Friday, December 5, 2014

Wendy Murdoch Clinic

A few months ago, I bought a book called 50 5-Minute Fixes to Improve Your Riding by Wendy Murdoch.  I read it, but there seemed to be a lot of exercises that either required someone else to help me or involved the dreaded exercise ball or some other off-horse technique.  It's not that I don't think those things are valuable - but I just don't have the opportunity to get together with horsey friends that often (and I'm pretty sure the Olive Garden staff are not going to approve of me wandering around with an eye patch testing out my lack of depth perception...) and I have actually banned exercise balls from my house because I consider them to be torture devices.  I admit that nothing really stuck with me from the book and I sort of moved on.

But then a friend of mine moved her horse to a private barn that is about 15 minutes from where I board and that barn just so happens to host rather frequent clinics with none other than Wendy Murdoch.  I decided to give the lady another chance because I really did want to focus on my position instead of just worrying about what Nimo was doing.  Don't get me wrong - my current riding instructor is great and both Nimo and I have made wonderful progress in the last year of working with her, but the techniques Wendy Murdoch teaches have to do with body awareness and that isn't something that is typically covered in a dressage lesson.  I thought that if I could focus on myself outside of the lessons a little more, that would probably help both Nimo and I in the long run.

As luck would have it, I was able to get a 4:30 pm slot at yesterday's clinic that I shared with my friend who boards at the barn.  Due to the willingness of my husband to leave work a little early to watch my daughter and my foresight to hook up the trailer and pack everything the night before, I made it to the clinic with 10 minutes to spare.

To be honest, I really didn't know what to expect from our session.  I'm not really good with body awareness stuff.  I tried yoga for awhile and managed to dislocate one of my shoulders (admittedly this particular shoulder has dislocated itself many times since I was 16 and once popped out when I sneezed, so it's not entirely yoga's fault) and almost dislocate the other one, so I decided it really wasn't for me.  Also, there was a lot of sort of weird spiritual stuff that kind of oooogs me out, so I never felt very relaxed.

Anyway, we started off with Wendy just watching us walk around the arena while my friend's horse was standing on what are called SURE FOOT pads.  They are oversized cusioney disks that apparently help the horse with body awareness in a similar way to how Wendy's techniques help the rider.  Anyway, my friend's horse (who can be a bit of a grumpy mare, but is very well behaved anyway) seemed to be tolerating the process pretty well.  And Nimo was paying a lot of attention to what was going on.  I could tell he was just desperate to go over and check those pads out.

After watching me walk and trot for several minutes, Wendy had me come over to the middle of the arena where the SURE FOOT pads were. She didn't use the pads on Nimo at this point, although she let him sniff them a little.  (And by "let" I mean that she really didn't have a choice - he was very interested in them!)  Instead, she had me shift my pelvis and hips and lean forward slightly at the waist until I literally felt like I was slumping on a couch instead of sitting up straight.  I'm sure I was looking at her like she was a crazy person, so she demonstrated how much more secure my position was in its new state.  When she pushed on my back or my chest, I was immovable - in fact, Nimo's whole body would move slightly when she pushed on me because I was so stable in the saddle.  When I was in my normal riding position, she could literally have pushed me right off the horse.  I was convinced enough to give it a try.

So off we went to walk and trot around the arena some more.  Wendy had me practice changing from my old position to the new position and back again several times and asked me to tell her how it felt and what my horse was doing.  It felt very strange.  I still felt like I was slouching (although my friend said she felt much more comfortable).  There were mirrors in the arena and it didn't look like I was slouching, but I was definitely having trouble with the new sensation.  The effect on Nimo was subtle, but immediate and noticeable.  In my old position, he tended to travel with his head slightly more elevated while in the new position, his neck would drop maybe 2-3 inches.  His movement at the walk became quite nice as we continued to work in the new position.

Then it was time to come back to the center of the arena.  Nimo was so excited!  Even Wendy could tell he was just dying to get his feet on those pads:)  She put his left front hoof on one of them almost without having to ask and then while Nimo stood with one hoof on the pad, she worked with my left leg.  She was using a technique called Feldenkrais, which felt as good as a massage.  She took my foot out of the stirrup and had me relax it while she moved it through a range of motions and she also had me rest my foot on what looked like the back of a clipboard while she moved the clipboard slightly.  After she felt that my ankle, knee, and hip joints were moving more fluidly, she put my foot back in the stirrup.  It felt like my stirrup was at least one hole shorter!  Very bizzare, but my leg felt great.

So we rode around the arena again at the walk and trot and Wendy had me give her feedback on what it felt like and how Nimo felt.  She encouraged me to switch between the old and new positions again.  When I was in the old position, it felt like my legs were just wobbling all over the place.  But in the new position, they felt much more stable and secure.  My friend, who was practicing the same thing, was literally having trouble keeping her mid-20s horse in check because she was so excited to be moving.  The horse has only recently started back into work after 18 months off, so it was a pretty amazing transformation.

We returned one more time to the center of the arena.  This time, Nimo got to put both front feet on the pads.  Interestingly, he would not let Wendy put his right front on the pad at all.  Then, she just gave him control over his foot and he placed in on the pad himself.  He happily stood there with both front feet on the pads while Wendy did the Feldenkrais Method on my right foot.  I wish I could have that technique done every day - it just felt amazing to have my joints working better!

Then, Wendy wanted us to ride around the arena some more.  That turned out to be easier said than done because Nimo did not want to get off the pads.  While Wendy had been working on my leg, he'd been relaxing and licking and chewing and he made it clear that he wanted to stay.  I had to use my whip to get him to move.  He did finally move forward and as he did, he very deliberately set each of his hind feet on the pads.  Wendy said she hadn't seen a horse do that before.  She didn't have a comment about why, but I suspect he just wanted to try them out because they had felt so good when he was standing on them with his front feet.

We proceeded around the arena again and I was still having trouble with the new position, so Wendy had me come back to her for some fine-tuning.  It was amazing how me "folding" over at the waist just a slight amount had the instant effect of loosening Nimo's jaw, something that I always struggle with.

After a few more minutes, we wrapped up our session.  And I have to say that I am pretty impressed with what we covered.  I do think that I will struggle quite a bit with the new position, so I'm hoping to do another clinic with Wendy within a month or two as a refresher.  I've spent probably close to 3 decades riding with my back hollowed out and it's going to take some time to overcome that.  But seeing the changes in Nimo convinced me that it is worth working on.  My friend's horse actually responded quite a bit more dramatically than Nimo did, and she would pin her ears and swish her tail whenever my friend would go back to her old position.

I also want to investigate the use of the SURE FOOT pads for Nimo a little more.  Wendy offers the pads, an instructional DVD, and some other related products on her website.  The whole package isn't cheap (about $200), but I thought I might be able to start with the DVD and then get a set of pads to try.  There is no question that he enjoyed the process and clearly wanted more of it, so if it can help him feel more comfortable, I definitely want to see if working with the pads helps him.

I also found out that Wendy offers clinic sessions unmounted, so if I wanted to focus more on body awareness for me, that might be a great option, especially this winter, when the weather might not be great for hauling.  I'm also wondering if we might be able to do a session just for Nimo on the SURE FOOT pads to give him a chance to enjoy himself a little.  So stay tuned for more discussion on Wendy Murdoch's methods in the coming months!


  1. Oh wow this is exactly what I went through at the TTEAM clinic with my slightly hollow, leaning back position. The trainer had me tip forward, it felt really awful, but she said I was actually straight in the new position. She had us all work on each other's bodies from the ground, pushing and pulling on each other, it was interesting how much more stable I was when I was slightly curled forward (what it felt like anyway). Also, I have a friend who does Feldenkrais and she did the exact same leg things with me, but unmounted, sitting. Pretty eye-opening.

  2. The surefoot pad video on her site was interesting too - is it like a horse using an exercise ball? I've noticed a lot of office workers here use something similar to an exercise ball - it's an inflatable disc you sit on that is fat enough that you have to balance a little while seated. Sort of a compromise between an exercise ball and just sitting there?

    Two books I read recently encourage riders to get an exercise ball. I have never really tried one.

    1. Lytha, I'm not sure the pads are quite like an exercise ball, although I think there is another part to the Sure Foot work that includes having the horse balance on an irregular surface. And interesting about the thing your office workers use - I figure work is crappy enough without having to add exercise to it, though:)

  3. Nimo is so cute!! I love the Friesian curiosity and personality. :D It sounds like the clinic was definitely worth it. I'm glad you learned so much and had a great experience!

  4. For someone that does enjoy reading and the dreaded exercise ball, do you think I would like Wendy's book? Now that I'm not taking dressage lessons any more, I must admit i feel a bit stale and would love to have some stuff to experiement with to keep me feeling fresh. I did some centered riding stuff and liked it, but think I've gotten as much out of it as I can without an instructur.

    1. Mel, you actually might like the book. Wendy Murdoch is a student of Sally Swift, so she employs the idea of body awareness in a similar way. Many of the exercises have an off the horse section which might have a prop like an eye patch or a chair or the exercise ball and then have a follow-up on the horse. And some of them really need a partner to help give you a feeling or give some feed back. I really suck at body awareness and just really didn't have the patience to go through the exercises on my own, but if you like, say, sitting on a chair and experimenting with some changes in your position to see how it looks/feels, the book might be helpful. However, I found the clinic setting to work better for me.

  5. I am so very completely intrigued. Especially after you mentioned the horses' dramatic responses to position. Q can be such a snot about things and I've decided it simply must be ME when we're doing flat work in a controlled environment, so anything I can do to fix ME would be great. I ride (and do most things) with hollowed lower back... Hmmm.

    You've done it again. Written something about something that has me scouring the internet for more! Thanks for that!

  6. Are you still using the SureFoot pads? If so, how are they working?

    1. Hi Becca, I have tried to use them several times over the past couple of years. Nimo has never shown the interest level that he had at the clinic, though. I have convinced him to stand on them a couple of times, but he would only last a minute before moving his feet and I never saw a difference. I'm not sure what it was about the clinic that made him so excited about those pads but whatever it was seems to have ended:)