Yoga and riding

Stress and how it affects your horse riding in ways in which you didn’t realise 

Horses are creatures of great sensitivity, they can know all our emotions just by sensing our body language, heart rate and breathing rate. As humans we can hold our emotions in our body, but most of us have become incapable at being able to read them.
One of the biggest emotions in society these days is stress. Most of us live stressful lives in one way or another, whether in our workplace or home lives, related to time management, relationships or other things – we can all probably recognise moments when we feel particularly stressed. However, some of us spend so much time feeling stressed we get stuck in that rhythm, our bodies start to think that being stressed is normal and forget how to relax.

This is a huge problem when it comes to horse riding because stress does amazing things to our bodies.

The origins of stress are connected to survival, and can be traced back to ancient times when we were creatures of prey. When our body sensed danger it went into the mode that we recognise as ‘stress’, in order to survive we needed our brains to be uber alert, as this was our main weapon against predators. In this mode, our body released certain hormones but also changed certain patterns in our body, our breathing got shorter and quicker to get more oxygen to the brain, our jaw clenched to keep blood in the brain, inflammation happened in our body to make sure if we were hurt we wouldn’t bleed to death, feelings stayed locked up in our head and our body became disconnected from our thoughts and feelings. This is why when we run on adrenalin in a stressful situation, we can do things like running with broken legs, it’s all about survival.

That’s all great when we really need that to happen, but it can happen whenever we are stressed – it may just be because we’re late for our riding lesson or riding a horse we’re a bit nervous of. When this is the case it’s not so helpful, to ride we need our whole body to be with us, we need to feel everything and be as sensitive as possible, the last thing we want it to switch off our body senses.

So you think you aren’t stressed? Lots of people don’t even realise they go into a state of stress, it’s so normal to them to be like that. Here are some signs of stress:

– short breaths, breathing in the top half of the body (chest), cutting off the exhale before it’s fully finished

– tight jaw, frowning, headaches

– inability to sit still, always needing to be busy

– when you close your eyes (not to sleep) you feel them darting around behind your eyelids

– keeping eyes closed is difficult

– hyper awareness, noticing everything around you all of the time, reacting to loud noises, feeling ‘jumpy’, senses working in overdrive

– clenched hands or clenched toes (ready to run)

Plus many more…

Why is it important for horse riders to recognise the signs of stress?

As mentioned earlier, horses are highly sensitive creatures, but they are also prey animals, so if your body is giving off signals that you feel there is danger just around the corner your horse is going to be picking this up. He then has to choose what to do with this information, if he listens he will become jumping and nervy, clingy to the other horses and generally lose confidence. If after a while he realises that what your body is giving off isn’t coming true, that nothing does come and kill him, he will start to ignore you, thinking that you’re just crying wolf. Once he starts to ignore you at that level, he’ll ignore the rest of you as well, leaving you battling to get him to listen to your aids.

Also as mentioned earlier, stress leaves the rider with very little awareness of their body, it leaves humans all ‘up in the brain’ – thinking rather than feeling. This means when you try to feel something you might not be able to, or the feeling may be dulled, it means your movements may be bigger than they need to be as you’re not aware of your body. Subtleties are lost in big clumsy movements because you can’t feel or aren’t aware of the smaller movements. Have you ever been asked “can you feel the difference?” and you couldn’t? This is probably why, you’re not tuned into your body.

So how do we de-stress?

The best way to tell our body that we are not ‘in danger’ is by using our breath, it’s the easiest thing to control and the thing that has the most effect. You know the saying ‘take a deep breath’, well this is what we need to do more of. If we slow our breathing and lengthen the breaths, especially the exhale, this sends our brain the message we are no longer in danger, we start to come back to our body and remove ourselves from only working with our minds. Even better, if we focus our breaths all the way to our belly then we start to focus the mind to our body, taking it away from the top half of the body and using the whole of our mass. The final thing we can do is breath through our nose, when we are stressed we gasp with our mouth to get more oxygen in at a time, so to tell our body to relax using nasal breathing can really help the brain to realise there is no danger.

How to incorporate this into your riding…

Last night we stood still on our ponies for 5 minutes and focused on the breath, bringing ourselves out of head mode and back to our bodies. We tuned into ourselves and it made a huge difference. From the moment we moved off, the riders were more aware, the movements of aids were smaller and their bodies were more relaxed. With this, the horses were different too, reacting to small changes rather than big. When they sensed tension develop in the riders, the horses mirrored them and responded with tension, as soon as the riders came back to their breath the horses relaxed. It was amazing to watch and the riders were so happy by the end.

Recognising what emotions we are giving off is the start of creating a proper relationship with our horses, not giving them tons of baggage to have to sort out but giving them our true selves. This then allows the true connection to begin.

Yoga and riding

The partenership of yoga and horseriding

My first article on why yoga helps horseriding from 2015…..

Lots of people ask me, “What can I do to help with my riding when I’m not on a horse?” To be honest, until now, I have only been able to come up with a few exercises to give them to take home. I’m lucky – to keep fit I just ride more, but I realise that isn’t possible for everyone and I’ve never found anything that has truly helped me other than lots of riding. However, I have a new answer to that question, from now on I will highly recommend yoga. It’s something that I have tried before and dismissed, it hurt and was difficult so I only gave it one go and decided that it wouldn’t help me. So, what made me try yoga again? As you all know, I have been poorly recently, mostly down to exhaustion, so I needed something that would help me take some time out to relax, to slow down. My mum has constantly tried to get me to try it again, but as I always do, I dismissed my mum’s idea until I was ready to hear it.

I started to believe that yoga might help, along with meditation or mindfulness. These techniques seemed to go hand-in-hand, so I looked into it and started just following some ‘flows’ online. I enjoyed it and although it was still difficult because I was so tight and weak, it seemed to give me the feeling of peace that I needed. So next, I booked a lesson with a yoga instructor to check I was doing it correctly, which was a real eye opener. I realised that I never really relaxed, and that I found it hard to let go of tension and how holding that tension was so exhausting. The thing with yoga, compared with the gym or running, is you have to focus on your breathing, and the breathing in yoga isn’t easy. It’s long and slow, it’s controlled and it has to be thought about. Gradually as you start to focus, you feel the tension disappearing – it doesn’t happen instantly but what’s good is that you become aware very quickly when you tighten up again as you lose the breath. It’s taken me a few weeks to get control of my breath, to understand it and to release the tension, but I’m getting there.

So you may say, “Yes, Megan, but how is yoga going to help my riding?”. Here are four reasons to start with.
Reason 1: The breath

Well to start with, the control of breath, especially in the harder poses when you’re being pushed to your limit, is a control you also need to have when you ride. So often, riders tighten up when things get scary or hard – as the challenge becomes greater the breathing gets shallower, the shoulders tighten and the body stiffens. So what you need to do is to control your breath to allow you to stay relaxed but still strong. If the horse doesn’t feel tightness in your body, he will stay relaxed too. This means your movement can be much more controlled, the relationship with the horse is much more open and the lines of energy will flow.
Reason 2: Awareness of the body

Even though I teach posture and position and when I ride I always feel I am aware of my body, yoga takes awareness to a new level. The poses get you thinking about your strengths and weaknesses, they make you aware of where each part of your body is, how it feels, whether it’s tight, sore or relaxed. After doing yoga for a couple of weeks, when I sit on the horses now I am aware of my whole body, not only how I’m sitting but I am also aware of what parts of my body need to change to be correct. Yoga has equipped me with exercises I can do to help with any tightness, this allows me to go home and work on that straight away.
Reason 3: Strength and openness

In so many exercises, strength builds tension which isn’t helpful for horse riders, as we have to be strong but supple. If tension exists, suppleness cannot. The poses in yoga teach you strength and openness, how to be strong but stay supple. Yoga focuses on suppleness throughout the whole body which is hugely helpful when wanting to follow the horse’s movement. The poses and breath also concentrate on engaging the core muscles, which are the muscles that are needed to establish balance both in yoga and on a horse. After doing yoga for a few weeks, I’m not only stronger but I’m also so much more supple. My hamstrings are gradually relaxing and my shoulders and chest muscles are becoming more open. This all helps with my posture on a horse.
Reason 4: It reminds you to take a moment

Yoga teaches you to be in the moment, the control of the breath is all about focusing on the now, not letting your mind run away from you. It’s hard to achieve if you’re like me and have a million things passing through your head at any one second, but once you do, it allows you finally to start to relax. If you can learn this, then you can take it into your riding. Riding takes so much concentration we really don’t have time to let our minds wander, but they still do. Coming back to the breath, especially when frustration or nerves start to set in, can help you to overcome that wall that you’ve been hitting. But of course this needs to be practiced and the best place to practice is on a yoga mat before you have to worry about the horse as well!

All in all, if you want something that’s not only going to help with your riding, but also that’s going to make you stronger, more toned, more in control of your body, and more in control of your mind then take up yoga.

Give it a go, try doing it daily for a week and see how you get on. Don’t do what I did a few years ago, try it once and give up as it’s something that needs to be practiced to get the benefit, but trust me the benefits are totally worth it.

Yoga and riding

Pushing up against those mental barriers in riding and how yoga helps

All riders know and have probably experienced the moment when it’s time to do something new riding, something more challenging and let’s be frank something potentially more scary. For every person this may be different, for some it’s the first time you have to trot, for others it’s the first time you walk into a stable with what seems like a massive horse, and for me it’s the time I head down a centre line in collected canter towards three judges.

This moment takes it form in many ways, as Riders though our aim is to not pass on our anxieties, negative narrative or downright fear to our beautiful horses beneath us. 

Unfortunately this is generally what happens, we become tense, our breathing takes a hike, aids that would normally come to us easily suddenly seem like they never existed and the poor horse beneath us hasn’t a clue what we’re asking of them. The usually chilled rider they know and love has morphed into a tense rigid board and they feel as alone in the world as you feel up on top.

Yoga helps us to have tools in our tool box to deal with this situation and instead of it becoming a mountain to climb using yoga we can turn it into a positive outcome. 

When we practice yoga we ask our bodies to go into postures that we may never have asked them to do before, some postures challenge our body but most challenge our mind. In certain postures of flows our body is coping but our mind lacks belief we begin a negative narrative “maybe I’m not strong enough, not balanced enough, not chilled enough for this” delete as required. If we observe our bodies we may find the start of tension or the breath becoming shallow.  
When we practice and start recognising these patterns we can learn to breath into these moments, deepening the breath and releasing the body until we find ourselves into a state of calm clarity. As we repeat this process our sympathetic and para-sympathetic nervous systems get attuned to being able to come up against pressure and dropping back into a state of calm. 

Through regular practice on our mat we can become pro’s at calming ourselves when our mind wants to tell us something different, we can then put this into action when we find ourselves facing that mental barrier whilst sitting on our horse. 

So when you’re in a yoga class observe your breath, observe your mind patterns, if you start having negative narrative use your breathing to change this into a positive place. Deepen the breath when you feel you’re becoming tense, send the breath to the areas of tension and flush them out. 

Practicing this in a safe space like your yoga mat re-enforces the relaxation and you’ll find you get there quicker and quicker. 

Then when you come to ask for that canter transition (or whatever your mountain is), do the same observe your breath, notice the negative narrative, breath deeper into the areas of tension, come to that place of calm and suddenly you’ll find you can work through the block rather than bouncing up against it. 

Have a good week people.



Photos credit own and Claire Leroy Photography 

Yoga and riding

Why yoga is so good for horse riders – part 2

Last week I spoke about the physical benefits of how yoga can help horseriders. This week I’m going to speak about how yoga can help with the horses behaviour.

What makes yoga more than just an exercise class is the ancient philosophy that it is built from. When you say yoga to most people they just think of really bendy people doing lots of stretches and cool postures. But the word yoga doesn’t just describe the postures, the word for the physical practice of yoga is asana. There are other parts of yoga too and one of them is breath work or pranayama. 

Before I get onto that the basic aim of all of this is to bring the person into a state of stillness and awareness that they aren’t affected by the outside worlds input. That they can just be totally at peace with themselves and all around them. This is known in the yoga world as enlightenment.

So the practice of asana is to physically work out the stresses of daily life, the practice of pranayama or breath work is to start to take the mind from the external to the internal. 

If you’ve ever attended a yoga class you will have heard a lot of instructions of exhale and inhale. This is because in order to fully get the most from yoga we need to work with and be constantly aware of the breath. Our breath is our key to our inner emotions and once we can work with the breath we can start to work with our emotions.

If you observe your breath when your angry, nervous, upset, calm, happy or excited you’ll see your breath has different types of patterns for each of these emotions. If we consciously bring our breath to our calm pattern we then trigger the brain to release calming hormones through our body and we then come into a state of calm. 

This is the ultimate aim for working with our breath, bringing ourself into a state where we are calm and can then move into that space of quietness.

So by emphasising the breath through our asana practice we learn that we can continually bring ourself back to a calm state even when we are pushing our boundaries at certain points. If we learn this we can then place this into practice at other times in our lives.

Starting with when we are around our horses. Horses pick up our emotions, they pick up subtle changes in our heart rate and also breathing rates and respond accordingly. We may not realise how sensitive we our horses are, but if you think about it, when they are in a heard they don’t have time to verbally tell the rest of the herd that a predator as crept up on them and is about to pounce. They have to be able to sense from the rest of the heard what’s happening and react. This means they become very tuned into energy, heart rates and breathing rates. 

Many studies have shown that when a riders heart rate increases the horses heart rate increases. They’ve also gone further and proved that when a horse really gets to know it’s owner that if the owners heart rate increases in the next stable it’s heart rate will increase in response. 

This is mind blowing! If you put that into reality every emotion you feel your horse senses and reacts. Without you having to say a word or even touch them. 

This is made even more complicated when the horse thinks very simply, what I mean by this the horse doesn’t live in a world of emails, social media or news. So when we rock up at the yard stressed because we’ve just received an email from our friend/tutor/boss the horse just reads STRESS, they’re reaction to a trusted person being stressed is “shit there must be something that’s going to hurt me” so they become hyper alert themselves. If we do this regularly, they can then become what I call shut down to it, what I mean is they have recognised this stress response, previously nothing’s happened to kill them and you’ve just continued about your normal routine, so in order to cope they have to put barriers up or ignore this stressed energy. The problem here is once they start ignoring your energy, they start ignoring you. They become de-sensitised to you. 

So you get an extreme of two, either super sensitive, alert, spooky feels like your working with a time bomb or asleep, ignorant, not very sensitive, some people would call “lazy” horses.

So how can yoga help this???

Well as I said all the way back at the start by working with your breath you start to unlock your emotions, yoga teaches you the tools to be able to connect with your calm emotion. If you then make a conscious effort to practice this breathing when your around your horse and riding them, you will be in a calm place. This means that the horse doesn’t have to react to your negative energy, they can stay calm and relaxed with you. And if something does spook then you can be a calm influence on them to help them to calm down. 

By practicing yoga breath you start to work with your horse rather than against them, they “let you in” more and allow themselves to be at ease.”Lazy” horses become more sensitive and open to new things, “hot” horses calm down. 

By you being aware of the emotions your projecting outwards and being able to change them, you can really start to change your relationship with your horse, and any horse that you work with. 

Just breath

Namaste 🙏🏼 

Photos credit as own and Claire Leroy Photography 

Yoga and riding

Why yoga is so good for horse riders – Part 1

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.