By Jessie Tierney, Certified Yoga Instructor and Sanborn Wrangler for the Sanborn Western Camps Blog, 2011.
After such a successful first Horse Yoga Long Trip, I could not imagine it getting even better.
With a new group of 9 campers, two staff and a total of 14 horses, we set out this time on a 5-day trek to unite with ourselves, our equine partners and each other . . . and this exceptional group of ladies made our 5-day trip an experience I’ll never forget.
One especially important element of this Horse Yoga trip was providing journals to campers at the start of the week. We sat on the front porch at the barn and talked about the power of Intention. With ideas of manifesting our dreams in mind, we made them concrete by writing them down in our small journals. The girls were asked to keep track of their intention throughout the trip, taking the time during Hawking (watching the horses graze for 6 hours each day) to answer some of the prompts I included in the pages, and also writing whatever came to mind on the blank sheets. This week was punctuated by torrential rain on each of the five nights, but this did not stop the girls from pulling their journals and pens from their cantle packs to huddle inside their ponchos and write. We made sure to “debrief” each evening, sharing some of the insights they came up with in the presence of their munching horses and the sound of rain. We woke up each morning with sloshy boots and soaked jeans, but thanks to the Colorado morning sun, we were dry before heading back out on the trail.
We talked about the girls’ answer to the prompt: “What is your Dream for the Future?” Answers were as varied as the ladies in the group, and we learned one girl’s dream to become a vet despite her allergies to animals. Another girl spoke of working with an organization to end child trafficking. A third hoped to overcome her anxiety and nervousness around competition, and said that she was looking forward to using the breathing exercises we had learned in one of the yoga practices. As we shared our dreams with one another to the backdrop of our horses grazing in a hay field, we became vulnerable–together–and provided support that felt tangible. It was like etching our dreams in stone, solidifying these intentions and banding together to make them manifest, our horses and one another as witnesses. It felt powerful.
This trip’s destinations allowed for us to do more bareback yoga on the trail–3 of our 4 camping spots had arena setups which allowed the girls to ride without a saddle. Something profound happened here, too. One evening, we un-tacked the horses, hung their bridles on a tree branch and stacked their saddles below. After we’d allowed the horses to eat for three hours, we led them into a fenced-in section of pasture.
“Okay girls,” I said, “this is going to be an exercise in trust for your horse,” as I began tying a hobble knot on one of the horses’ lead ropes so it did not drag on the ground. “Tie your knots and I’ll give you a leg up.”
“How are we going to steer?” one of the girls asked. I smiled.
“You’re not. You are going to breathe deep and trust where your horse takes you.” There was a ripple of nervous excitement, and I breathed deep to release a bit of my own uncertainty about the exercise. “Who’s ready?”
As I walked around the herd of 11, hoisting each girl onto the back of her mount, I silently prayed that no one would get hurt. These horses could potentially cause a ruckus, but part of me had a good feeling about the Trust exercise, and I focused on the good potential rather than the bad. It will be okay, I thought, especially with this group of girls, who picked up on the power of their breath easily. I expected that the horses would take advantage of the opportunity to graze, and that they wouldn’t venture too far.
“Deep breaths, ladies. See if you can get your horse to lick his lips or sigh with you,” I coached. Some of the mounted girls had already turned their bodies around to lay their heads on their horses’ rumps. Once everyone was on, I led them in some collective breathing and a few horseback asanas (poses).
To my surprise, not one horse moved. None of the horses even lowered their heads to graze. They had complete freedom: every opportunity to find a good patch of grass to munch or even trot around the pen if they pleased, yet each horse stood stock-still, ears gently turned toward the rider on its back. In fact, the horses seemed to relax deeply, standing in a group with their riders lounging on their backs, eyes drooping with one leg relaxed. These horses were doing yoga, too.
I nearly cried. There was something happening that I had not anticipated. Even Sugar, a horse known for kicking any horse who got near to her, stood nearly drooling with what I would normally deem “uncomfortably close spacing” to the horse by her side. Even more than on the last trip, these horses were actively participating in the yoga practice. They transformed as soon as their riders shifted their awareness to the breath.
I have personally experienced the power of breath awareness in horseback riding innumerable times since I was a kid–calming a nervous horse by slowing my breathing and feeling my seat sink deep into the saddle–but it was always something I took for granted that felt difficult to articulate to others. Now, so visibly in front of me, it was made obvious: horses respond to breathing. Bigtime. Suddenly applications of this teaching flooded into my mind: we can make riding infinitely more safe by teaching this simple technique. The horses trusted their mounts because their mounts became wholly present in the moment through watching, listening to, and lengthening their inhales and exhales. So simple! Yet so profound!
Taken seriously, these breathing exercises allowed for the campers to “get away with” doing poses even I would have deemed impossible before the start of this trip. Girls were sitting backward on their horse’s rump in Sukhasana in meditation. Some did partner poses on horseback, nearly hanging upside-down off their mounts. Ekha Pada Kapotasana–Pigeon Pose on horseback–impossible? Hardly! I stood by laughing nearly the entire trip. It was miraculous!
There was one element whose absence I think made possible much of what these ladies and their horses accomplished: Fear. Likely because of their youth and my (at times feigned) confidence that they could accomplish whatever they set out to try, these girls were fearless. The absence of fear in the girls gave their horses confidence, and the equines embraced these new, foreign activities as though they’d been waiting to do yoga all their lives. Or, perhaps the horses had been doing yoga all their lives, and the girls finally got up to speed. After all, horses as prey animal depend on the awareness and presence of the other members of their herd for survival. This makes horses the ultimate yoga practitioners: wholly present every moment. Once the girls caught on to how to be wholly present through their breathing, the horses felt they could trust them completely (thank you Linda Kohanov!).
The trip was magical. The girls loved it; the horses loved it; I loved every second of it–okay, perhaps not the moments when I woke up at 6am to put on a pair of soaked jeans and puddle-filled boots. But the attitudes of the ladies and the transformations that took place are memories I will cherish forever and that will surely fuel me to continue doing this work.
I have a feeling this is the start of something very big. Thank you, Sanborn, for making it possible.