This is a question that people ask me all the time, to some they feel so far apart from one another they can’t see the connection. For me they are so similar I can’t see how they aren’t joined more often.
Firstly I’ll say I’ve taught horse riding for 15 years and ridden for over 25 years. For many of those years I looked for ways I could help improve my riding off the horse by building fitness and strength, I tried the gym, running, swimming and many more activities. My clients also asked me what could they do to help improve, especially the poeple that were only able to ride once a week.
Through trial and error myself and also observation of my clients I found that most exercise plans did help with fitness but didn’t help with flexibility, so as the rider became stronger they became tighter/stiffer on the horse. We had to do extra work ontop of the horse to counterbalance this stiffness in the form of stretches etc.
To me this was not ideal, anything we do off the horse should ideally aid the rider on the horse without any negative effects.
Through illness and not through the original search of getting fit I one day stumbled appon yoga, at this time I was very ill and unable to do a lot of riding myself for a few months. But I was able to do yoga, even if it was in very small doses, each day. Over the course of that summer the yoga helped me to get my health back but it also served me another purpose, it helped me maintain or even improve my strength and even better gave me more flexibility.
As any horse obsessed person would do as soon as I was strong enough to sit up for half an hour I went and rode!! And what I discovered was that my body strength and fitness had been maintained by yoga but better still it had improved. My posture was so much better and I wasn’t anywhere near as tight as I had been before.
This had huge effects over my horse and things like my flying changes and half pass came easier with less aids needed, my horse was more responsive and he generally happier.
This got me thinking, if yoga could help me, an already experienced horsewoman who rides everyday, how could yoga help others. Could it help maintain the core strength required to self balance on a horse whilst maintain the suppleness needed to allow the horse full freedom of expression? And as I delved deeper the answer way yes.
Through the fine balance of stretches and strength work yoga provides, you slowly work both sides of your body and methodically start to release tension in areas whilst adding muscle and strength in others. The asanas (postures) of yoga are aimed at finding balance within the body, a balance of strength and suppleness, of calmness and energy and of mind and body. All of these factors aid in the way yoga helps horseriders.
As you work through the asanas you also start to train your proproceptors (movement sensors) to become more responsive and aware. So your awareness of where your body is in relation to space is increased. How does this help?
If you don’t know where your toes are in relation to space then you can’t feel if you have even weight in both feet. People with seriously low proprioception bump into things and are clumsy this is because they don’t realise how their body fits into the space around them. A common proprioception problem in Riders is the battle between instructor and rider about if they’re sitting up straight!! The amount of times I said to a rider sit up a bit taller and try not to lean forward and they looked at me like I was blind, the comment I got back was “I am sitting up straight”.
In the end I invested in mirrors in the arena to help me and others with the “what it feels like isn’t necessarily what it looks like” argument. But ultimately we just need to do yoga, because as I learnt, it’s fine when you’re in front of the mirrors but when you get to a competition and there aren’t any mirrors if your proprioception is still majourly out of whack, then you’re not going to be able to achieve what you achieved at home.
In part 2 I’ll explain how the breath work of yoga helps build a better bond with your horse and clearer communication.