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Dressage Links

by Lorna Faraldi

Before describing my work with riders, I will explain how these clinics evolved. In July of 1979, through a series of lucky 'happenstances,' I began riding with Janet Black in North Tarrytown, New York. Although I had ridden for years, I had only one week of dressage instruction just before meeting Janet. Her work and her world of horse were very new to me. Despite the newness, there was something strange yet unmistakably familiar about our riding lessons. They soon became the bright spot of my week and occupied more and more of my thoughts.

Half a year later, I not only discovered how prominently Janet figures in the New England dressage community, I also realised something of fundamental importance: on the ground, in their Alexander lessons, my students were working exactly as I was on horseback in my riding lessons! For example, while my students explored standing, I learned about the horse's halt. Parallel after parallel began to unfold--and continues to do so. This recognition of the almost interchangeable principles underlying training in classical horsemanship and in the Alexander Technique was to quite literally change the 'direction' of my life.

Within the next year and a half, to the despair of many of her students, Janet relocated to Minnesota and then to Massachusetts. Finally she was within travelling distance again. Despite a severe case of laryngitis, I spent Thanksgiving weekend of 1981 visiting and riding with Janet. For company, she took me along to a clinic she was giving near Amherst. In the rain, I sat on a log and watched.

One gifted young man, a three-day event rider, came into the arena for his lesson. He was nicknamed 'The Neck' because his head and neck jut so fa r forward. None of the local or visiting instructors had much success in affecting a change, although the rider was aware of his problem and wanted to resolve it. Janet asked if I could do anything with him. After a few words of explanation and a few minutes of hands- on work, all was well again! I contentedly went back to my log. Two of the young men's helper friends returned before the end of the lesson. They were amazed at his appearance and attributed it to Janet's masterful teaching!

In the car the next morning, on our way to her barn, Janet announced that we would begin collaborating in the springtime. In March of 1982, we co-instructed our first clinic. Clinics are very aptly subtitled "Dressage W ith and Without the Horse." When my non-riding students asked about the dressage, I sometimes quip that it is Alexander Technique on horseback. When riders inquire about the Alexander Technique, I often remark that it is dressage without the horse! That puzzles them at first, but it gets their attention.

Basic Principles

Dressage riders are wonderful candidates for this work because they are almost immediately 'bi-lingual' students. What they have yet to experience through themselves in their Alexander lessons they have certainly encountered through their horses. Their 'use of themselves' is analogous to their horse's 'way of going', the manifestation of his character, of all his muscular and mental habits. They may proudly describe him as a 'good mover' and never wonder how they would describe themselves. (Be careful: if you ask them about their 'riding habit,' you are likely to hear about their outfit, from boots to britches!) As riders advance in their training, they realise the importance of knowing themselves as well as they know their horse. Their every gesture, from the slightest shift of weight to the most subtle of changes in the resilience of their musculature, is either a deliberate, meaningful communication with the horse or a random, unintentional annoyance that the horse learns to ignore.

Riders are already familiar with the concept of 'primary control' because the relationship of the horse's head, neck and back determines its 'way of going'. Like the rider's, the horse's head balances between the ears at the 'poll' or occiput. If the horse presses its head back and down, going 'above the bit', (Figure 1) it compresses and shortens its spine exaggerating the forward and backward curves. The region beneath the saddle hollows, dropping out from the under the rider, and the displaced hind legs cannot support the horse's weight or provide locomotive power. If the horse tucks its head (like the Alexander student who mistakenly acts-out what should be a reflexive lengthening of the back and consequently holds himself stiffly stretched), going 'behind the bit,' (Figure 2) it has again made its back inelastic and becomes very difficult for the rider to control.

In either situation, to encourage the horse to go 'on the aids' and eventually 'on the bit,' (Figure 3) the rider employs the 'means-whereby' that he may not recognise as Alexander's 'directions': 'Neck free (of all constrictions), head forward and out (easily balanced and carried atop the spine, rather than on the neck muscles), back (musculature) lengthening and widening.' He accomplishes this through a series of progressive, developmental movements or 'school figures' along straight, curved and broken lines. The resultant circles, serpentines, diagonals and squares, as well as the changes or 'transitions' between and within 'gaits' (the walk, trot and canter), are as important in the training of the horse as the seemingly inconsequential, daily activities of sitting, standing, bending, and walking will become in the training of the rider. Their respective 'school figures' evoke the horse and rider's vitality, suppleness, and balance.

Because the rider is continually aware of the horse's movements, he is already capable of 'staying in the moment'. Whether or not he intends it, the rider is actually training the horse with each step it takes, from leaving until returning to its stall. Every day, through its behaviour, the horse clearly demonstrates the interdependence of attitude, energy and functioning. Attitude determines the amount of energy available for functioning. A more willing attitude makes energy readily available, while reluctance greatly diminishes its supply. Through managing the horse's energy, the rider influences the condition of its musculature and the quality of its performance. In fact, the cardinal principle according to which the rider works his horse, 'calm, straight, forward', is a cryptic statement about energy development and regulation. It is also a guideline that will benefit the rider enormously in working on himself. He knows how to 'Ask much, be satisfied with very little, and reward frequently,' a horseman's adage that Alexander teachers would be wise to adopt!

The experienced rider avoids 'end-gaining' because he knows that resorting to short-cuts, tricks or force to accomplish a goal inevitably guarantees the arduous process of retraining his horse. 'Non-doing', preventing a difficulty rather than dealing with its aftermath, is part of the rider' s 'equestrian tact'. 'Inhibition', the momentary, perhaps invisible stopping to re-decide, instead of acting habitually and maybe inappropriately, is like the 'half halt' the rider gives with his legs, seat, back and hands to rebalance and alert his horse. The 'half-halt' also allows the rider an opportunity to regain his composure, to dissipate any feelings of impatience, frustration or anger that could result in his mistreatment of the horse. The mutual trust and confidence that are slowly established between them can be quickly lost, and hours of training can literally be undone in a second or two.

It is critical, therefore, that the rider is capable of 'thinking in activity'. He must decide whether to directly confront a difficulty or to work around it, whether to wait or react or to simply ride forward. On the spot, he must decide when to correct, when to discipline, and when to reward the horse. He straddles not only his horse but also the fine line between what is too little and what is too much. Through his partnership with the horse, he intuitively understands the teaching and learning process, and he readily acknowledges the special rapport between an Alexander teacher and a student. His riding is an impeccable model for his living and for his taking Alexander lessons!

At first, he may be surprised to be touched continuously during these lessons. He may also be somewhat amused to find himself 'on the bit' as he experiences the effectiveness of the touching. It reminds him of the way he works his horse 'in hand' from the ground and surrounds it with tactile cues or 'aids' from his legs, seat, back and hands 'under saddle'. Ideally, as in an Alexander lesson, these 'aids' are very light but distinct. They are such subtle communications that they are almost invisible to an onlooker. The horse that is 'on the aids' is immediately responsive to them, as the rider is to his Alexander teacher's touch. The horse and rider can then proceed in 'self-carriage', finely and independently balanced.

The rider eventually discovers that the 'circle of the aids' (from the horse's hind legs, through its back, into its neck and head, through the reins, and into the rider's hands, back, seat and legs, into the horse's hind legs, etc.) also courses through him and his Alexander teacher. Through the use of his 'aids', the rider is not teaching the horse something 'new' or unnatural. He is simply training the horse to offer 'under saddle' what it does at liberty in the fields. Similarly, in his Alexander lessons, the rider is not really being 'taught' anything either. He is only being re-awakened and reminded to stop the unintended, habitual responses that interface with his natural functioning and prevent him from fulfilling his potential.

Applying the Principles

Hopefully, this extensive background material and explanation has prepared you for a somewhat briefer description of the structure and organisation of the clinics themselves. They proceed from the general to the specific, from an experiencing of the basic concepts to an application of them in riding. All the participants gather for what is usually a Friday night group introductory session. The format of this session is variable. In an on-going series of clinics, it addresses the changing needs of riders as they progress. Some riders expect a formal lecture and come prepared to take extensive notes. To their surprise and delight, they are soon exploring the base of each other's skull and tracing the curves along each other's spine! Gradually, the head-neck- back relationship becomes more tangible.

Once the riders have located their hip joints and are flexible enough in them, their standing and bending readily lead to sitting. I watch them carefully in these activities and often work briefly with individual riders to demonstrate. Because sitting is so important to them, they are interested in the details: in finding their ischial bones and shifting weight along their bony arch to discover their shape. Where they sit on the ischial bones affects them literally from head to toes in our experiments. Of course, it also profoundly affects them in the saddle and in riding their horses. With the promise to pursue this topic on Saturday, I conclude my portion of the evening. After a brief pause for questions and for refreshments, we all watch a video or two from Janet's extensive collection. She is always generous and insightful in her commentaries. Although it may be quite late at night, everyone goes home refreshed and eager for the next day's work.

On Saturday, in groups of three or four, the riders come for their unmounted studio session. I ask them about recent developments in their riding, about their achievements as well as their difficulties. As I observe them within the group, and as I work with them individually in standing, bending sitting and walking, I attempt to relate their particular riding problem to their general 'way of going'. For example, the rider who habitually shortens one side of his torso in his sitting and standing is likely to do so in his riding, too. There are a few exceptional people who do use themselves much better on horseback than on the ground. Studio sessions are often a revelation-in-reverse to them! Although I guide everyone through similar activities, each of the riders may experience them very differently and reap unique benefits.

Over the weekend, we gradually apply Alexander principles more specifically to riding: first in the stationary saddle, them 'on the lunge', and finally in the riding lesson itself. While studio sessions in an on- going series of clinics (Janet and I offer them every six to eight weeks at her stable) may be entirely devoted to working in the stationary saddle, these more introductory sessions conclude with an opportunity to sit there. In the stationary saddle, each rider refines his alignment or 'position' and re-experiences various exercises that Janet might ask for in the 'lunge' lesson that immediately follows the studio session.

The rider literally passes from my hands into Janet's, as she control his horse as it circles her. Temporarily, the rider is more responsible (response-able) for his 'way of going' than for the horse's. Through carefully chosen 'exercises'--they are not mechanically repeated movements; they are done with an awareness of their affect on the rider's musculature and attitude--the rider becomes more supple, co- ordinated and securely balanced on the horse.

On Sunday, in the final phase of the clinic, riders are grouped according to their skill or to their horses' development. While Janet directs the riding lesson, I facilitate it. If the rider's horse permits it, I often walk or run alongside to offer hands-on assistance as well as succinct verbal guidance. Janet and I are so familiar with each other's teaching that we co-instruct easily, each sensing when to turn to the other to improve the communication between horse and rider. Very often, in the instant it takes us to verbally acknowledge an improvement in the rider, we see that the horse, with an immediate change in his 'way of going', has already confirmed it! The horse, ultimately, is the greatest teacher.


Riders who thoroughly and whole heartedly experience the Alexander Technique inevitably come to a fuller appreciation of the effects of dressage training on their horses. They begin to ride--and to live--very differently when they ask of themselves what they ask of their horses. Through a sustained attentiveness, a more willing attitude, and an increasing freedom from muscular and mental limitations, they find a deep and abiding satisfaction in the challenge and adventure of their riding and their living.

In conclusion, I must emphasise that the Alexander Technique is not a substitute for competent training in classical horsemanship or for the countless hours of applying it in the saddle. As an adjunct, an invaluable complement to dressage instruction, this work is most effectively conveyed by the Alexander teacher who is also a dedicated and advancing rider. He or she has literally experienced the requirements of classical horsemanship first-hand and is so able to clearly apply the principles of Mr F. M. Alexander accordingly.


About The Writer

Lorna Faraldi (1949-1993), was certificated by the American center for the Alexander Technique (ACAT) in New York City. She was a member of the faculty at ACAT, Mannes College, and The Juilliard School. She rode regularly with Janet F. Black of North Smithfield, Rhode Island, and with Stephanie J. Wagner of Stockton, New Jersey.

From 1992 until her death, she and Janet Black co-instructed a dressage clinic in conjunction with the Alexander Technique: "Dressage With and Without the Horse." She is the author of "The Alexander Technique" (June 1988, Dressage and CT) and "Classical Principles, Classical Parallels" (March-August 1989, Dressage and CT), a series of articles describing her work with riders.


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