Horse Sense and Sensibility
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.
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: