Tai Chi Strikes Again

This is an excerpt from Horses in Translation, Essential Lessons in Horse Speak: Learn to “Listen” and “Talk” in Their Language, by Sharon Wilsie.

Applying a Tai Chi Posture for Better Balance in the Saddle

In Tai Chi, power comes out of Tantien or Hara—the core. Tai Chi focuses on an “O”-type posture for power that is soft and causes the human to fill with positive chi (good energy). You are taught to sink your core in and downward, with your arms and legs becoming extensions of it. In Tai Chi, you learn to “hold the ball,” in which you embrace an imaginary beach ball and move around a room with your arms held that way. You then connect your movements down to your feet, so that your whole body is communicating clearly, and your core is the conductor of the orchestra.

In the saddle, I tried going through Tai Chi forms while holding my thumbs up, as many of us have been taught in riding. Combining the two concepts did not work at all. In fact, it made the lower half of my body uncoordinated.

When we hold our hands out with thumbs up and elbows in, our hard-wired response is to limit our breathing and utilize our biceps. This puts us in a classic push-pull posture. When you stabilize your upper body to the point of immobility, you can still move your lower half, however, when the upper body begins to move around, the lower half must move to maintain balance. In other words, by loosening up your arms and hands, your core and legs must adapt and rebalance, otherwise, you fall over.

This helped make sense of the Tai Chi “O” posture, and the innate body wisdom behind it. I wanted to link my conscious mind to my subconscious responses to engage this body wisdom and be completely present and balanced for my horse.

While I’d always prided myself on having a light feel on the reins, my body transmitted a signal to my horse that he didn’t care for. However, by simply rotating my hands slightly, I allowed a softness to travel from my core, up my arms, to my shoulders and clavicle. This automatically softened my breathing, allowing me to feel as though the horse and I were flowing forward together naturally.

But Does It Work?

When I introduced the Tai Chi “O” posture and altered hand position to my students, I was floored by the results. The effect on the horses was dramatic and immediate. The horses immediately released stress by breathing more deeply, reaching out with the head, neck, and shoulders, and taking even, relaxed steps. Some even yawned!

While at first I told my students to go ahead and allow their bodies to relax into a little slump if it helped create the “O,” most of them quickly found a new and improved relationship with their backs. In fact, they found it was much easier to use their core to create a straight, flat back because their upper body was so soft.

Next, I worked to understand how to keep this newfound openness through a turn. The common adaptation people often use of drawing the hand across the thigh for a tighter turn completely unbalances the horse. However, keeping the palm facing down and drawing the hand out and away at the height of your own core not only balances the horse’s front end, it initiates the same natural arc the horse would move on when on his own. If the rider copies this motion, she can create tremendous freedom in the forehand and is better able to use correct balancing aids.

Of course, it isn’t practical to ride in a horse show like this, so we worked on recreating an open and soft muscle memory even within a more traditional position for competition.  Eventually, we refined the motions down to a more classical look without sacrificing the new awareness that was in all of our bodies, and our horses felt it.

This excerpt from Horses in Translation, Essential Lessons in Horse Speak is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books. You can get a copy of the book here