It might be the word I say more often than any other during a lesson. I know it’s the cue that does the most good. It’s certainly the cue that’s the most natural:
Alas, it’s also the cue most under-rated. I see riders disregard the suggestion immediately. It’s like they want a real tool that works every time, not some airy-fairy imaginary, breath-y thing. They want a magic body position or a leg aid that gets dramatic results, like a spur with an electric cattle prod attachment… only kinder and more compassionate. Something that commands respect and undeniable leadership, not some puny suggestion to just breathe. Such an insignificant suggestion barely warrants a try.
Well, not to horses. Breath is the universal animal language. It’s the initial tell-all greeting between animals. They size us up by the way we breathe and the emotions carried in our breath. It is a major part of leadership, communication, and relaxation in the herd. We are prone to diminish the horse’s behavior from taking intuitive stock of who we are, to begging for a treat. But then our sense of smell usually doesn’t even point out manure before we step in it. However we try to depreciate their greeting, they sense so much more about us than what we had for lunch.
When our breath is shallow, our chest is inhibited and tight, sometimes even concave, with a tight jaw and tense eyes. It sends a message of restriction, fear, resistance. Our movements can even seem coyote-like in a stalking, nervous way. Clearly we not leadership material.
A change in breathing is the very first message a horse sends his rider that things aren’t okay. When we see a horse taking shallow breaths, we know he’s tense. That’s our cue; we seize up to a flat, shallow breath ourselves. The horse feels that concern and as a prey animal, and looks for the source of trouble. Then his poll gets tense in the process and his oxygen intake is impacted. His head comes up and our shoulders get tight in response, along with our hands on the reins. He feels restriction on his bit, and now he’s sure there is a problem, so he loses forward, which is exactly like losing confidence. Then the rider either gets more tense or more adversarial.
You can see where the ride is headed by now, right? There are a million outcomes from here, but it all started with breath. Breathing was the first cue and it doesn’t matter who started it, good or bad, the horse or the rider. In the end, the mood was set and the leadership defined in the first few seconds by breathing.
But if we do manage to breathe, our chests expand and our vertebrae re-align. Muscles soften, jaws relax. Elbows unlock and legs get long and soft. Oxygen gets to our brains and we think more clearly. Communication is calm, responses acknowledged. Our body cues softness and rhythm. A horse will follow us on this ride too.
Breath shared with a horse is an actual, literal cue either to relax or come apart. Now is it worth paying attention to?
“Breath is the bridge which connects life to consciousness, which unites your body to your thoughts. Whenever your mind becomes scattered, use your breath as the means to take hold of your mind again.”
― Thích Nhất Hạnh
Uh-huh. Breathing is also the thing that can bring a horse back. If your brain panicked or lost focus, if you notice that things have sped up -and you’re being more reactive than proactive -and the clock ticking is getting louder, faster, -and things are a bit out of control… Slow it all down with your breath. Whether your mind has an anxiety runaway or it just wanders away from your horse to those pesky thoughts of self-doubt or frustration or what a lousy day you had at work, shut all that negative chatter down with a breath, just a disciplined breath.
Yes, they make drugs for that. Breathing seems like a lame suggestion in the face of the pharmaceutical universe, in the face of a training wreck or world angst. It can even seem insignificant standing next to a horse. That doesn’t make it any less of a miracle.
I like 1- 2- 3- breathing. It’s simple. Count to three on an inhale, let the air inflate your ribs in all directions, let it rest in the bottom of your belly for a count. Then exhale slowly and count to three. Do it in rhythm with your horse’s stride. Breathe into all the tight spots, up to your eye brows and down to your ankles. Breathe into your horse’s spine, to the tip of his tail, into his very heart.
Perhaps you’ve noticed that talking to yourself about being in the moment with your horse isn’t the same thing as authentically being in the moment. Breath is the how-to aid, the thing that fills the gap between thought and reality. I have never met a horse that didn’t respond. Learn to discipline your breathing so you can have a better ride with your horse, and let your blood pressure benefit as well.
All bad things for a horse happen with a loss of rhythm: Spooking, bucking, bolting. All good things things for a horse happen rhythmically: Trotting, grazing, breathing. And when they relax, they give a big blow from deep inside. We can learn it from them.
Drop your shoulders and let go. Breathe deep, expand those ribs to give your generous heart room, then exhale peace. Inhale. What if we stopped fighting ourselves and suppleness became our greatest strength? Exhale. A deep breath is an act of confidence in itself.
It isn’t the least you can do, it’s the very most. Keep breathing.
Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.