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Inhibition in Action

Francesca Aldridge

(First published in STATNews, May 2011)


DabsIt was a cold, clear October morning when I went to meet Marie and Dabs on a farm at the foot of the Sussex Downs. As I walked into the farmyard, I was struck by the fact that there were two of everything. Two goats first came to greet me and see if I was good for a scratch round the ears. Then there were two dogs, one of which was a very convenient height for warming my hands on. Of the two horses, one was dark and friendly and resigned to being left in the stable, the other was looking interested and saddled ready for action. This was Dabs, to whom I was introduced by Marie. Marie is a barefoot rider, which is a little misleading as she was wearing a nice pair of riding boots. It is actually the horse that is unshod, and that was also a little misleading, as Dabs was wearing four rather sweet rubber boots, shaped to the hoof and fastened with Velcro. There were no metal shoes hammered into the hoof. But being a barefoot horse is not just about the shoes. The horse is given a more natural lifestyle. A carefully balanced diet is all important, particularly in limiting the amount of sugar, as this can lead to inflammation in the joints, and laminitis (inflammation in the binding structure of the hoof). Marie also chooses not to use a bit to the bridle, and wants to practise careful, balanced riding. This was my reason for coming -I was here to observe a lesson in the Alexander Technique given by Carolyn Nicholls.

We walked to the riding area, where Marie removed Dabs' shoes. I was impressed with how helpful he was, picking up his feet for her in a very gentle horselike way. I had never seen a horse quite so helpful, and Marie later explained that this is actually a big deal. In the wild, horses can be at risk from predators. By giving you their hoof they are limiting their powers of running away, so they have to trust you.

Next Marie attached the reins, and she and Carolyn moved to the centre of the area, while I remained by the gate. Marie encouraged Dabs to walk, trot, and canter around in almost circles, explaining that this warmed him up before riding. Carolyn reminded Marie to think of her use. As she directed, Dabs seemed to move more freely, being very aware of his surroundings and his rider. I noticed that each time he approached where I was standing, he kept a wary eye on me -an unknown human obviously needs watching. I too looked after my own use so that he wouldn't find me quite so worrying.

When Marie mounted, I moved to the centre of the ring to stand with Carolyn and observe how she taught Marie ‘at a distance’. She suggested Marie lengthen down the backs of her legs, with her heels directing down. Marie seemed to be sitting well into the saddle, and I was surprised how much movement there was in her back as Dabs walked. It flexed forward and back, and from side to side. I had previously thought that riding was very good for the back, but Marie told me that riders frequently have problems if they don’t think about their use. There was the story of a rider whose back `went' when she was in the saddle, and she was faced with the problem of getting to the ground. As someone who has suffered in the past from a back in spasm, I can hardly bear to think about that.

When Marie changed the pace Carolyn encouraged her to use more inhibition, resisting the desire to push with the back to make the change happen. She suggested choosing whether to change on an out-breath or an in-breath, and to notice the breathing rhythm of the horse, synchronising with her own breathing. I have to confess I found it very hard to see how Dabs was breathing as he trotted past. But Marie afterwards said that she really wants to work on the breathing in canter -it obviously struck a chord with her.

Marie brought Dabs to a halt, and then they went backwards. Without apparent argument. I was very impressed. But Carolyn suggested that as Marie prepared, she direct her chest forward, keep her hands open on the reins, and gather Dabs back. There was a moment of waiting, of doing nothing, and then Dabs moved backwards more smoothly. You can see this moment on the YouTube video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pThbdJl9DdQ.

A little later, Marie and Dabs again came to a halt. As Marie asked Dabs to reverse, I became aware something was wrong. Dabs had noticed a strange noise (it was so distant it took me a while to realise that this was the earth-shattering problem it obviously was for Dabs). His ears went back, and he clearly thought some life-saving action was necessary. Marie waited, Marie inhibited. We could see Dabs' attention coming back to her, his ears going forward, his realisation that, oh yes, he was being asked to do something, oh all right then. He went backwards. Marie was very pleased; she mentioned how she had been so frustrated about Dabs' anxiety, but she was much calmer about it now, and it was no longer a problem.

As the lesson progressed, I could see more clearly how Marie's use was reflected in Dabs' -his ears were a great indicator, as they went forward when he was happy, and he was clearly happy when Marie lengthened up. He also raised his head, seeming to free his own neck in harmony with Marie, and I was reminded of the section in Black Beauty1 where it was the fashion to tighten the horse's harness to force the neck to arch and the head to be held up. It was supposed to look better, but restricted the horse's breathing and reduced its muscle power. Here was Marie achieving that same result -the head held beautifully high -without the disadvantages, by un-tightening herself.

At the end of the lesson, Marie told me she had been having Alexander lessons for about six months before she had her first lesson on horseback. Today was her ninth lesson with Dabs. She was thrilled at how much her riding had improved and said she could not have achieved it without the Technique. Her comment to Carolyn on the video of the lesson was:

"I was looking at the first three or four videos earlier, and the change between those and this one is absolutely stunning, absolutely stunning. You just would not think that it was the same horse and rider. I hope you are very proud -you have helped us both so much."

Before I met Marie and Dabs I was a little doubtful about this barefoot business. Horses are shod and wear bits, and surely that is the way it is. Indeed, Marie told me that although she can compete and be judged in competitions, she can't receive a rosette because Dabs doesn't wear a bit. But now I have seen them in action, and understood that Marie bases her care of Dabs on how horses naturally live in the wild, it all makes so much sense. I am sure the spirit of Anna Sewell is cheering her on.

1. Black Beauty by Anna Sewell: required reading for animal-loving children, although tissues are needed!

© 2011 Francesca Aldridge


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