I wrote the following paper as my final work for my Yoga Teacher Training. It brings together two of my favorite things, yoga and riding my horse! I hope you enjoy!
Yoga & Equestrians
Yoga = union of body mind and spirit
Dressage = harmony between horse and rider in other words “union”
There is no place for ego in yoga or riding. In yoga we strive for balance in our lives, in quieting our minds, settling our souls, strengthening our bodies in order to find our “seat.” In dressage we strive for balance between the rider and the horse, a quieting of our minds, strengthening our bodies in order find our “seat.”
Yoga for Equestrians addresses the rider as a whole. Yoga is not just a fitness regime or a passing trend. Yoga is an educational path that will balance the rider’s mental, physical and emotions. The yogic path will elevate riding from a mechanical activity to one that is immersed in feel.
The success of a rider relies greatly upon one’s level of body-mind awareness and coordination. All of the skills can be achieved through the practice of yoga. Our trainers assist us in developing body awareness to achieve the correct position, but taking that responsibility as a rider further, can greatly enhance what they are trying to help us attain. A yoga practice can expand one’s personal awareness and deepen our connection with the horse.
Although the word “seat” may have different meanings, i.e, in yoga we strengthen and settle our bodies so that we can sit and meditate, almost loosing feeling in our body; however, in dressage we work on building a seat that does not interfere with our horses’ movement, allowing us to act as one and stay in balance together as one.
Our goal/knowing that we have done our job well is that an observer is not be able to notice that we, the rider, are doing anything in order to have our horse perform the movements we are asking. Therefore, much in the same way as loosing the sense of body in the yoga “seat,” we become one with our horse in our riding “seat.”
Dressage is often referred to as the horses that dance. It is a beautiful harmony between a rider and her 1200 pound animal that trusts her every movement and request. A trust that is developed over many years and like yoga, a life time of dedication and commitment.
In order for a horse to be balanced they must be free to move their bodies unhampered. This is where I believe yoga has changed my riding and my relationship with horses dramatically.
To continue along the subject of “harmony;” and how we achieve this goal in dressage, “horse and rider’s center of gravity must become one.” Our horse has a center of gravity and so does the rider. In order to achieve harmony the two centers of gravity must be one, the two centers must be placed one above the other.
In order to work on achieving this goal the horse and rider must be completely relaxed. Tension in the rider is felt by the horse and in turn makes the horse tense; therefore, if the rider is relaxed then the horse will be relaxed. It is the responsibility of the rider to sit on the horse in a way that does not disturb the horse, that encourages balance and harmony between the two. In order for the rider to have this type of seat, she must be completely relaxed and able to follow the movement of the horse.
The practice of yoga is essential to the rider’s ability to be balanced, relaxed and able to allow the horse to do what he’s asked and allowed to move the way he’s meant to.
Let us begin with the breath. Breath is the simpliest and most effective way to connect with the horse. Teaching ourselves how to work with breath is invaluable. When we’re tense the breath becomes accelerated and shallow, again transferring to the horse. When we’re relaxed our breath is low and in the belly.
Simply working with our horses can make us frustrated and anxious, causing the breath to become quick and shallow, full of tension. When we bring in the work of pranayama, taking deep, low belly breaths, everything settles, including our horse. Just taking those long deep breaths, with long deep exhale sighs makes everything a whole lot better.
This is the type of breath work I use while riding, keeping my mouth closed and breathing through the nose helps in not losing too much carbon dioxide, allowing the stress level to decrease and help with relaxation and focus.
My horse responds amazingly well to this type of breath, often he follows my big sighs with his own! Then, becomes super relaxed, round and swingy, we riders like this!
Showing is very stressful, you are usually in an unfamiliar place, tons of horses, dogs, people, noises, etc. All of these factors are stressful in and of themselves. Then, you’ve got your horse who’s also reacting to all of these outside forces as well. A great technique I use with him is coming into his stall very quietly, speaking very gently, I begin to stroke his head with an open palm and use the longest inhales and exhales I can manage. You take your open palm, cupped not flat, and gently run it over their eyes, they will usually closes their eyes and drop their heads, lowering their tension level. They have a very sweet dip right above the eye and you can gently stroke those areas, breathing quietly the whole time.
When I am very nervous, alternate nostril breathing is amazing. I can take a few minutes to myself and just practice this breath work that calms my nerves and releases any tension, allowing me to just be and focus on the job ahead.
Showing in the dressage discipline is a little more nerve-racking to me than other disciplines because you are entering the show ring alone and have a set pattern of moves that you must perform in front of a judge that is watching your every move. Just a little, all about me and my horse!
A breath practice brings a sense of peace and calming to both, allowing that connection again between the horse and the person he trusts the most that he will be okay and you know that he will take care of you, the best that he can.
Position & Asanas
Most lay persons think that we just get on the horse and they, the horse, do the rest. Nothing can be further from the truth. A rider’s position is integral to the way a horse goes and feels. If your position is crap, well, you know where I’m going with that. So, we work very hard on our position and each body part must act independently. It is absolutely necessary to have completely independent aids in all limbs, core and seat. This is where I often feel the correlation between yoga asanas and when I ride using these aids. There are times, often, that my riding requires 10 different things with independent parts of my body but must work together all at the same time.
Love my asana practice!!! It has changed and made my riding so much better. With everything we ask of our bodies in coming into a yoga pose I can translate and use in my riding seat/position. What has been the biggest change has been my control in my core and balance. The total engagement of core throughout our postures which helps with balance on the solid ground works the same way while perched on a 1,200 pound moving animal.
Alignment, alignment, alignment! Reducing injuries and strain on the knees. In riding our knees carry about 85% of our total body weight. Lifting arches is one of the easiest ways to maintain correct alignment between your ankle and knee while doing asanas and riding.
In riding our knees have different functions, helping to maintain proper position of the lower leg, enabling us to give more accurate leg aides to our horses. When our ankles and knees are in correct alignment our hips are free to be more open and supple, making riding more comfortable and again easier to give proper leg aides.
In an asana practice that emphasizes the lifting of the arches by rolling the ankles gently towards each other we engage numerous other muscles. We also activate the inner thigh muscles, a group used in balance.
The Warrior series, Triangle poses, standing one legged balance poses are excellent for opening the hips and allowing the opportunity to practice lifting the arches in the feet and developing strength and balance, all aiding in our riding position.
Developing stillness, quieting the monkey mind, and all the chatter is encouraged. In yoga we use the phrase “honor where you are in your practice,” “honor your body,” and so in riding we must do the same. The constant strive to be the best or place the highest, get the highest score can often be daunting and sometimes feel unattainable. We need to let that “shit” go! Honor where you and your horse are right now! And be okay with that. Far more growth and progress comes from that mindset than one of, “I just can’t do this!” Negativity in your mind transfers to your horse as well and he/she is trying their best to do what you ask of them.
So in seeking, working towards stillness and acceptance we can truly listen and understand the horse, perhaps allowing us to understand more clearly what exactly is going on. When we work in this quieter place, a stiller mind, often our response to what is happening is the most appropriate and the proper use of our body is more effective to communicate to the horse.
In order to get to this place meditation, mindfulness, concentration are a great path. With meditation we can use this time to begin the mindset of forgiveness and acceptance of who we are and where we are in all aspects of our lives. We can focus and meditate on what we want to change, what we can achieve. I use a lot of mental visualization when working with my horse, I ride in my mind often. By doing that it gives me a picture of how I want to ride in real life. Often times this works and at the very least gives me goals to work towards.
Sharing the successes of yoga and dressage is exciting and needed. We put way to much stress upon ourselves and our partners, our horses. Many people and horses worry themselves into sickness. Like people, horse too can develop physical ailments because of stress and improper work ethics. Yoga, I believe can and will help.
WHAT EVERYONE AND EVERYTHING IN OUR WORLD
NEEDS NOW IS YOGA!
Equine Breath, the natural way to help your horse
Better Breathing for the Dressage Rider, Rebecca Ashton
4. Karen Wheeler, Dressage Coach/Trainer
Connecting with your horse through your breath