The Empty Saddle

Recently (and rather to my surprise) horses have become part of my life. This has turned out to be an unexpectedly wonderful thing for several reasons beyond the obvious one that they are fascinating characters and endlessly amusing companions. In particularly I have discovered, like many before me, that horses are very accurate mirrors. They are completely honest in their responses: if we care to listen they show us with great clarity what we are doing that we might not wish to be aware of — and what they think of us and our behaviour! In addition they offer a great way to work with principles such as intention, allowing and saying ‘no’. It’s not a coincidence that many Alexander Technique teachers ride, and that the Technique is well known and valued among open-minded horse people. 

Here are a few important things that I think we can learn from being around horses:

1. Balance matters. As a child and young man I was a bit of a ‘klutz’, being somewhat dyspraxic and poorly co-ordinated. Several things I have done over the years have helped to resolve this (the Alexander Technique, of course, and also primitive reflex work) so it was a revelation to get on a horse for the first time in 35 years and to feel immediately comfortable there, rather than experiencing the noble beast as a wretched and precarious perch! Instead of fighting to stay on I was responding freely to the movement. I felt very much at home. The ability to balance openly and freely in an upright posture is one of the most fundamental things to differentiate humans from other animals. The evolutionary development of this ability left our arms—and hence our hands—completely free; balance was therefore a pre-requisite for the development of human culture, and for all the achievements (and problems) which have followed. For many of us in the modern world this sense of balance has atrophied — often to an extent we may not be aware of. This is a pity because being able to balance well—even in the mundane activities of life—gives us an inner feeling of safety, frees our limbs up for activity, and opens the door to unexpected experiences.

2. It’s important to take care of yourself. You don’t need to be around horsey people for long before you realise that many of them pay a high price for their passion! Riding horses is very physical and places a lot of demands on the body (even before we factor in the after-effects of falling off!). These demands need to be met with intelligence and consciousness if we are not to end up with pain and muscular skeletal problems. This sort of deterioration can be exacerbated by old-fashioned teaching methods which encourage what could be called 'fake good posture'. This is where we hold on and tighten to hold ourselves in what looks like a 'correct' position, rather than releasing to allow our innate postural support system to function as it should. When we learn to let go and be supported, rather than frantically trying to create support through holding on, we find that not only are we less likely to experience constant low level aches and pains, or liable to injure ourselves (though that’s always a risk with horses!) but we also become more ‘in tune’ and responsive to the horse. Excess muscular tension acts as a barrier between horse and human (in the same way as it does in human to human interaction). It limits not just our physical, but also our emotional, responsiveness. Almost literally it builds a wall between ourselves and the rest of the world.

3. Honesty is the best policy. Horses don’t lie! They are always expressing one hundred percent who they are in any given moment. They don’t play games or hide their true nature like humans often do. Of course sometimes when we are dealing with the complexity of human life it is appropriate and necessary for us to exercise discretion in how, what and where we express, and when we forget this we may be unintentionally destructive to ourselves or to others. But horses can remind us that to be healthy and happy we always need to come back to where and what we truly are, to be ourselves in the present, and allow what is there to flow freely again. 

4. Magic happens in the space between clarity of intention and letting go. If we want to live with a feeling of grace and effortlessness we need an intelligent intention or image of what we are trying to achieve (meaning one that is in accord with our structure and design), coupled with the ability to get out of our own way. Our body-mind can manifest a deep intelligence which, given a chance will organise things with far greater subtlety and skill than we (by which I mean the ‘little I’ sitting in our head working the controls) can ever hope to achieve by our own efforts. When we  learn to get out of the way of this deep intelligence, and allow it to carry out our well-conceived intentions, everything flows with freedom, balance and poise. 

Horses are great at teaching us about this. Because they don’t lie they reflect back to us what we are doing and who we are in any given moment. If we tense up and become aimlessly controlling, they tense up too and become discombobulated. If we try to force things rather than directing the flow of what’s happening they push back. If we have unclear or contradictory intentions they will not be able to do what we want and will do what we are actually (unconsciously) asking of them. So working with horses we are really working with ourselves, discovering how we get in our own way, and how to get out of it again. If we approach being with a horse in this spirit we start to become better at saying ‘no’ to the wish to respond to challenging situations with holding rather than release. We become wiser and clearer in our intentions. And in time we might find that our intentions themselves begin to arise less from the ‘little I’ and more and more from the place of deep intelligence within us. But that’s another story….

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Horse RidersMarcus Sly