As riders, we are always seeking new ways to unite with our horses and improve our riding skills. It may surprise you that according to a recent study we conducted, both unmounted and mounted yoga can help. Yoga means “to yoke up” or “unite”. There are many different types, but all share the same basics; a focus on being present, an increase in body awareness, and breath control.
To determine whether or not unmounted and/or mounted yoga can enhance riding skills and confidence, High Hopes Therapeutic Riding in Old Lyme, Connecticut offered a six-week program on yoga and riding. Five female adult riders, representing a wide range of riding skills and experience, volunteered to take part in the program. Four participated in an initial un-mounted yoga session, followed by a riding lesson. In the subsequent weeks, all five women took part in lessons that combined mounted yoga as a warm-up, followed by a regular English riding lesson.
Prior to their first lesson, the riders completed two questionnaires. The first assessed their feelings of confidence and security at different gaits as well as any pain or stiffness. The other questionnaire asked for details such as age and riding experience, as well as information regarding previous experience with yoga and current exercise practices (see sidebar at left). The volunteers’ riding skills were also evaluated and each was photographed.
The participants were then instructed in un-mounted yoga, and given a daily yoga plan to follow at home. For weeks two through six, they performed 10- to 15- minute mounted yoga exercises, followed by traditional 45-minute riding lessons.
The type of yoga used in the program is influenced by the Viniyoga tradition, which originated in southern India and incorporates moving in and out of postures prior to holding them. It is similar to motor learning, which focuses on learning particular movements by performing them to one’s level of independence, progressing through a sequence of moving in and out of the movements, and staying in a pose before eventually advancing to more challenging postures.
Yoga on horseback
The un-mounted and mounted yoga poses used in the six-week program were taken from Yoga on Horseback, the manual for mounted yoga exercises (Cuomo, Whittle: Alpine Publications, 2006). The mounted yoga was performed while horse and rider were moving, mostly at the walk and trot, though experienced riders could perform some at the canter. The chosen poses were intended to give riders the opportunity to focus on their breath, and to relax while improving balance. They included:
• Seated and half-seat twists.
• Abdominal exercises to help the rider rock back on their seat bones and decrease an anterior pelvic tilt (hollow back).
• Upper back and arm stretches.
• Modified back bends.
• Breathing exercises, including focus and circular breathing with the intention of inhaling up the back and exhaling down the front of the body, were also incorporated into the mounted warm-up exercises.
What were the results?
After they completed the last session, we again asked the riders to fill out the questionnaire regarding their level of confidence. Although this was a brief program involving only a few participants, both the riders and instructor noticed the following positive changes:
• Rider confidence at the posting, half-seat and sitting trot improved or remained the same.
• At the canter, two riders reported feeling more confident and two remained the same.
• Stiffness and pain decreased in all riders, and in different areas (neck, upper back, low back and knee), while one rider experienced a slight increase in upper back stiffness.
• The riders gained mobility and security in the saddle during independent riding.
• Better communication between rider and horse was established through a neutral pelvis, deeper seat, improved postural alignment, and a better ability to follow the horse’s movement.
Yoga is an avenue for personal exploration. The important thing is to find a practice that suits your own needs. If you try one type of yoga and it doesn’t seem to work for you, be open to finding another teacher and style. As always, remember to breathe, and be prepared to enjoy the enhanced relationship you’ll share with your horse!
From Yoga on Horseback, the manual for mounted yoga exercises, with permission from Alpine Publications. To order, visit www.alpinepub.com or www.amazon.com
Nicole Cuomo is an occupational therapist with a Masters degree in psychology, and is a registered yoga teacher (Yoga Alliance). She shares her expertise at High Hopes Therapeutic Riding, Inc. as an occupational therapist, AHA registered therapist and instructor in-training.
Amy Gardner is the Equine Program Coordinator at High Hopes Therapeutic Riding, Inc. She selects, trains and manages the schooling and program performance of 25 horses and is an advanced instructor certified by the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (NARHA ). Amy has taught riding of all abilities for the past nine years and has competed in eventing through training level.