Balanced Horsemanship with T'ai Chi
T'ai Chi and Horsemanship
For over 3000 years the Chinese have been studying the laws and way of Mother Nature (Daoism). One of the main principles they discovered was the dual forces of yin and yang. These two opposing, controlling and reflecting forces are shown in the T'ai Chi symbol.
Chuang Tzu, one of the most well known Chinese philosophers (500 BC), once wrote, "There is no greater adversary than Yin and Yang as there is no-where they are not."
Seven hundred years ago T'ai Chi Chuan started to evolve from these same principles, not only as a martial art but as a complete exercise program that aimed at balancing these two forces in both body and mind.
Five Styles of T'ai Chi:
T'ai chi has five main styles - these are Yang, Chen, Wu, Sun and Hao. The style that I teach is a shortened version of the original Yang 85 style and is the most commonly taught worldwide.
The moves in the forms were originally meant to be used as a self-defence system. This was their primary function; secondary they served to massage the internal organs with the use of deep breathing (Chi Gung). Each move has its application but with the extensive knowledge of human physics, the Chinese made a system so flexible and balanced that it appears to be more like slow motion dance than its intended purpose.
T'ai Chi Chuan first had its beginning during a time in China where to be skilled as a martial artist had a distinct advantage in the quest for health and longevity. Nowadays with less need for self-defence many teachers are starting to take the emphasis of the fighting qualities and look more at the other benefits T'ai Chi has to offer. The stigma T'ai chi has as a fighting art actually stops many people from training.
Why Practice T'ai Chi?
The reasons people start to practice T'ai Chi are varied. Many practice for better health, as it helps to prevent and cure a wide range of common illnesses. People also make use of its meditative qualities in combating their modern, stressful lifestyles. Recently there was an article published about the ability of T'ai Chi to improve balance. The American Medical Journal wrote that T'ai Chi is twice as good as any exercise program for improving balance in the elderly. One of the main benefits received by practicing T'ai Chi is its positive influence in maintaining the internal energy flow balance; this works in a very similar way to acupuncture and acupressure, which are evolved from the same school of thought.
Emotionally, too, we can see many advantages in using T'ai Chi as an exercise program. It has often been described as moving meditation. The use of soft flowing movements in combination with deep abdominal breathing helps to still the mind and control the emotions. People often comment how after only a few lessons they are not as prone to get frustrated or angry around their horses.
Apart from the traditional benefits that the T'ai Chi practitioner receives in regard to health, whether physically or mentally, many people in the West are starting to use this ancient art in different fields. This is one of the great strengths of T'ai Chi - its ability to assist in any endeavour it is applied to. It is now being recognised as being extremely useful as a cross training exercise for sports such as golf, tennis, skating, etc., and in our case it is helpful to horse people who are looking to improve their horsemanship.
The Benefits of T'ai Chi on Horsemanship:
T'ai Chi improves balance, on and off the horse.
The slow flowing movements enhance our awareness and lead us to greater sensitivity and feel.
T'ai Chi works on unifying the mind and the body which greatly improves timing, an essential ingredient for good horsemanship.
The footwork of T'ai Chi can help show how the horse transfers its weight in order to free up its feet and change directions.
The arm and hand movements of T'ai Chi are always practised in a relaxed manner and help the rider stay soft and subtle.
The practice in T'ai Chi of never being double-weighted (it uses an on and off system) can really help in the area of using leg aids.
Deep abdominal breathing techniques help to build patience, calmness and a sense of timelessness (horse time). These breathing techniques also lead us to be more centered and balanced internally, which leads to an improved seat in the saddle.
Most of the T'ai Chi moves coincide with the physical requirements needed in our horsemanship. The moves become more engrained and natural, both physically and mentally. For things such as doctoring your horse, i.e. acupressure, it is helpful to have balance and a more sensitive feel.
Safety is another benefit of T'ai Chi:
Improved balance and flexibility through footwork techniques helps us to be more agile.
We develop calm and smooth body language and more awareness of our actions around our horses.
We develop improved peripheral vision.
In recent times there has been a swing to work more on oneself, and it is nice to see that people in the horse world are fully embracing this. Today, with all the different forms of self help readily available (Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais, Yoga, etc.), it is possible to work on the things that can hold us back so much. Personally I like to combine my horsemanship with T'ai Chi training, not only for the described benefits, but also in regards to the philosophy that surrounds it. If you look deeply into books such as The Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, and The Book of Chuang Tzu you can see not only the origins of T'ai Chi, but an in-depth study of truly natural principles that apply to horsemanship.
Like the quest for unity with our horses, the study of T'ai Chi takes a long time to master, but the benefits can last a lifetime!