. The ‘seat’ keeps the rider in balance, moving with the horse over the jump. When landing, as immediate preparation for the next jump, the rider shifts their weight (‘seat’) in the saddle and uses their head and eyes to give tiny cues for the horse to take another direction or jump. The Feldenkrais Method gives the rider additional ability to sense and use tiny movements and improve their athletic skills.
If you ride for pleasure, it’s just as valuable to increase your ability to use and sense your ‘seat’. Every pleasure or trail rider knows that horses spook and having a secure and confident ‘seat’ is important. A ‘seat’ that is rooted in awareness, not tight and stiff, with the ability to stay secure, balanced and in contact with the horse in any situation increases the rider’s safety. It enhances enjoyment and builds the communication and trust between horse and rider.
Let’s explore a Riding Functional Integration lesson. A fundamental movement for riders is rocking the pelvis forward and back on the sit bones. This movement is key to maintaining balance and ease while influencing the horse’s movement. Sally Swift called this the following seat because the rider “follows” the horse’s stride through their ‘seat’.
As each individual – the horse and the rider – changes, I respond to each individually and as a whole. The focus is being together: horse and rider. Yes, it improves riding skills and it improves the athletic performance of both, but more importantly, when a rider sits lightly and fully in contact with their horse and they move as one. It’s magical!
I first look at the balance of the rider: Are they in balance with the horse? Is the rider sitting in the horse’s center of gravity or forward or back? Does the rider have even weight in both sit bones?
Components of a good ‘seat’ include flexion and extension (rounding and arching the lower back), flexibility in the hip joints, knees, ankles, connection through the feet, and sitting upright with freedom in the head, neck, shoulders, arms, and hands. The rocking movement of the rider’s pelvis affects all these components of the ‘seat’.
The subtle movement of the pelvis is often difficult to identify for many riders despite countless hours in the saddle. The first thing I do is to help them sense their sit bones. By gently rocking their pelvis forward and back, the rider can clarify how their sit bones contact and move in the saddle. I guide the rider with my hands, shifting their weight forward and back, until the movement is clear. After that, I add the arching and rounding movement of the rider’s lower back.
This flexion and extension of the spine is connected to the rocking of the pelvis, making it possible for the rider to feel the movement traveling up to their head. This happens in response to the motion of the horse’s hind legs communicated through the rider’s sit bones (the ‘seat’). Likewise, this action facilitates mobility of the rider’s hip joints and the lengthening of their legs. In short, the pelvis coordinates the movement of the rider’s entire body. The guidance I give the rider also influences the horse to allow their back muscles to be more elastic. This makes it easier for the horse to follow the rider’s movements and have more dynamic movement of their hind quarters and legs, and freer forward movement.
When either horse or rider hold their breath it creates tension in the body and mind which affects them both. Horses hold their breath as much as riders do, because they are uncertain or anxious as to what the rider wants. Many of us hold our breath in order to concentrate which restricts our movement. Through Functional Integration the rider experiences moving while breathing and using their breath to increase their movement, ease and awareness. Breathing helps create a connection between horse and rider that is confident and reduces tension and anxiety. In turn, when each is breathing well it creates an ease of movement for both.
I was a guest presenter at an International clinician’s workshop. For my demonstration I worked with a very experienced rider and her own horse. She wanted to work on her ‘seat’, a common theme for riders. She wanted to improve her ability to be “soft” in the saddle and in her body. It was challenging for her to concentrate on riding – or even sitting relaxed in the saddle – because her horse was nervous and difficult to settle (although he was doing his best to control his anxiety to be good for his rider). She told me he was like this all the time. He never relaxed under the saddle. Addressing the anxiety of this horse was essential for the benefit of the pair.
I organized my lesson to do hands-on work with the rider on her horse standing in an arena. After each movement I would ask the rider to take her horse around the arena a few times to feel any differences, then come back to me, expanding the movement a little more each time. This gave her the opportunity to continually feel and experience the changes in her riding and the horse had the opportunity to respond to the rider making refinements in his body.
Sitting on her horse I guided her through sensing her balance, her awareness of her sit bones and how she sensed her back: did it feel tight and stiff or soft, fluid and movable? We then started focusing on her breathing. With my hands I guided her attention to her ribs and back to notice how her breathing affected her pelvis in the saddle. As she gained more awareness of her sit bones and pelvis I would add gentle movements with her legs to help her sense her hip joints and the contact of her pelvis. Her ease in the saddle and hip joint mobility increased and her legs became softer on her horse’s ribs.
As she rode, we added the arching and rounding of her back, small movements so as not to scare her horse or unbalance her while riding. I moved her body to move her horse’s body: gently shifting her weight slightly side to side, front to back, and diagonally – all movements a rider uses to cue their horse’s movements. I used her breath to affect his breath. In this way they were both allowed to safely feel changes in balance and stability standing quietly in the arena, while being in communication and contact. Then they were able to incorporate these changes into riding.
As she was riding someone asked what I had done to her horse. “This horse gets more nervous and unmanageable the longer she rides, not calmer.” The clinician and participants were amazed by the horse’s relaxation. I was not. When you give the horse the same importance as the rider, what appears to be unchangeable behavior can improve, even if that does not seem to be the focus of the lesson. For me the simplicity of the rider’s breathing and connection with her horse not only gave him a sense of security but the changes in her body invited him to be less anxious and more trusting.
Here’s what I saw at the end of the lesson: he was quiet, attentive and listening with a big, relaxed forward walk with light contact on the reins as they went around the arena. She was sitting easily and quietly on his back, in full contact, her legs, pelvis, and body following his movement with harmony and balance. I saw she was aware; sensing herself on her horse and sensing him and his movement. She rode with a fluid presence. He lifted his back to support his rider with comfort and trust. As a result of the lesson, the rider included her horse in riding in a way he had not experienced before, creating trust.
They were a beautiful pair.
Pamela Beets is a Feldenkrais practitioner with three decades of experience. She specializes in working with equestrians at all levels as well as their horses. She has worked with Linda Tellington-Jones, the creator of Tellington TTouch® and also studied with Sally Swift, founder of Centered Riding®. Pamela has worked with Olympic medalist equestrians and presented The Feldenkrais Method and TTouch® to groups and organizations including the Colorado Holistic Nurses Association, Colorado State University Veterinary Holistic Students, Rocky Mountain Dressage Society & The International Certified Horsemanship Conference.