Riders come in all shapes and sizes, levels of ability, and physical and mental challenges, and are generally very focused on their sport. Riding, in particular dressage, has particular demands on the body. Many riders have suffered a number of crashing falls, broken bones, haematomas, which each lead to compensating patterns, which in turn easily build into their normal habits.
When you get on a horse, your patterns on the ground are generally magnified tenfold. Once you start going in a circle those patterns are magnified again. And again when you start moving your horse sideways (laterally), or moving up through the paces from walk, to trot, to canter.
All riding demands that you are able to use both sides of your body equally and move easily in both directions, left and right. You must be able to circle or turn the horse to the left and to the right. This is quite unusual; most sports have a bias in one direction: the footballer mostly kicks with one leg, the skater mostly jumps in one direction, the golfer or tennis player usually swings in one direction. Sportsmen and women in those sports are considered highly talented if they can go both ways. In riding it is a prerequisite.
Any pattern of asymmetry you have can (and frequently does) cause a similar pattern in your horse if you are the main person to ride it. Horses with an established ‘pattern’ in their body can induce a similar ‘pattern’ in any of its riders. One of the baseline training principles in riding is ‘The Horse Must be Straight’. You must be capable of being ‘straight’ in your own body in order to keep a straight horse straight or to help a crooked or bent horse find straightness. This patterning includes breathing. If you do not breathe well, then it is unlikely your horse will either. Horses are very sensitive; a horse that does not breathe will either be in a very tense/anxious state or find it difficult to move freely (and neither is fun to ride).
Horses also come with their own patterns. Young foals will often stand with the same foot forwards all the time when they are grazing; in turn this makes it easier for them to circle or canter in one direction rather than the other. In the world of racehorses some horses are only raced on a clockwise track, whilst others only race anti-clockwise. The horse does not come out the stable one day and say ‘I’ve noticed that I stand with more weight on my left foot than my right’, but this pattern may lead to premature lameness. The correction of this pattern can be through good riding, or may also require help from a good equine body worker and/or farrier.
My mentor and trainer, Mary Wanless, has a wonderful saying – ‘Does the disorganised horse disorganise the organised rider, or can the organised rider organise the disorganised horse?’ In novice riders it is frequently the case that a disorganised horse will disorganise them, whilst an organised (well-trained) horse will help to organise them. An organised rider on an organised horse makes everything look easy and is a pleasure to watch, whereas a disorganised rider on a disorganised horse can be funny, seriously sad or, worse, frightening.
So, all that said, what do I look for in riders? In no particular order, I am looking for:
There are over 1,000 Feldenkrais lessons, which address just about any area of the body and any movement pattern. These can be taught in a class format as Awareness Through Movement lessons, or one to one, in a hands-on way, as Functional Integration lessons. These lessons can help you as a rider to discover new patterns in your body and hence new patterns in your horse, along with reduction or elimination of pain. A relevant single lesson can make a profound difference, whilst multiple lessons are synergistic, whether or not you were previously conscious of your limitations.