Breathe, stretch, and balance your way to a better ride with equestrian yoga advice from Big Sky Yoga Retreats.
My philosophy is that yoga helps you do everything you do better – including (and especially) riding. Yoga awakens your awareness, deepens your connection with your horse, and transforms saddle time into moving meditation.
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra 2:46 – sthira-sukham asanam – says that your connection to the earth should be steady and joyful.
In order to practice a yoga pose optimally, you have to be steady and joyful. The pose possesses firmness, yes, but also an element of ease. You cannot simply “muscle into it” and hope for the best. You must exhibit grace as well.
It’s high time we approach how we ride our horses like we do our yoga practice.
Your connection with your equine partner should also be steady and joyful. It’s not always easy, especially when you have pre-riding nerves, can’t let go of that argument at home or work, or feel anxious about practicing something new with your horse.
But when you breathe, you feel your horse breathe, too. You feel your connection deepen with every cue, kind word, and shared experience. It all smooths out.
Treating our horses like trusted yoga partners helps you find your rhythm together, regardless of what your ride might bring.
The point is, cultivating steadiness and joy? It takes work. They don’t manifest spontaneously the moment our boot slides into the stirrup.
From the book Living the Sutras: A Guide to Yoga Wisdom Beyond the Mat:
“When we approach even challenging poses with ease, they eventually become steady. And if we can remain steady in Mountain Pose and resist the itchy nose, the desire to fidget, the red numbers on the clock, we have prepared ourselves to take our practice off the mat. When we have that ease and steadiness in our physical practice, we begin to cultivate those same qualities in business meetings, in our relationships, and with ourselves.”
And with our horses.
As with yoga, our equestrian journey is comprised of a series of small, intentional steps. In this article, I share 5 tips that can help bring the benefits you see in the studio to your moving yoga mat (i.e. your horse!).
Special thanks to Larry Stanley Photography for the images in this article.
Tip #1: Set an intention
When I’m teaching a yoga class, I don’t jump right into downward dog. Instead, I ask people to transition into their time on the mat – and one of the best ways to do that is to set an intention.
Leave behind whatever is not serving you so you can be truly present. Yoga and horses both require that of us.
Take the time to shift gears and open your heart to the experience ahead.
If you bring baggage to your ride, your horse knows it. If you set a positive intention, he will feel that too.
Create your own intention, or try one of my favorites:
- Today, I’m not going to obsess about the past or worry about the future when I am with my horse. I will treasure this time to be present.
- Today, I will create a connection with my horse that is a positive experience for both of us.
- Today, I will be honest about what I am feeling so my horse can meet me where I am.
Tip #2: Connect with your horse
It never feels like we have enough time with our horses. Between work, kids, and other commitments, we’re often in a hurry to “groom and go.”
Rushing is stressful, however, and we end up bringing that stress into the saddle.
There are many ways to share the same energy field with your horse. Build in a few precious moments to make a connection to your horse before all the action begins.
Put your hands on your horse and close your eyes. Take a deep breath. Stand beside him. Try to sense his mood, energy level, and breath.
Here are a few ideas from Our Horses, Ourselves to help you get started:
- “Place your hands on the horse’s neck, back, or ribcage. Let your hands, shoulders, and arms relax and soften with this contact. Make your intention to simply make a connection with that part of the horse’s body without any kind of ‘doing.’ Notice the horse’s reaction to being touched in this deliberate, unhurried way.”
- “Slowly shift your hands to another part of the horse’s body, noticing his response as you move and resettle them. If he is nervous or moves away from the contact, stand quietly with your arms relaxed at your sides and just visualize placing your hands on the horse. “
- “If you feel any urgency or effort in your hands, body, or mind, take a breath and release it, just resting in companionable stillness with your hands in contact with the horse. Can you let go of any feeling of being a separate being – even just for a moment?”
- “When you are riding, try to bring this same sensitivity and clarity to the way that you tack up, and to the moment that you pick up the reins and make a connection with the horse’s mouth. There shouldn’t be a reaction or bracing, or any interruption in the smooth flow of energy or the quality of shared communication between you.”
Love yoga and horses? Check out our 5 Best Yoga Stretches for Horse Riders.
Tip #3: Find your breath
In meditation and yoga practices, we work to develop awareness and control of our breath in order to deepen it.
When we get anxious or uncomfortable, our breathing gets shallow. If you tense up or breathe shallowly, he thinks something is wrong and that danger lurks ahead. You feed off each other.
If you’re not breathing deeply, your physical body tenses. That tension transfers to your horse, who is sensitive enough to feel every subtle shift in you.
From the moment you engage with your horse on the ground, he can sense your breath, and what it means. Think of it like he’s translating how you feel from our language to his.
Cue the cliché: take a deep breath. You relax. He relaxes.
What happens if your breath is deep, even, and smooth on horseback? Good things.
To help learn to deepen your breathing:
- Set aside time when you first get on to take 5 deep breaths. Even better, close your eyes while doing so.
- Just like in a yoga practice, keep coming back to your breath awareness during your ride to create a habit of breath awareness.
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Tip #4: Choose a mantra
Many mantras have been passed down over thousands of years for the purpose of meditation.
A mantra is a word or sound you can repeat to boost concentration during meditation.
A mantra helps keep you focused and present while everything else melts away.
It can be different for each ride, too. One of the most effective mantras is two simple words: inhale, exhale.
You don’t need to use them during your entire ride. If you get distracted or uncentered, however, bring yourself back with the power of these repetitive words.
Try one of my favorite mantras, or create your own:
- Inhale, exhale.
- Soft hands, steady seat.
- Honor you, honor me.
- Calm is contagious.
- Purpose over perfection.
If none of those feel quite right for you, try counting your horse’s hoofbeats. This is a sure-fire way to bring yourself back to the present, get in sync with your horse, and slow your breathing.
Knowing your body is key, but so is knowing your horse’s body. Take our Parts of a Horse Quiz to test your knowledge!
Tip #5: Maintain your drishti
In yoga, every pose has a specific gazing point, known as a drishti, that cultivates concentration. Bring that same kind of awareness to your riding by keeping your eyes upward and forward.
I had a riding instructor who always told me to look where you want to go.
Find a dristi in the distance, like a far-off tree or mountain, to help guide where you want to go with your horse.
You can also use your sense of sight to visualize what you want to happen with your horse.
For example, looking beyond an obstacle and picturing yourself and your horse on the other side of it, can help you overcome anxiety, doubt, or fear.
Find your drishti by:
- Keeping your gaze soft. (Don’t burn a hole in the universe with your drishti!)
- Keeping your chin lifted. Your gaze will follow.
Extend the Benefits with Saddle Yoga
Once you’ve put these tips into practice, you may be ready to try a few quick saddle variations of yoga poses to relieve muscle tension mid-ride.
Just be sure your horse is calm and/or ask someone else to hold them for you.
Saddle pigeon pose (hip opener)
- Take hold of your ankle and carefully place it behind the saddle horn.
- Let the knee open gently.
- Fold and reach forward for 5 deep breaths.
- Switch sides.
Saddle Camel (back and shoulder stretch)
- Put your hands on the cantle, fingers facing away from you. (You can also do this one hand at a time.)
- Lean back and squeeze the shoulder blades together, feeling the lift in your chest.
- Look up or towards your horse’s ears. (Don’t let your head drop back.)
- Hold for 5 deep breaths.
Saddle up in the best possible physical and mental state with our 5 Yoga Poses Equestrians Should Do Before Every Ride.
Yoga and horseback riding are more similar than most equestrians realize. Whether you’re deepening your breath, focusing your mind on the present, or taking stock of your emotions before you swing into the saddle, this is a worthwhile journey.
I hope these tips help you bring the best parts of your yoga practice to the best parts of your day – spending time with your horse!
Yeehaw & Namaste,
P.S. Enjoy this article? Trot on over to:
- 5 Yoga Poses Equestrians Should Do Before Every Ride
- Big Sky Yoga Retreats Review: Loved It So Much I Moved Here
- Horse Riding After a Hip Replacement
- B Luxe Cowgirl Yoga Retreat: What Each Day is Really Like
- Ranch Roundup: 10 Best Horseback Riding Vacations in Montana
- Can You Wear Yoga Pants Horseback Riding?
- Equestrian Advice from Margaret Burns Vap: Letter to My Rookie Self
- A Day in the Life of Cowgirl Yoga
- My friend. My family. My companion. (Yoga Instructor Rebecca Hall)