In Search of Ease - Somatics for the Horse and Rider
By Rebecca Bentley

I, like many riders, rode for years without giving much thought to how my body worked. In childhood my friends and I thundered around bareback over hill and dale. We may not have looked polished, but could stick on like ticks, and weathered the occasional wreck with very little damage. We had balance contests off the horses, walking on the tops of board fences to see who could stay up the longest. We were resilient and profoundly confident. We never thought of our athleticism and natural grace; it just existed as a background to our adventurous fun with our horses.

Little 4-H shows came next, then lessons and bigger shows. By our teen years, the girl-pack spent less time racing around in the hills, instead working our horses in the arena and studying for the local Horsemastership competition. We were getting serious about riding. Two of us went to work for a trainer, riding young horses and western show horses. We worked hard. We wanted to excel at what we did. Somehow this seriousness and effort began to erode the fun and ease we had enjoyed as kids.

I exercised racehorses at the track and worked for fifteen years with a horse and cattle ranch. Many endurance riders brought their horses to the ranch to use the extensive trails. I started young horses under saddle, and trained and conditioned horses for competitive trail events. It was fun, challenging, and hard on the body at times. By now I had been fallen on, bucked off and banged around some, part of the package of riding for a living. I rode forty or fifty miles a day, riding six to eight horses five days a week. I looked fit, but felt more vulnerable as the remnants of old hurts and daily wear and tear began to add up. I was strong, but stiff, less resilient as time went on. The old saw about not bouncing anymore when hitting the ground wasn't so funny. I didn't hit the ground much, but was starting to worry about it more. I cut back on riding the youngsters and took a job running a breeding farm.

Motherhood led to not riding horses for other people at all. I missed it, but wanted to be sure I'd be comfortable in my body for my old age. A worthy goal, but a nasty surprise greeted me. I wasn't feeling better in my body. I was still stiff and sore. As I tried to exercise, I kept hurting myself by overdoing, refusing to believe that I could accomplish so little compared to what I had been able to do. I stretched and stretched, thinking I could regain some flexibility that way. It didn't work, and I still hurt.

Then our family was hit from behind by a drunk driver. I sustained a head injury and multiple strains, including a serious strain of the neck. Strength, balance, and coordination were severely impacted. My work to gain fitness and a sense of well-being took on greater importance.

In physical therapy, I learned a new word. Proprioception. According to Webster it means "the reception of stimuli produced within the organism." To the physical therapist it meant the ways that our muscles and ligaments know where we are in the world and what is the appropriate next move. You can experience your own proprioceptive system at work by standing up now, and standing on one foot for a while. If you are in good shape proprioceptively, you'll stand there pretty comfortably with your foot and ankle making small adjustments to keep the rest of your body upright. Ten years ago I could stand happily on one foot with barely a wobble. Months after the accident, I tipped over as if the ground had been jerked out from under me. If I turned my head to the side while walking I veered off in the opposite direction. I wanted to learn more about proprioception, as a concept and in practice.

Since it appeared that my days of working with horses were long gone, I decided to go back to school. An interest in the psychology of learning and my now current interest in the psychology of health brought me to the psychology department at Sonoma State University. The program is unique; eclectic and experiential. The spiritual and physical qualities of life are considered as well as the academic. I registered for Dr. Eleanor Criswell's Psychology of Yoga class, thinking that I could work on my body and have a look at the magical world Dr. Criswell was said to understand. This world is inhabited by people who seem to be comfortable in their bodies, who move freely and well. There seems to be a higher level of sensitivity and connection with others, a sense of ease.

On buying books for the class, I learned another new word. Somatics. The type of yoga taught by Dr. Criswell is called somatic yoga. One of the texts was called "Somatics - Reawakening the Mind's Control of Movement, Flexibility, and Health". Aha! Just what I was looking for. The book was written by Dr. Criswell's husband, Thomas Hanna. Together they founded the Novato Institute for Somatic Research and Training. I was pleased to see that these are practiced ideas, not merely academic, and perhaps useful to me in my quest towards full healing.

All of this may seem far from the world of the horse, but it really is not. The well-being of our bodies, our ability to physically manifest what we know to be right, is crucial to good riding. Our perception of the horse can only be accurate when we can feel our own bodies. Mary Wanless, in her pioneering book, "The Natural Rider, A Right-Brain Approach to Riding", says:

"Receptors in the joints and muscles continually relay information to the brain, monitoring which way up you are, where your arms and legs are, how tense you are, and so on. As you learn to ride, information is perceived through your feel sense and stored in the right brain as a series of 'feelages' - feeling sensations which you can reproduce in your kinesthetic imagination, and recognize when you feel them again." (p. 23)

Awareness of movement and our sense of feel are vitally linked. Our sense of ease is a function of this system working well. This may sound complex and unfamiliar, but we know it in our very selves. The information loop back and forth from muscle to brain and vice versa is so intrinsic to us that we don't notice the process. Dr. Criswell writes of kinesthesia in her book, "How Yoga Works: An Introduction to Somatic Yoga",

"Muscles do not act in isolation along a one-way track; rather, every muscular movement stimulates sensory cells within the muscles and tendons that 'feed back' information to the brain's motor neurons, confirming their action. This loop system of the sensorimotor circuit guarantees that our brain is constantly receiving kinesthetic sensations of the ongoing state of the muscle system." (p. 140)

"If the ongoing state of the muscles is tense, then the sensory cells will send a flood of feedback signals to bombard the brain. If the ongoing state of the muscles is relaxed, then the sensory cells will reduce their feedback signals down to a trickle. This leaves the brain free to notice and concentrate on other matters. Not only is one's awareness of the outer world less cloudy and distracted, so is one's awareness of one's inner somatic world. Proprioceptive awareness of oneself is an avenue of access to an immense realm of experience." (p. 141)

Yoga, by the way, means "unity". With the Absolute, and of the parts of the self; body, mind, and spirit. It is about balance and suppleness as well. Not so far from what we seek with our horses. In Dr. Criswell's yoga class I began to regain my sense of ease. In truth, I could barely do the yoga postures, and her advice was "Don't try." Hmmm?! I'm trying not to try. It seems to be at the heart of over-exertion and strain. We don't need to try, just to imagine and do, within our current limits and very gently allowing progress to occur. Just like we want to do with our horses.

We are learning that "trying" creates stress, the activation of the fight-or-flight response in our bodies, and increased tension. Mary Wanless again says this so well,

"The harder I tried, the more the ease and grace I so envied seemed to elude me, and gradually I settled into a state of frustration and despondency. I had reached the plateau that besets so many riders, where increased effort seems only to lead to diminishing results." (p. 15)

Our bodies can't be forced to perform, any more than our horses can be.

So how to find feel, balance, relaxation, and even healing? For me, since I couldn't do the yoga very well, I began with the somatic exercises described by Dr. Hanna. His work evolved in part from Hans Selye's understanding of the body's physiological reactions to stress, and from Moshe Feldenkrais' method of bodily re-education. Dr. Hanna writes,

"The fact is that, during the course of our lives, our sensory-motor systems continually respond to daily stresses and traumas with specific muscular reflexes. These reflexes, repeatedly triggered, create habitual muscular contractions, which we cannot - voluntarily - relax. These muscular contractions have become so deeply involuntary and unconscious that, eventually, we no longer remember how to move about freely. The result is stiffness, soreness, and a restricted range of movement." (p. xii)

He has discovered that since these responses of tension have been learned, they can be unlearned through what he calls somatic education. Drs. Hanna and Criswell both emphasize education, as opposed to therapy, because they both believe strongly in the individual's possibilities for consciously chosen development. They have created specific exercises to retrain our sensorimotor systems in more comfortable and effective ways of moving.

Some of these exercises are quite simple; others are more complex. Here's one you can do now: As you sit, or stand if you wish, raise your left shoulder towards your ear, and bring your ear towards your shoulder, as if you were holding a telephone receiver between your ear and shoulder. Do this very, very slowly, much more slowly than you think you should, and release just as slowly. Don't contract the muscles strongly, just a little. Inhale as you contract, and exhale as you let your shoulder back down. Feel the sensations of the movement, noticing the difference between the contracted and relaxed state of the muscle on top of your shoulder. You can feel the muscle with the fingers of your right hand. This is your trapezius, very often affected by the stresses of our busy lives, and a factor in sore necks, shoulders, and even headaches. Do the movement three times, and then pause to receive feedback from the shoulder and surrounding areas. Compare the feeling of it to the way the other shoulder feels. You'll probably want to do the other shoulder, also!

Did doing this make you yawn? That is a function of the body's parasympathetic reflex system, the beginnings of greater relaxation. It's good for your body. The contraction that you discovered in your shoulder, and have now released, is creating a muscle that is working, in a sense. It is creating by-products of that work. That by-product is lactic acid, which accumulates and causes soreness. The blood flow to the muscle is not very good, as the muscle is not doing the real work of movement that it was designed to do. The lactic acid is not carried off very well. Here is a big part of not feeling so good in our bodies.

Another big part of being stiff and sore is that this contracted muscle is limiting motion elsewhere, and making opposing muscles work harder. All muscles are in pairs, and work only by contracting. As you flex your arm at the elbow, your bicep brings the forearm towards the upper arm, then relaxes as the triceps and/or gravity brings your arm straight. All our muscles interact in elaborately coordinated ways throughout our bodies to support posture and motion. Tightness anywhere will affect other areas as well.

Again, this holds just as true with our horses. Jack Meagher, sports massage therapist extraordinaire for horses and people, writes in "Beating Muscle Injuries for Horses",

"Muscle tightening does not remain in an isolated area or state. It transmits from one muscle group to another. As one group tightens the next group in line must pick up the loss and receive extra stress; it too tightens as a result and passes the stress along to the next group. Thus a horse that is constantly being used with tight shoulders will pass this tightening to the muscles of the upper arm and eventually to the digital flexors and tendons. The body is a unit. It functions as a unit and should be treated as a unit. The safety of one part depends largely upon the efficiency of its neighboring parts." (p. 9)

I have used sports massage in my quest for greater bodily comfort, and have found it very useful. What is great about also using the somatic exercises is that I can do them myself as often as I need to.

I made quite a bit of progress working on my own with the information from class and with the Somatics book. Because of my fairly serious difficulties following the car accident, I wondered if I could see Dr. Criswell for help with the more advanced aspects of the exercises. The process began with her observing me standing, walking, and touching my muscles to assess what was going on. Somatic education involves the practitioner guiding the learner through the movements in the specific patterns of the exercises. The learner consciously carries out the movements with the practitioner's help, thereby learning to do them herself. The process feels so slow and gentle that at first it seems that nothing could be happening.

As I stood up after my session, I felt different somehow, as if my posture was right for the structure of my bones. And nothing hurt. The ground felt springy and I could walk freely. Colors seemed sharper and I could hear better. It sounds pretty touchy-feely, I know. I'm the first one to be suspicious of what I can't logically understand. But, this is exactly what has been described as the result of sensorimotor re-education. Studying it and really feeling it are two parts of the whole. Even though I understood it theoretically, I was astonished by what I felt.

I've been intrigued with the work of Tom Dorrance and Ray Hunt for years. They tell us to learn how to "Prepare to position". You don't just wrench a horse around, you have him set up so that he can move easily. Many of the concepts they teach are very similar to what somatic education teaches us about the use of our own body. Over and over they give us these phrases to work from: "Direct, then support. Instead of a hard tightness, find a soft firmness. Feel, timing and balance. Find the rhythm. Let the life come through your body. Let them learn, don't make them learn. Fix it up and let the horse find it. It can happen so easy you miss it. Do less, not more. Be particular, not critical. The slower you do it the quicker you'll find it. In your mind you have to have a picture of what you want. It's a feel following a feel. Let him come through."
It is remarkable that such similar discoveries have come about in such separate realms. Why hadn't I applied it to myself until now? I guess I didn't need to until I reached the point at which my body would no longer naturally operate as I wanted it to.

I discovered more good things in the days following. My body began to instruct me, now that I was listening better, in how to move from my true center. I had been using a kind of tension and bracing through my shoulders and upper body when I moved my arms. When I knelt or bent or reached, my muscles seemed more coordinated, not pulling against each other. My balance was much better, praise be, and I became more aware of where I was relative to other people. When I next rode my old horse I was surprised to find him quieter, more fluid, straighter, with more impulsion, not tripping and fooling around as much. I felt straighter, not twisted, and my legs lay against him correctly without a lot of fussing and adjusting. I felt a sense of trust in my reflexes again, so that his high-energy bouncing and shying threats made me laugh.

When I related this to Dr. Criswell, she told me that she has also developed Hanna Somatics for use with horses. The concepts are very similar, based on an understanding of the horse as a prey animal that has survived millennia by its reliance on the startle reflex. This reflex and the mechanisms of stance and gait are hard-wired in the horse, just as our human tendencies are in us. They develop the same cycle of habitual contraction that we do, and it can be relieved also by using the same principles in exercises specific to their needs. Undoing these habitual tensions results in a more relaxed, receptive horse, and can help with strain-related lameness problems.

The protocol in working with horses is similar to the way it is done with humans, beginning with discussing the horse's history of injury, accidents or lameness, any treatment he has received, and his current work. The practitioner does a visual inspection, assessing conformation, stance, lateral balance and way of going at the walk and trot, and loose in an arena or round pen if possible. Palpation is done to locate any trouble spots.

With this hands-on work, the horse is moved through general somatic movements, as part of maintaining his natural muscle tone, gait and balance, and specific movements to work with injuries and trauma. The hands of the therapist invite the horse to move, and the horse learns to help with the movements. It is done very slowly; within the horse's range of motion so as not to trigger the stretch reflex. Opposing pairs of muscles are worked equally, and work is done evenly on both sides of the body. It is important for the practitioner to be trained adequately not only in the methods used for the horse, but in good postural dynamics for themselves, to avoid strain while working on the horse.

Dr. Criswell showed me how to do the Equine Hanna Somatics exercises on my retired endurance horse, Raii Khan. He has been stiff going down hills, is showing some deterioration of the muscles of his back, and habitually stands in an odd diagonal stance, with one or the other front foot and the diagonal hind foot advanced. He has been radiographed to rule out medical causes, and is shod correctly to protect his feet and legs. Raii Khan was concerned about having the exercises done at first, with their newness and his sense that something veterinary was going on. He relaxed fairly quickly and seemed to enjoy doing the exercises.

During the session, Raii Khan's posture changed significantly. He began to stand in a more balanced way laterally, with his back relaxed and rounded up rather than being slightly swayed. His movement was more fluid and free, and he was very relaxed. When I next rode him I noticed more changes. He is quite responsive by nature and training, but not being used for work anymore has made him less responsive than in the past. Since beginning the somatic movements with him, he feels again like he did after long days of working together, an instant, soft response to my requests. I notice also that he rarely stands in the old, uncomfortable stance, and that he is much freer moving down steep hills. He frequently runs and plays in the pasture, indicating that his body feels good again.

For myself, I find I continue to refine my awareness of my body as I ride and do my regular daily activities. The anxiety and sleeplessness that plagued me after the accident are rare. I no longer take any pain medications. My family appreciates that I am much less apt to snap and snarl, and that I listen better to them. I am happier than I have been in years, since I don't hurt, and I feel much less tense. If I do begin to feel a tight spot, I know what to do to fix it quickly. I won't be leaping on a horse bareback any time soon, I don't suppose, but there are moments when I think I could. I'm glad to be alive, and keep making discoveries from inside, a true somatic awareness. I believe that this sense of ease must be agreeable to my horses, as well.


Criswell, E. (1989). How Yoga Works: An Introduction to Somatic Yoga. Novato, California: Freeperson Press

Dorrance, T., Porter, M. (Ed.) (1994). True Unity, Willing Communication Between Horse and Human. Word Dancer Press

Hanna, T. (1988). Somatics: Reawakening the Mind's Control of Movement, Flexibility, and Health. Reading, Massachusetts: Perseus Books

Hunt, R. (1978). Think Harmony With Horses. Fresno, California: Pioneer Publishing Company

Meagher, J. (1985). Beating Muscle Injuries for Horses. Hamilton, Massachusetts: Hamilton Horse Associates

Wanless, M. (1987). The Natural Rider, A Right-Brain Approach to Riding. North Pomfret, Vermont: Trafalgar Square Publishing

Rebecca Bentley is an author specializing in subjects of interest to horse people. She trained ranch and trail horses in her younger days. Her husband is farrier Claude Bentley. They live in Williams, Oregon, and can be reached at (541) 846-0327. Their internet address is and their e-mail address is