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Riding to Rhythm

For my first blog article I thought I would share with you an article that I wrote for PATH's Stride Magazine that was published in 2007......I hope you enjoy it.

Riding to Rhythm Music Helps Students Relax, Learn & Relate

By Pat Walters

Annie wrings her hands as if this is her first ride. Actually, Annie and her horse Pebbles have been partners for two years.

After a warm-up walk, Annie lets me place a small rubber ball in her hands. She turns the ball over and over, taking in its texture and pattern and plays “hand it back and forth” between the side-walkers. After a few minutes, Annie goes into her own world, staring into the sunlight. I offer her a small fuzzy toy, but get no response.

“Time for music in rhythm,” I tell the side-walkers. Everyone is quiet at first letting Annie absorb the hip movement of her horse. Then I softly hum in the exact timing of Pebbles hind hooves as they strike the ground. The movement and sound connects and awaken something in Annie. She looks at me and offers a half smile. Annie is back.

Matching the movement of the horse with sound has not only helped students on the autism spectrum, like Annie, but also students who are angry or upset. Having them ride at a walk, feeling the horse while listening to a beat or someone’s hum enhances the connection with their bodies and minds. In Annie’s case, she was able to re-focus her attention and interact with others.

Rhythm Relaxes

I’ve found that creating this ‘audible rhythm’ relaxes students as they become more attune to their movement and body rhythm. This improves their coordination, balance, motor control and timing as they follow the horse’s motion. Dave is a good example.

After a motorcycle accident that left nerve damage in his legs, Dave is determined to ride again.

Mounted on a pad and surcingle, he is working on relaxing his legs and then dropping them around his horse. Sometimes this is easy, sometimes it’s a challenge. Today is a challenge.

“Close your eyes Dave, and just feel the movement of your horse’s hips gently lifting and lowering your hips. Feel the sway of the horse’s belly,” I encourage him.

Dave’s legs fight against our wishes. I have an assistant put on a slow samba that follows the horse’s pace. Slowly, Dave’s legs relax. Slowly they drop and follow the horse’s belly sway. Dave smiles as he relaxes and hums along. We all smile.

As Dave’s example illustrates, music is beneficial in calming a rider’s breathing and reducing muscle tension so he or she can follow the horse’s movement better. This is different than playing music for fun. When used purposely, music can be an integral part of an instructor’s tool box.

Different Beats

Often you can vary the mood of a lesson and/or rider by the type of tempo you select, using it to relax a hyperactive student or encourage an apathetic student. For instance, upbeat tunes can invigorate a rider. Soft rock or easy listening tunes encourage relaxation. Brisk marches are invigorating, while a waltz is calming. Music that blends keyboard and guitar can be most effective, combining a faster, uplifting cadence with a calmer, softer melody.

Horses, also, respond to various tempos. I’ve seen horses stride to the music’s beat, literally dancing to the rhythm. This in turn, fosters coordination and balance as riders match the horse’s motion.

Music can accelerate learning by improving concentration and stimulating imagination.

Songs can amplify the effect of music on learning. Encouraging riders to sing facilitates language development, memory and sequencing during games. Remember how we all learned the ABCs by learning the ABC song! For younger riders or shy students, singing is not only fun but lends an important sense of familiarity to the lesson. Songs that have a solid four-beat are wonderful to use for walking games.

Sounds & Socializing

Music is also an effective way to improve communication, motivate riders and promote empowerment and team building. I love to watch how it socially transforms my students.

Classes tend to begin quietly with a few “HI’s” or smiles. I will use a soft rhythm for warm-ups. After a short balance exercise, I introduce games and team activities accompanied by a fun tune to get everyone singing.

Once they connect to the movement and rhythm, they start to laugh and talk to each other. I let them pick the CD and decide what rhythm goes best with each exercise. At the end, they make a circle, facing in, so they can see each other while doing movements to a soft slow-down tune. This unites them. They make eye contact and smile and give each a thumbs-up sign. They have gone from being a class to being a team.

Magical Connection

It’s not surprising that music has such a profound effect on our physical, emotional and mental development. After all, we are rhythm beings. Rhythm and melody are a part of our lives from the beginning. The first sounds we hear are in the womb. The slow melody of our mother’s heart beat is intertwined with the faster melody of our infant heartbeat, as we are gently rocked by the rhythm of her breathing. It’s the rhythm of life.

By helping riders merge their natural inner rhythm with that of their horses’, they can rediscover the magical connection that helps them tune in and connect with their horse, their bodies and their minds.


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