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Learning to walk…

Most of us take walking for granted.  We do it everyday, without a thought.

So when I was challenged on the first day of a clinic with James Shaw to slowly step out to the side with one leg without leaning, I was surprised to find I had trouble with this simple task.  I struggled to keep my balance.  James looked me in the eye and shouted, ‘LEANER!’.  He might as well have spread his thumb and forefinger out and put it on his forehead in the universal sign for a ‘LOSER’, but the twinkle in his eye and his slightly dropped right shoulder reassured me that he was simply welcoming me to the club.  We all lean.

So went the 3 days of self discovery.  Where is my balance?  Where am I leaning?   Why do I stick my ear out to the right when I want to step into my right stirrup?  Why doesn’t my belly button move to the left as easily as to the right.   Where do I short circuit the brilliant functions my body was designed for?  Observation without judgement (but with alot of laughter), experimentation and then feedback.

The feedback was profound.   James took us through several Tai Chi based excercises every morning.  These all start in ‘Standing Meditation’…a position foreign to most of us…..hips back, legs straight, weight on the TOES.   Well after about 10 minutes in standing meditation, your body is screaming at you to lean back, cock a hip…do anything to take the pressure off your achilles and ball of the foot.  Truth be told (and I’ve tested this theory several times since being home), you can do all the exercises in under 30 minutes and I expect, even with the addition of adding a few instructions about how to do them right, they could be done in less than 90 minutes.  But James has an interesting teaching style…humorous, self deprecating, and prone to distraction….so the morning ordeal lasted over 3 hours.  Now ‘ordeal’ might be abit of an exaggeration, as James is delightful and the education was delicious, but my body was screaming at me the whole time.  STOP.  RECONSIDER. DON”T LISTEN TO THAT EVIL MAN.

Well, we all persevered at whatever level we were capable of.  There were two great moments of feedback for me.  To be honest, there were many moments, but these were the bigs ones.  First, there were two exercises in particular that gave me instant feedback.  ‘Bend with an arch’ and ‘Palms on toes’.  You’ll have to get his DVDs or attend a workshop for details, but while doing these two exercises, two things happened to me.  First, my spine literally snapped into better alignment and second, I discovered  a way to move from a bent over position to a standing position without pain.  Those of you, who, like me, trim horses feet or even garden, will understand the excitement I felt when I realized I could straighten up without feeling pain and spasm in my lower back.   The other great epiphany was how I felt the next morning.  I woke without any back pain.  At the end of the clinic I felt better than I had for years.  Typically, a clinic in which I was learning something new and riding, would make me sore, usually in my lower back or between my shoulders.  I felt none of that.  Nothing short of a miracle.

Breathing properly was a basic principle that we practiced over and over, both on the ground and on our horses backs.  We learned to be more perceptive about where our feet were, where our bellybutton was pointing, how our seat bones were weighted and how to move the sternum and shoulders separately from the hips and bellybutton.  The big mental challenge for me was to stop thinking about movement as a gross motor skill, one that occurs using a massive amount of muscle and energy.  Instead, James challenged us to just think about moving the bone…be it the hipbone or the femor bone or the humerus bone or the clavicle bone or the sternum, and allow the body to do what it does naturally to get the job done.  Generally, I found I simply used less muscle and alot less energy to accomplish the task.

I’d like to say I am moving my body better 100% of the time now, but the truth is, my old habits are difficult to change.  I have found though that I am in observation mode alot of the time now.  While interviewing a patient,  I might check my balance and assume the standing meditation stance, which is becoming easier and more natural to me.  Walking down the hallways and around the farm, I find myself checking in with the rhythmic movement of my bellybutton.  Sitting on my horses I check in with my seat bones, breath way down into my stomach and lower back.  I am simply a beginner at moving my body properly and that’s ok.  I’m doing the exercises as often as I can and hope someday, walking will not require so much thought and attention 🙂

Check out ‘Ride From Within’ and James Shaw here.


  1. Hi Jennifer,
    First of all WOW you are a great writer and your blog was so perfect an account of our clinic. I love you are able to use the information and new awareness on and off your horse. Thank you so much for taking the time to write about the clinic. I’ll be sending everyone I know to your blogs.
    I would like to link or blogs?
    just home after 33 days on the road, I’m going swimming!
    all my best

  2. Alison says

    I can relate – been through it! Still smiling and enjoying and checking in with my belly button as often as possible

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