My yoga teacher often says that if you are holding your breath, your body is telling you that something is uncomfortable. It’s important to listen to your body and breath through the uncomfortable in life, yoga and riding.
I have several fellow riders that have told me they have a bad habit of holding their breath during an entire jumping course, so much so that they’ve felt like they were going to pass out when it was over. I noticed that I would also hold my breath at the start of a course especially at horse shows. Being aware of this got me thinking about the effects that not breathing must have on my riding form as well as the horse. I started practicing yoga in my 20s and I became more aware of my breath in general, but especially while riding. I noticed that when I get nervous and hold my breath, my body gets stiff, my heart races and in turn my horse gets stiff, nervous and unsure of me as the leader. According to Tim Hayes, author of Riding Home,
When a horse feels the anxiety in a rider’s body, it causes him to lose trust and confidence in the rider’s leadership. The horse immediately becomes uncomfortable, resistant, and defensive. A horse may think, “If my rider is anxious, maybe I should be anxious. I may be safer asking my rider to get off me so I can run fast enough and far enough until I feel safe.”
To ensure that my students learned to be strong leaders on their mount, I recently started to incorporate breathing exercises into my therapeutic lessons. Here are several warm ups/breathing exercises that you might find useful in your own riding or while teaching students:
– Starting at a walk, simply bring your students attention to the horses movement and ask them to allow their hips to relax, open and move with the horse. Then bring their attention to their breathing, ask them to take 3 audible deep breaths.
– Have your student get into two-point and instead of picking a point for them to ride to, tell them to stay up for 5 audible deep breaths.
– Tell your student to drop their reins and use their leg as their steering-aid. Have them stretch their arms out to the sides as if they are trying to reach both ends of the ring and have them stay there for 5 audible deep breaths. This one will be a little more challenging if the student is off lead because they will need to keep their horse moving forward in a straight line using just their leg. If the student is more comfortable with having their hands on their hips, thighs, or even on their head during this exercise, that works too.
– Ask your student to do 5 stop starts; and when they asks their horse to whoa, tell them you want to hear an audible exhale with that “who-ah”.
Mounted exercises that have a focus on breathing are especially useful for students that are nervous and tighten up when they first get on. I see an immediate change in the riders position and the horses body language when the rider is focused on their breathing. Plus, this is a useful tool that you can come back to at any point in the lesson to regain trust and control between the rider and horse.