Being aware of your breathing is one of the best ways to connect mind and body – a requirement to any enlightened approach to horse training.

Breathing is a bodily function that is, for the most part, an unconscious act. Thank goodness for that, because if we had to remember to breathe, most of us would not be here. However, proper technique goes beyond just the act; how you go about doing it is the key. Becoming aware of your breathing is the first step in changing your life — and your riding — for the better.

Take regular breaths

When you hold your breath:

  • Your body tenses, which is transferred to your horse
  • Your horse’s head raises two or three inches
  • Your horse’s body movement is restricted
  • You cannot maintain fluid movement and are disconnected from your horse
  • Prior to a transition, you lose your rhythm and your timing is left to chance

Breathe into your abdomen, not your chest.

Most people breathe into the chest but when you breathe this way:

  • You energetically cut yourself in half
  • Your lower back tightens, creating a tremendous amount of tension; a common cause of a sore back in both you and your horse
  • Your upper body becomes your root of strength, pitting your strength against your horse’s
  • You weight the forehand of your horse and restrict his movement in the hind end, shortening the step of the back feet
  • You restrict the amount of air the horse can take into its lungs, greatly decreasing its strength and endurance

By breathing into your abdomen you can avoid all of the above. If you’ve ever taken a yoga class, you may be familiar with abdominal breathing. In this technique, your abdomen expands with the inhalation and contracts with the exhalation. This is exactly the opposite of how most people breathe.

To successfully move your breath into the correct area, your abdomen must become relaxed without sacrificing your structural alignment. When this happens, your lower back, pelvis, and spine will move freely within your center. This free movement “deepens” the seat and allows you to match the rhythm of the horse so he spends less energy and focus balancing you on his back. When you match your horse, you allow him to move more freely and effectively in any gait.

Practice on your own

So, I’m guessing you’re now ready to learn how to breathe correctly and the most effective place to begin is on the ground. The following exercise will provide you with a simple, effective way to make a positive change:

Stand in a shoulder width, parallel stance with your arms hanging relaxed at your sides; this stance is called Standing Meditation. Raise your hands up in front of your abdomen with your palms facing your body. Create a diamond shape with your fingers by placing the tips of the thumbs together and the tips of your index fingers together. Place your thumbs on your belly button, and your palms against your abdomen.

Tip: Most of us breathe in longer than we breathe out; this leaves us with stale air in our lungs. Your breath should be smooth and natural, not forced. Think about allowing the motion of the horse to help “move” your breath down. As you begin to drop your breath, you will feel more stable and relaxed. Become aware of unnecessary tension in the body and release it on the exhale. Your mind will become clear and your body will feel lighter.

Exhale completely while gently “sucking in” your stomach. Focus your mind on the space inside the diamond, and feel your hands against your belly.

Inhale and release your stomach. Use your mind to direct your breath down into the abdomen and feel your belly pushing out against your hands as you breathe in.

Try to take long, smooth, deep breaths. As you exhale, feel your stomach return to its relaxed state.

Remember you’ve been breathing one way for a long time, so don’t expect it to change over night. Practice and soon it will come naturally.

In the beginning, practice abdominal breathing for one minute at a time. As you become successful at expanding your center on the inhale and filling your lungs completely, you may increase the time to suit your needs.

Tip: Five minutes of slow deep breathing while in Standing Meditation is a wonderful way to release stress in your body and mind prior to riding.

Practice with your horse

The goal of this exercise is to learn control of your breath while riding and to use breathing as a means to find your own rhythm. Once you have control, you can then match your horse’s rhythm. It’s especially effective if done on a lunge line with a partner. Just follow these simple steps:

  1. Ride a 20-meter circle at the walk and be aware of where your breath is in your body. Is it in your chest or down in your belly? When you inhale, can you feel your chest expand and pull up away from your seat and the horse? Focus on your breathing for at least two full circles and be conscious of any places in your body that you are holding tension. After completing the two circles, notice if your breathing has changed.
  2. Next, count the number of breaths you take on a complete circle and when finished say the number out loud to yourself or your partner. This will help make you more aware so you can increase your focus and will help you change how you breathe. Continue to walk and count your breaths on a second circle. Did you take more or fewer breaths? Briefly turn your attention to your horse. Do you feel that he is more relaxed, moving freely underneath you? Has his breathing pattern changed? It should feel more rhythmic and relaxed.

While at the walk, move your attention to the cadence of your breathing. Do you breathe in one long breath and out one long breath? Or is it in-one, out-two? Whatever your rhythm, try to breathe out one count longer that you breathe in. Slightly suck in your stomach as you push the last breath from your lungs in the same way you did in the ground exercise. This allows the next inhale to expand your abdomen and fill up from the bottom of your lungs. Imagine your breath dropping down into your pelvic girdle and groin area. Feel these areas relax and expand. As you practice, you’ll notice that the counting becomes easier.

Becoming aware of your breath is one of the best ways to connect mind and body – a requirement to any enlightened approach to training. So the next time you’re out with your equine partner, do stop and smell the roses. Just remember to breathe from your abdomen. Happy riding!

Tip: Breathing is your body’s natural metronome – it sets the body’s rhythm which is the key to timing. Effortless and invisible transitions in speed, direction and gait are dependent on you matching and maintaining your measure with that of your horse. Ask yourself, “Where is my breath when I ask for a transition?” For example, from walk to trot, are you inhaling, exhaling or maybe holding your breath? If you’re holding your breath, you lose the rhythm in your body and disconnect from the horse.