Horse Sense and Sensibility

Waiting for an Alexander Technique lesson

Many years ago I showed a copy of the Equitation issue of Direction Journal to Marjorie Barstow, the first person to graduate from the first Alexander Technique training course. Until her death at age 95, she was the world’s senior Alexander teacher. Knowing of her lifelong interest in horses, I asked, “Marj, did you ever give an Alexander lesson to a horse?” Her immediate reply was, “Yes, of course.” And then, after a very long pause, she added, with a twinkle in her eyes, “But you’d better know your horse!”

That last remark got me thinking about the nature of Alexander Technique exchanges between humans and animals. My personal experience in that area has been fairly limited. I have given what I consider a very good lesson to a frightened puppy and I’ve done some work with domestic cats. I once tried to help a cow lengthen and widen but she immediately sat down, nearly crushing my legs. Perhaps she thought it was to be a chair lesson.

There is a growing body of evidence that some species of animals such as dolphins, whales and primates are capable of quite sophisticated thinking. It even seems likely that large clusters of insects engage in creative thought even if the individual ant or bee seems to have a pretty unimaginative lifestyle.

I suspect that we are, for the most part, as ignorant of what’s going on in animals’ minds as they are of our thoughts and emotions. But is it nonetheless possible that horses and other animals could teach us a thing or two? If so, how would they do it? What conditions are necessary for useful information to be exchanged between animals and humans?

The Alexander Technique could provide a very useful framework within which to explore these kinds of questions as well as more general questions bout the nature of animal intelligence. For one thing, we are thoroughly at home with the subtleties of non-verbal communication. The Equitation issue included several examples of Alexander lessons successfully given to horses. And of course the origins of the Technique owe a great deal to Alexander’s close observations of animal behavior. Indeed the Alexander term “use” was borrowed from the language of horse trainers.

Richard Weis is an Australian Alexander teacher and a Senior Instructor of Centered Riding, a process that emphasizes the importance of developing a cooperative and harmonious relationship between horse and rider. In the Equitation issue, Richard notes that a trained horse “…has learnt to move with a free neck and an open back whilst carrying a rider through all sorts of difficult maneuvers. He has learnt to inhibit his instinctive reacting towards having a predator on his back…”

Richard adds that horses possess a delicate presence of mind and they “…can learn what even great thinkers find challenging: they can maintain their own directive orders for extended periods of time” (italics his)

If a horse can do all that, I’d certainly like to have a lesson from one!

While I was thinking about how that could be arranged, I had a conversation with Barbara Conable, an American Alexander teacher. As a child, she had something akin to upside-down table lessons from her father’s draft horses.

Wendy is always willing and eager to help you move with grace

Barbara used to lie face down along a horse’s back and, as she describes it, “I would rest there, often sleep there, on the horses’ backs, on my tummy, my limbs dangling on either side, my poor back relaxing. The horses did not merely tolerate me. They cradled me and helped me and taught me, as the Tao Te Ching says, ‘without saying a word’”.

Has anyone else had an Alexander lesson from a horse, or other animal? Or given a lesson to an animal? I would love to explore this topic further.


In response to this blog, Jo Ann Widner, an Alexander Technique teacher near Richmond, Virginia shared some very interesting information about horses as teachers of balance and coordination:

Image: Tina Phillips /


Horse Sense and Sensibility — 18 Comments

  1. Great, original post Robert.
    In the TV show the Dog Whisperer, ‘Cesar’ often ends up teaching the pet owner. He talks about the pets’ ability to sense fear, and to even sense body language. I think Alexander teachers know how to touch animals to calm them down which might influence their lengthening and widening (or their narrowing and shortening) It’s a great area for discovery.

  2. Re horses especially, Danny Pevsner is your man. He and Walter were good friends. Also Gloria Pullan, who teaches saddle work at CTC/Lansdowne Road.

  3. A great blog and thank you for posting it Robert. I once attended a workshop with Robyn Avalon that combined horse riding and Alexander Technique. I had been frightened of horses until then but during the workshop I learnt how to relate to the horse through Robyn’s hands. I could feel that the horse sensed her hands through me and together we found our one-ness. From then on I took riding lessons and explored this relationship with a wonderful teacher who knew Centred Riding. And I have learnt to use my hands too… thank you for the reminder.

    • Thanks for your posting Robert. I have been looking for a Centered Riding instructor myself lately with no success in the Boston area. I wanted someone local but none of the horse farm I left phone messages with got back to me.
      Any suggestions as to how to find such an instructor? It was meant to be a birthday present to myself (Nov 25!) but had to let it go for the lack of response. Wondered if the season is past and the farm not functioning? Still, you would think they would return the calls they get?

  4. Hi,
    this is very interesting topic, and I’d like to share my experience:

    I have just recently started riding, but right away I noticed how every horse became restless after putting their saddle on. I then started to put my hands on their back, under the saddle. Right away they become alert but calm. I think horses love Alexander-Technique 🙂

  5. Hi Robert,

    Great timing on your post – over the last month or so I’ve had the chance to teach two students, both very accomplished riders, and we organised a couple of lessons at their riding school, with horses included.

    Teaching the students while on horseback was pretty amazing. The horse is trained to pick up instructions from the rider, and the rider to pick up feedback from the horse; but the horse is much better at it than the rider is! In lessons, this means that every time I did hands-on work with the rider, the horse picked up the changes quicker and more sensitively than the rider. Every time. And responded accordingly, even to the extent that the horse moved differently once they started walking.

    However, at the end of the lesson, they let me do a little hands-on work with the horses. I’m not well versed in horse anatomy, so there was a bit of guesswork and extrapolation as to where to put my hands, but the results were quite astonishing. Both horses changed, letting go of muscular tension and in the process subtly changing the relationships of the different body parts. Well, I say subtly. One horse changed so much his rider (who was still mounted) could feel the difference along the length of his spine, even through the saddle.

    Even more interesting to me was the relationship between the personality of the horse and their response to hands-on work. Harry, the horse I mentioned above, is ever so laid-back, and was quite happy to go along with whatever I asked – and changed enormously. Clarice, the other horse, changed, and didn’t like it one bit. She kept resisting and changing back, even shaking her head to protest – or dislodge that annoying pair of hands that was taking her into new and unexpected territory. Her rider’s comment was “I’ve always thought she is a bit of an up-tight horse, just watching her in the field”.

    This is so much like the variation you get in human students I was quite taken aback. Generally, the more laid-back and easygoing the human student, the less they resist changing, especially at the outset. I didn’t expect to find it in horses! I’d also assumed animals would automatically be completely without unecessary tension. They don’t have debts, office desks, ballet lessons and all the other input to our habitual movement we humans have. They haven’t increased their pace of evolution as FM talks about in Man’s Supreme Inheritance. But they do still have unnecessary muscle tension.

    We’ve stopped lessons for now. Here in the UK winter has set in with a vengeance. But I’ll be back in the riding arena next spring (unless I track down a student with an indoor arena first!). Harry, Clarice and I have so much to learn.

  6. Hi Karen,

    Thanks for sharing those experiences. I done some riding myself – mostly trail riding – but that was long before I encountered the AT. And I’ve not had much experience AT-wise with horses but your experiences confirms what I’ve heard from several AT teachers.


  7. Robert, as an animal lover this post is close to my heart! I’ve ridden horses since I was a child, but I wasn’t introduced to the Alexander Technique until middle age. I think I must have surely tried the patience of my first teacher because at every lesson, and sometimes many times during a lesson, I would excitedly exclaim, “This is just like riding!” It was centered riding only better! And of course, like a duck to water, off I went to learn how to become an Alexander teacher myself.

    There are actually horses who perform a role very similar to that of the Alexander teacher. They are called “schoolmasters.” These are very special horses who are highly trained and usually retired from competition. Many horses who reach this level of training will not tolerate a rider who is not equally skilled, but a few have amazingly kind dispositions and find their calling as teachers of aspiring riders. Despite their high level of training, a schoolmaster will patiently carry riders who are still learning the finer points of riding. Through years of training, schoolmasters are very correct in their use while carrying a rider, and improve the rider’s use in much the same way that the touch of an Alexander teacher does. Because the horse is so very well balanced and correct, the rider is able to learn correct “feel” and balance. Like an inexperienced dancer paired with a great partner, the rider suddenly “dances” quite well. But put that same fledgling rider on an unbalanced horse and you will see the rider unwittingly reflect the incorrect balance of their equine partner, and be at a loss to sort it all out!

    Just like an AT teacher will patiently help a student sort out going wrong, a schoolmaster will pleasantly ignore incorrect cues from their student. So the rider learns to eventually “go right” by “going wrong.” Its always a delightful moment in a lesson when a rider is “rewarded” by the horse finally performing the maneuver that the rider has finally learned to “ask.” And since the schoolmaster will patiently ignore incorrect use and commands, I guess you could say they have learned inhibition as well!

  8. I’ve certainly experienced “schoolmaster” horses as a young horse-crazy girl and remember wondering at the time who was giving who the instructions.
    You asked if we knew about other animals giving “lessons.”
    There’s a pretty common signal of success my students will get who have pet dogs as they are experimenting using Alexander Technique to walk across the room. Their dogs will jump up and walk with them – to the extent their intent to move is clear and even if it’s only for a few steps. This has been so reliable that I’ve encouraged some students to reward their dogs’ sensitivity to human mannerisms and use it as their feedback of success with practicing A.T.

  9. May I also encourage other Alexander Technique teachers to investigate animal training methods, since we are involved in “training”? A short and entertaining instruct on why behaviorist reinforcement works the way it does was written by a person who went on to found a huge dog training school of thought, called “Clicker Training.” Her name is Karen Pryor and her seminal 1984 (1999 paperback) book was titled: “Don’t Shoot The Dog.”

  10. I’ve worked with horses a little bit. It was a long time ago, but I remember placing my two hands near the shoulder and hip joints and directing myself into width. They seemed to like it – took nice deep breaths, that sort of thing. I also had the sense that they appreciated the work on their riders.

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