Now that I think more about my breathing - I'm trying to get to the point where this stuff is automatic but I'm not there yet - I wonder how being tight in our breathing, or stopping breathing altogether, must feel to our horses. When you consider how central our diaphragms and breathing are to our posture and how they can affect our core, if we stop breathing or are tense in our breathing it must feel to the horse as if it is being ridden by a wooden plank - stiff, unmoving, and well, bracey. If our stopping breathing is due to alarm, I wouldn't be surprised if the horse thinks - "she's spooking in place! - what is it? - must look for scary stuff!" - and we know where that leads!
Just keeping breathing is a good place to start. But I think there are lots of other things I can try to do with my breathing - some of them I'm now able to do and others I still work on. I've seen some amazing things done with breathing, as a component of blending with the horse in a way that allows more effective, but completely subtle, influence on the horse's emotional state and behavior.
The first, and most simple way I try to use my breathing is to help a horse stay calm, and to keep my body soft so I can help the horse without bracing. One example of this is in leading - I try to breath in a regular, deep, relaxed way in time with the horse's feet. I find that if I can get "in tune" with the horse and its motion, I can actually influence the horse's motion with my breathing by slowing my breathing down to slow down the horse's feet.
Slowing my breathing when leading is also an example of using my breathing to lower my energy, which can assist an over-energized horse to lower its energy too. My earlier posts Working On Myself - Lowering the Energy and On Balancing the Energy, With a Digression on Dogs go into this stuff in more detail. Keeping my breathing soft and regular can also help a horse that is spooking, trying to bolt, or otherwise freaking out, to regain its mental balance. I'm not saying that this is easy - and it's not automatic for me yet but at least I'm thinking about it now.
When I had the chance over a number of years to audit and ride in several Mark Rashid clinics, one of the things we spent a lot of time thinking about, and working on, was using breathing to influence the horse's feet, and hence the horse's gait, rhythm and energy. One thing I'm learning to do is breath in regular rhythm with the horse's gaits - it's sort of a complement to the internal 1-2-3-4 (walk or halt), 1-2 (trot) or 1-2-3 (canter/lope) rhythm I try to carry in my head. As I'm riding, say at the canter, I try to breathe in for a certain number of beats (or repetition of complete beat cycles) and then out for a certain number of beats. As with leading, I can then have influence on speeding up or slowing down the rhythm just by speeding up or slowing down the breathing rhythm - all without applying any other aids! This speeding up or slowing down the breathing rhythm is also another example of raising or lowering my energy to influence the horse's energy level.
The next thing this "breathing in rhythm" allows me to do is to use my breathing to influence transitions, up or down, to another gait. I think of all transitions, even downwards ones, as "up" - we're not stopping the motion, just changing it - since the energy needs to carry forward into the next gait - even into the halt - otherwise the horse and I will lose impulsion and engagement as we move into the downwards transition. So for example, if I'm breathing in rhythm to the 1-2 of the trot, as I stay soft and "allow" the horse to move, I change my breathing to the 1-2-3-4 of the walk as I softly ask with seat (and only then with hand if need be), keeping my leg softly on - and voila! walk! - without loss of impulsion. When transitioning to the halt, try mentally planting the feet in a 1-2-3-4 rhythm, using your mind and breathing - you may be amazed at how you're able to achieve beautifully square halts! To me, the only difference between transitioning to the walk and transitioning to a halt is the amount of forward motion and how firmly the feet plant - they're both 1-2-3-4 and done with impulsion and engagement - a halt is really an arrested walk cycle of 1-2-3-4, with a more collected stride even than collected walk.
Although I'm talking about breathing, some of this begins to get into being in tune with your horse's feet - knowing when each foot leaves the ground and comes back to the ground - and therefore being able to influence the movement of each foot specifically - such as in canter departures - but that's a subject for another day. Ultimately all of this - breathing, energy levels, footfall - is about being aware - really, really paying attention to exactly what you are doing, what your horse is doing, and what your horse is offering up to you in response to what you ask for.
Another thing I'm working on doing with my breathing is using it to "lift" or "sink" - as a part of raising the energy or lowering it. For me this involve more a mental than physical "lightening" or "sinking" of my body or energy, combined with "lifting" my diaphragm and inhaling or thinking about sinking through the horse into the ground and exhaling. This can also be helpful in transitions, or for those of you who jump, lifting/lightening to be with the horse as it leaves the ground.
One final thought, which is a story. At one Mark Rashid clinic we attended, my older daughter, who was about 14 at the time, was working with Lily on her jumping. Mark freely confessed that he really didn't know much about jumping. That said, he's been able to help lots of people who jump, do dressage or other specialized disciplines, by simply noticing what the horse and rider are doing together and particularly how things the rider may be doing are affecting the horse and its motion. My daughter was having trouble with a particular issue - as Lily would approach the jump and start to take off, she would do this odd stutter-bobble thing - not really a chip but a quick shuffle of feet - so the jump was not in stride and wasn't as flowing as it should have been. We set up about a 3 foot jump in the indoor, and Mark had my daughter take Lily over the jump - bobble/stutter. A lot of people would have blamed this on the horse, but Mark knew it was the rider. He said "I can't see it yet, but it's there - keep going around". So she circled around and jumped again. He had her do it a bunch more times - maybe 8 or 10, and there was that bobble/stutter every time. Then he said: "That's it, I see it now - you're exhaling just as she's ready to jump and it's making her plant her feet." My daughter then concentrated on keeping her breathing regular and inhaling on the lift-off - problem instantly solved, and never a problem again! Lily weighs perhaps 1200 pounds or more and my daughter was doing that extra exhale and affecting her jump - that's how influential our breathing is to the horse's energy and footfall, and a lesson I've tried never to forget.