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  • JoAnna Mendl Shaw

Riding the Skeleton, an inter-species perspective.

In 2005 I received the following email from Linda Parelli, a master equine trainer, seasoned equestrian and the brilliant mind responsible for collaborating with her husband, Pat Parelli on codifying the Parelli Natural Horsemanship teaching platforms.

Between 2004 and 2006, Pat and Linda Parelli generously offered The Equus Projects company scholarships to their Level I training and Horse Behavior courses. Linda personally coached us in training sessions, gave performance feedback, served on the Equus Board and offered us incredible opportunities to show our work and share our teaching with their instructors our work.

In one of our one-on-one sessions I introduced Linda to the notion of moving from your bones and the basic principles of riding another person’s skeleton as practiced in Contact Improvisation.

Linda is a life-long learner, as evidenced by her desire to integrate what she learned in our session into her understanding of riding. Her curiosity and willingness to venture into new territory exemplifies of cross disciplinary thinking.

Hi JoAnna,

A woman who had attended some of our clinics wrote me and shared this observation: When

riding, one responds to the movement of the horse’s skeleton much like an acrobat balancing another acrobat in a handstand on their hands. You push into the pressure, rather than away from it. She talked about pushing into the horse’s hip and back each time it comes up under your seat.

When you visited me in Pennsylvania, I tried this, but felt I was in the way of my horse. I was moving my hip forward with the horse’s hip, but I wasn’t following it all the way back. So that left a moment of disharmony or disconnection.

You helped me envision how I could take a ride on Remmer’s skeleton and feel the full trajectory of his hipbone moving through space, rather than feel it bouncing me away. I’m still feeling the benefit of that image. Now I envision ‘taking the ride on his bones’ with my bones.

It’s wonderful

~ Linda

Linda is describing the magical Contact Improvisation duet that takes places between rider and horse when the biped has found a way to truly take a ride on the skeleton of a quadruped. Humans and equines have very different relationships to gravity and space. This is tremendously interesting to me.

The human relationship to space is vertical and sagittal. Our entire body weight rests on our feet, our skeleton rising from that narrow base of support. The architecture of the human skeleton is designed to flex and fold, enabling us to sit, lie down, unfolding and extending limbs thus allowing us to make our way upwards through the vertical dimension. We are beautifully suited to moving forward, flexion occurring at the hip, knee, ankle and small joints of the feet, sending us forward into space. Eyes focused forward, our relationship to our back space is less comfortable or familiar. Our relationship to the horizontal dimension is less obvious though immensely crucial to stability and mobility.

The equine body distributes its weight between four legs, the length of the equine body navigating much like a semi-truck. Although equine imagery celebrates the animal bounding forward, a substantial portion of its weight is constantly through the horizontal. The horse’s most spectacular movements merge forward motion with horizontal shifting. The half passe is a gorgeous movement that gives the illusion the animal is simultaneously moving forward and floating sideways.

Watching an accomplished equestrian ride, one senses stability and mobility in dialogue. The accomplished rider moves with the animal, investing not only in the motion forward and the rise and fall but also acknowledging the powerful lateral movement that plays diagonally from hind quarters to shoulders.

I am a novice rider, but bring an appreciation for the horizontal into my skeletal relationship to the horse. In my dancing training, I always found the horizontal tremendously stabilizing. Balancing on one leg, a mainstay of dancer’s technical training, when thinking about active, conscious widening of the scapula and whole back on the standing leg side of the body. If nothing else, attention to the opposing spatial pull took my attention away from the perilous-ness of that extended limb!

An exquisite rider allows her body to move through space with the horse rather than holding space on top of the animal. That rider is sensing the progression forward through space as well as acknowledging the lateral motion through the animal’s body. Riding a skeleton is a moment-to-moment sensing the multi-dimensional trajectory through space, a synthesis of stable and mobile.

In addition to all this spatial sensing and calculation, the rider must remain responsive, open to possibility.

The pioneer of Contact Improvisation, Steve Paxton, describes this “dance Sport” as:

A mode of movement which is relaxed, constantly aware and prepared, and on-flowing. As a basic focus, the dancers remain in physical touch, mutually supportive and innovative, meditating upon the physical laws relating to their masses: gravity, momentum, inertia, and friction. They do not strive to achieve results, but rather, to meet the constantly changing physical reality with appropriate placement and energy.

Contact Improvisation would be entirely foreign to Linda Parelli but I believe this is exactly what Linda Parelli discovered when she talked about her experience of ‘taking the ride on his (my horse’s) bones’ with my bones.

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