A Somatic Approach to Horsemanship™ - History & development

How I found the Reset

Throughout my 25 years with horses, my specialties have emerged as working with difficult horses - horses who are difficult to train, dangerous, have behavior issues or emotional issues or inexplicable physical issues that have the vet’s at a loss for answers – and helping my human students become more aware and physically connected thru riding, horsemanship and Hanna Somatics for horses and humans.


I have always had a feel for horses, good timing, physical coordination and partnership skills from my love of dancing, and a strong desire to have only mutually rewarding experiences with horses – ever since I quit taking riding lessons at age 12 because it became clear to me that my lesson horse, a big grey mare named Dee Dee, did not enjoy our rides together, and was only tolerating me because it was her job. I decided then, and still feel the same today, that I would only work with horses if I was convinced that the horses actually want to participate. I will only “use” a horse to teach lessons if I can do it in such a way that the horse never feels like a lesson horse, but is happy to work and is interested in and satisfied with the interactions they have with the many students (or new friends) that they get to meet. This led directly to the development of what I call the 5 Agreements –the foundation of my training and lesson program. The 5 Agreements are the basic ingredients I believe are required to open a dialogue with a horse, and start building a vocabulary of mutually understood non-verbal words and phrases, using energy, intention, visualizations, body language, and of course some pressure and physical contact.


In 2010 I learned about a new way of working with horses called Equine Hanna Somatics – a hands-on method that enables us to help horses reset their resting muscle tone at the brain level, by tapping into the existing neuromuscular system using a series of clinical movement-education protocols. It looks a bit like bodywork, but is actually an internal experience for the horse, and the clinical results are incredible. From the first session, we see surprising levels of relaxation and postural re-patterning – or more accurately Un-patterning as the horse is able to let go of acquired habits and asymmetries and return to their natural state of homeostasis. 


In my Equine Hanna Somatics Practice, I have worked with hundreds, maybe thousands of horses all over the US and in Europe, doing this very intense, very intimate, and very biologically resonant work. This, along with my trainer’s mindset, led me to develop new levels of Feel and Awareness that I didn’t even know were possible. With practice, not only was I able to feel the levels of tension in the muscles and bodies of my clients, but I started to actually be able to feel energy and the electromagnetic fields that all living organisms emanate. I discovered that when two bodies are close together, and their fields intersect and begin interacting, that this is a sensory experience we can literally feel and develop as a communication tool. Most importantly, by teaching this awareness to my students, I discovered that in this I am not special, but that any of us, with awareness and conscious practice, can develop this sensory skill to a great degree. Anyone can learn to both project and receive information through this biologic energy field. 


I have used this information to make connections with horses who were “beyond hope” as training projects, or to help horses who were so tense, and in so much pain, that they could not tolerate even the lightest touch – but were responsive to “touches” on their electromagnetic fields. In 2013, when I met Aimee Brimhall McCord and became a student of her Inspirational Horsemanship, I learned that she had a name for this field, she called it a “bubble” and used it extensively in her training. My mind was blown! Aimee’s technique of using feel and the bubble as the basis of our communication with horses, and using body language and pressure/release only in support of that base, is revolutionary. It is incredibly effective, and it feels really good.


Aimee helped me to understand my horse Doc A’Nalu, who was, of course, a very difficult case. That’s probably why I bought him! I overheard Aimee telling someone recently that when she met he and I, if he had belonged to anyone else, she would have suggested that he be turned out to pasture, and that they give up on ever training him. What a compliment she paid me with that statement! You wouldn’t know it today, but Doc was so hard to train that after five years I still couldn’t get him to circle or canter in an arena, even if that "arena" was a 10-acre field. We could gallop and have fun on trail rides, and do all the basic yields and riding figures when he felt like it, but only very slowly, and only when he wanted to. When he and I were in agreement about what to do, things were great. When Doc didn’t want to do something, there was no explosion, no bucking fit or scary behavior – we simply didn’t do it. There wasn’t a stick big enough or a treat tasty enough or a rope strong enough to change his mind. I had never met a horse before who didn’t respond to any of my training techniques and tools. I couldn’t figure out what motivated him, pressure didn’t work, and he wasn’t afraid. “Because I said so” or “if you want this to be easy,” or “because if you don’t I will smack you with this stick/whip/spur” (what most training techniques really boil down to) were completely useless with him. He simply held his ground, braced against the pressure, or began to slowly and methodically back up. His communication was very clear – I like you, but it’s not going to happen, end of story.


Three days into my first clinic with Aimee B. McCord, she and Doc helped me to have a major Aha! experience. I was riding Doc, trying to do a simple rein-back exercise, which we should have had down pat, but for some reason it wasn’t working. I was following the instructions to a tee, my technique and timing were close to perfect, and my sweet horse just…stood…there. He calmly refused to speak to me – he didn’t even brace or dig in his heels, he was just non-responsive to anything I did. For 45 minutes we stood in the same spot, the other riders swirling around us, all onto the next exercise, and then the next one. I was determined to figure it out, and Doc was apparently determined to help me ascend to the next level of consciousness. ;)


It was a simple exercise – back your horse up using only one rein, attached to a rope halter instead of a bridle. At first, it seemed that the main difference from my training experience was that instead of bouncing or putting steady pressure on the rein until my horse started to move backward, she wanted me to use what she called a Reset – a pause without pressure after I used the rein, whether my horse moved or not. This went against what I had been taught about pressure and release to get a horse to learn cues, but she was the clinician, and my horse had instantly fallen in love with her, so I trusted her enough to stick with it.


She explained that I should begin my cue for the back-up in my minds eye and my bubble, then let it move into my body language and riding position, and finally to support my subtle cues with my rein, stronger but just once, and then Reset to start all over. With several repetitions, the horse was supposed to start tuning in to the more subtle cues, and start responding to a nice light request for the back-up. It seemed to be working all around me for the other participants, but Doc just stood quietly and let me go thru the motions over and over. He would lift his head a little each time I got to the stage of using my rein to support the ask for the back-up, but his feet didn’t budge. I could feel in his body (which I was really good at doing that from all my somatic work) that he had no intention of nor engagement for preparing to move. Zilch. Zero. It felt like he was consciously ignoring me, because in general, we had a pretty good back-up! So there we stood.


Aimee would occasionally come over and offer some advice or details on what I should be doing, or explain more about what I should and should not be doing in the Reset, which was the new part for me. In the reset, we are supposed to return to neutral, or to harmony with the horse if we are in motion. This resetting to neutral needs to be true in the pressure (none), the body language (quiet, back to harmony at the halt with a horse who is calmly standing still), the mental picture (just sittin’ on my horse…), and in the internal expectation and intention. All of these parts need to match, internal and external, energy, intention and physical body. It was this last bit that was keeping us stuck. I thought I was doing it correctly. I really believed I had reset and had gone all the way to neutral in my body, heart and mind. But, deep in my trainer’s brain, I knew we had a decent back-up, and I just wanted Doc to do it so we could move on. But I also wanted to learn this reset thing, so I kept trying. More time passed, and we were still in the same 4 hoof prints. I’d take a deep breath, go through the steps Aimee had outlined, finish by flipping the rein to exaggerate the cue, and then resetting…. Or so I thought. What I eventually figured out was that in my reset, I wasn’t really 100% in the present moment. Part of my mind was going over the failed attempt we had just made, for what felt like the 700th time, and part of my mind was hoping that the next try would be the one that worked. Because I was thinking these thoughts, my mental chatter was telling me three stories at once (the third story being that I actually thought I was in reset). My intention, which was readable to my horse in my bubble/field, was holding some subtle pressure that wasn’t letting up, creating a continuous ASK – it was right there under every step of the exercise, like the hum of a refrigerator in an otherwise quite room. You don’t notice it until the thing shuts off, and then it’s like a revelation of peace and quiet!


So this mental hum was present in my mind, my bubble, and my field, and it was also causing tension to be held in my body that I wasn’t immediately aware of. At the 45-minute mark of us not doing the back-up, I realized my lack of present-moment focus and mental storyline during what was supposed to be the reset, was causing me to hold tension in my seat muscles. Doc was listening to my intention and my very subtle body position, which had been running on a steady low buzz the whole time, rather than listening to my clumsy attempts at being smooth and systematic with my cues and reset. So he was actually doing what he “heard” me asking – only I didn’t know at what level of subtlety and sophistication he was listening to me. Once I realized I had to quiet my internal state and release my slightly tensed butt muscles – the very next time I started to ask Doc to back up, he did it almost immediately, before I even moved my body or my hand to use the rein. It was as if all of a sudden he could hear me! But of course, the reality was that he had been listening the whole time, and then finally, finally, I spoke to him in a manner that he could hear and was willing to respond to. I can only imagine how patient a teacher he must be, to have stood there for so long while my intention was essentially shouting conflicting messages at him, waiting for me to learn how to speak properly.


I am so thankful that I have a horse who demands such high quality conversations, because it is from horses like him that I have learned most of what I know and teach. And I’m also thankful that I had the somatic awareness and knowledge of the neuromuscular system to find in my body where I was holding the tension, recognize the feel of it, and know what to do to release it so that I wouldn’t continue to hold the tension unconsciously. 


This is what makes my approach to horse training so unique –


First, I have a gift for explaining and teaching the concepts and techniques of a new system of horsemanship that is based on connection and dialogue rather than on domination and leadership. 


Secondly, I have the knowledge and tools, using Hanna Somatics, to help both riders and horses increase their body awareness, shed stiffness and crookedness, and develop the feel to find and reset any unconscious chronic muscular tension that is getting in the way of the truth, purity and accuracy of our non-verbal communications.


Thirdly, in my EHS practice, I noticed long ago that there are similar patterns that show up in horses that are in a particular sport or training discipline, or are all ridden by the same person – and that the symptoms I am frequently hired to help resolve are often actually caused by our training and horse handling techniques.


With Prevention in mind, I have been exploring new ways to teach, train and handle our horses so that we can avoid causing some of the chronic tension and poor posture that leads to needing something like Equine Hanna Somatics to resolve it. Instead, my hope is that we can use EHS more and more for performance enhancement, to accelerate training and recovery, maintain suppleness, prevent future injuries, and connect to our horses on a deeper level with an enjoyable bonding experience. This is A Somatic Approach to Horsemanship. This is what I teach, what I am writing a book series about, and what you will see in my training videos and articles. 


Welcome to the Somatic Revolution! I’m so happy that you are here.

~ Alissa