An introduction excerpted from Yoga for Equestrians by Linda Benedik and Veronica Wirth.
Horses worldwide speak a common language that is clear, uncomplicated, direct and for the most part, silent. They rely primarily on a language of movements, expressions and postures. Using the body to communicate is one of the first lessons the horse teaches any person learning to ride. This is the essence of riding and a rider’s most challenging task. Yoga for equestrians can help riders accomplish this task.
What is Yoga?
“Yoga” is an ancient Sanskrit word that means union or to make whole and refers to the alliance between body, mind and spirit. There are many systems of yoga. The most familiar is Hatha – the avenue of yoga that seeks balance by toning and strengthening the physical body through asana (postures) and pranayama (breathing exercises). Hatha is a powerful means of self-discovery. It is also the foundation of Yoga for Equestrians, a program that can be adapted to busy lifestyles already filled with lessons, shows and horse-keeping as it can be practiced anywhere – at home, at the stables, on the horse.
Top Five Rider Benefits
1 Balance, wholeness…union
One of the unique benefits of Yoga for Equestrians is that it addresses the rider as a whole. It is not a fitness regimen or fad; rather, it is an educational path that balances the rider’s mental, physical and emotional aspects. This elevates riding from a mechanized activity to one immersed in feel. Unmounted practice helps cultivate unity of body, mind and spirit. Then, when practiced in the saddle, yoga guides you to integrate with your equine partner to achieve Union.
2 Prepare your body for riding
Just as basic dressage supples and prepares the horse for any riding task, yoga supples, balances and strengthens you as a rider, preparing you to more successfully engage in any riding activity. As a rider warm-up, yoga helps reduce tension, ensuring a more pleasurable ride by “de-stressing” you before mounting. As it teaches you to move slowly with awareness, stretching tight areas without force, yoga practice will relax and soothe your body and mind, increasing your energy and mental clarity.
3 Body-mind awareness and coordination
Your success as a rider relies greatly on your level of body-mind awareness and coordination – skills that can be cultivated through yoga practice. While riding instructors traditionally assist students in developing body awareness to achieve the correct position on horseback, when equestrians take the initiative to improve awareness and posture off the horse, their ability to achieve a balanced riding position is greatly enhanced. Even for advanced riders, practicing yoga can expand awareness and deepen your connection with the horse. Yoga also furthers an understanding of how your body works. In unmounted practice, you can learn to better control and isolate various parts, and then operate your body more skillfully as an integrated whole. This coordination will assist you in maintaining the integrity of your riding position through all of the horse’s gaits and transitions.
4 Develop stillness
Yoga encourages equestrians to move into stillness – to quiet your mind’s internal chatter and accept your learning process and riding abilities without harsh self-criticism or judgment. This calm focus is more accessible when you have learned to be fully present and attentive to your activity. When you establish stillness on horseback, you can ride with more feel, breathing deeply in rhythm with your own movements and the horse’s gaits. In stillness you can truly listen to and understand the horse, perceiving more clearly what is happening. This allows you to choose the most appropriate responses and use your body more effectively to communicate.
5 Improved performance in the horse
A direct result of integrating yoga with riding will be a noticeable improvement in the horse’s way of going. Reflecting your positive changes in body and mind, the horse demonstrates more willingness and cooperation. As you ride with increased awareness, relaxation, suppleness, balance, alignment and coordination – your horse will thank you!
Asana: Cat Stretch
This floor exercise illustrates how pelvic tilt causes either a hollowed or a rounded back. While the Cat Stretch feels great and supples your spine, it also builds awareness and empathy for your equine partner as you simulate the same posture a horse must learn to carry a rider’s weight efficiently — lifting through the back to come “on the bit”.
1. Begin on all fours with hands and knees directly underneath your shoulders and hips – a square halt. Gaze at the floor with a flat back and spread your fingers.
2. Inhale deeply and lift your head and tailbone, letting your spine dangle downward like a string of heavy beads. With your head raised, notice your hollowed back and the extreme tilt of your pelvis. Compare your posture to that of a horse with a hollowed back, and imagine how uncomfortable it would be for someone to sit on you with your spine in this vulnerable position.
3. Exhale fully while tucking your pelvis underneath, engaging your abdominals to lift your back upward, lowering your head. Enjoy the stretch through your entire back and shoulders. Compare your position to a horse with a rounded back. When your “hindquarters” come underneath, your back raises and your head naturally lowers. A rounded back is stronger, with increased shock absorbing ability of the spine making it a more efficient posture for carrying weight.
4. Move between both postures for several breaths, letting each movement flow into the next – inhaling into a hollowed back and exhaling into a rounded back. You can increase or decrease tempo while maintaining your rhythm.
5. To finish, rock back into Child’s Pose (as illustrated) extending arms and hands in front of you, face down, hips above heels. Relax here for a few breaths.
Pranayama: Centered Breathing
This breathing exercise can be practiced anywhere — while sitting in a chair, a car or in the saddle — to deepen your breath, lower your center of gravity and promote relaxation.
1. Sit comfortably upright. Place your dominant hand on the front of your body below your navel. Place your other palm (or the back of your hand, if more comfortable) against your lower back, encircling your center between both hands. Close your eyes and take several deep breaths, focusing attention on the space between your hands.
2. Think of your hands as possessing a magnetic pull to draw the breath down into your center. Breathe slowly and deeply, inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your mouth. As you inhale, relax the muscles under your front hand and allow your abdomen to expand and inflate with breath. As you exhale, use that hand to actively assist in pushing out the air while you contract your abdominal muscles inward and upward, performing an abdominal lift. The more you engage your abdominals during exhalation, the deeper your inhalations will become.
3. Use the non-dominant hand on the back of your body to monitor the muscles of your lower back and ensure they remain passive and soft. You can also use this hand to help bring your pelvis into a more upright position by lightly pressing downward on your sacrum to help flatten your lower back, as you tuck your tailbone underneath.
4. Establish an even, regular breathing pattern by matching the length of inhalation with the length of exhalation, and feel your center expand and contract with each breath. Remove your hands, then slowly open your eyes and breathe normally, maintaining an awareness of the potent energy now circulating through you.