But it’s definitely NOT about turning yourself into a pretzel on your horse.
At first glance, yoga on horseback may seem like an impossible and potentially unsafe merging of opposites. However, it is important to consider some of the core principles of yoga: in these principles we find what truly unifies riding and yoga.
Yoga is not the simple act of turning oneself into a pretzel; it combines mindfulness with breath and a myriad of other subtle practices in hopes to achieve Union (of body-mind-heart-spirit). Horseback riding, when done with mindful, embodied intention, truly unites horse and rider through its own subtle techniques. Both yoga and riding are a practice–not to be mastered overnight.
Being horseback is NOT like riding a motorcycle. Your horse has a mind; it has its own personality, its own need for safety, for connection, for oneness with its herd. Attaining trust and understnding to the point where a horse allows a prey animal–the human–to ride astride is miraculous. It requires that the rider is in tune with her body, with the energy she emits, with her thoughts.
In the study of equestrian arts and the science of yoga, I have found more similarities than I could have imagined. After having grown up on horseback, then finding yoga when horses were no longer a part my life, I now find a union of this art and science to be natural and intuitive. Consider alignment, for instance. It is virtually the same in Sukhasana as in sitting in a saddle: rooted through the seat bones, spine tall, shoulders back and down, chin parallel with the earth. The more subtle elements of a yoga practice–the breath, quieting the body, centering the mind–are equally applicable and in fact instrumental in achieving a focused, unified ride with an equine partner. As I began teaching Horseback Yoga in the foothills of Pikes Peak, Colorado, my perceived limitations floated away on nearly every exhale–my riders were able to do virtually anything they set their minds to.
I currently offer Horseback Yoga classes at Double S Quarter Horses. Please contact me if you are interested in setting up a Horseback Yoga Workshop.
HOW HORSEBACK YOGA WORKS
Here I will offer a simplified step-by-step outline to paint a picture of one shape Horseback Yoga can take. This is by no means meant as an instructional piece. Practitioners and riders should seek the guidance of a professional before attempting these exercises on their own.
So sit tall, take a deep breath, and enjoy this step-by-step approach to Union with the horse.
1. SET YOUR INTENTION
- Remember that the objective of Horseback Yoga is to achieve Union with the horse, with your bodies, minds, hearts and souls (not necessarily to do some crazy pretzel pose on horseback).
- Your intention can be anything you wish to cultivate in the practice. Some examples could be Boundaries, Courage, Oneness, Stillness, Friendship, Strength, Growth, Inner Peace, Serenity … anything that comes to mind.
- Take a moment to strongly identify with your intention. Feel it in your cells, your body. Then allow it to float away on the exhale, trusting that the acknowledgment is enough to keep it with you throughout the practice without grasping onto it. You may seal your intention by saying “OM.”
2. BECOME CONGRUENT: BE PRESENT WITH YOUR SELF
- Tune into your inner state and feel what you are feeling. Your horse already senses your deep emotional state and is waiting for you to become congruent with your emotions.
- Be patient with yourself as you look inward. There is no rush. This moment is the point; the journey is the point. Often your horse will let you know that you have aligned through a lick of the lips or a lowering of the head.
3. BE PRESENT WITH YOUR HORSE
- Observe your horse. Horses speak in a language that is totally body- and energy- aware. Watch for some of your horse’s signals:
- Ears–your horse’s attention is where his ears are pointing. Is your horse listening to you? To the other horses? To the fly biting his right side? Is there a threat? Ears relaxed and to the sides with one following your movements is what you can be looking for.
- Eyes–with observation you can see fear (whites of the eyes showing), calmness (eyelids drooping), and many more emotions through the eyes
- Licking lips–processing, agreement, “I get it!”
- Lowering head–listening, relaxation
- Nodding head–urging you to speak, agreement
- Swishing tail–annoyance
- Resting one leg–relaxation
4. INTERACT WITH YOUR HORSE
- Your horse will respect you if you respect him. Respond to the signals he gives you throughout the grooming process. Scratch his itchy spots. Rub his sore spots.
- Take your time grooming to really get to know your horse’s favorite areas. Grooming is a conversation between you and your horse which can solidify a connection before you mount.
- SOCIAL GROOMING is essential for the well-being and survival of horses in the wild. As you scratch your horse’s withers, don’t be surprised if he turns around and nibbles your shoulder in reciprocation!
5. LEAD YOUR HORSE TO THE PRACTICE SPACE
- Your Practice Space can be an arena, pasture, trail, or roundpen.
- Establish boundaries with your horse by playing the Stop and Go game—Your horse should anticipate when you stop walking and freeze all four feet when you exaggeratedly halt. If he does not, ask him to back a few steps before walking on.
- Your horse should respect your space by walking behind you. If you need to remind your horse of these boundaries, turn toward the horse and tug or shake the lead rope back below the horse’s chin until your horse backs a step or two. You may need to continue to work with this until you have learned to establish your boundaries and your horse learns to respect them.
6. WARM UP
- Halt your horse in the Practice Space.
- Tune into your breath. Flow through some gentile warm-up postures beside your horse to warm up your body.
- Possible poses: Surya Namascar, side bends, chest openers, Trikonasana, Virabhadrasana I and II.
- Observe your horse as you flow through your warm up.
7. WARM YOUR HORSE UP
- Horse-Asanas: Bend your horse’s head/neck to the right and left without moving his feet, arch his neck, stretch his neck, lift and sink his belly (horse version of Cat/Cow).
- Gently extend your horse’s legs through their safe range of motion, one at a time, with attention to your horse’s breathing: pause when you horse inhales and lengthen when your horse exhales.
- Massage your horse’s withers, neckline, back, rump.
- Move your horse’s tail: pay attention to his reaction, only go as far as he is comfortable with.
- We ride bareback for greater ability to feel your horse beneath you.
- Mount gracefully, on your horse’s exhale, using whatever method is most appropriate for your body (mounting block? leg up? railing?) and most kind to your horse (while it may be thrilling to take a running leap, what would your horse most appreciate?).
- Find your seat bones. Sink deep.
9. SYNCHRONIZE YOUR BREATHING
- Listen and feel for your horse’s breath.
- Here is part of why we ride bareback: your legs will gently expand with your horse’s inhale. It is extremely subtle; it is helpful to close your eyes.
10. SLOW AND LENGTHEN YOUR BREATHING
- Deep, slow diaphragmatic breaths.
- Watch for your horse to lower his head or sigh; notice if your horse relaxes one leg.
- Pat your horse or scratch his withers when he has relaxed with you.
Click below to enlarge the photos and to view as a slideshow!
11. HORSEBACK ASANAS
- Maintain the awareness of your breath and your horse’s breath throughout the entire practice helps keep both species focused yet relaxed and receptive to the Aśva-pṛṣṭhasanas (Poses on horseback).
Practitioners and riders should seek the guidance of a professional before attempting these exercises on their own.