Wednesday, June 24, 2009

On Breathing

You'd think breathing would be easy and natural, wouldn't you? When I did my post On Undoing the Brace a while ago, it was interesting that a number of people commented that their breathing (or, in most cases, lack of breathing) was something that created a brace. I also used to do that, a lot, particularly when I was competing in hunters - sometimes I would do a round and come out of the ring almost purple in the face from lack of air! All anyone ever told my at the time was to "keep breathing" - which is good advice as far as it goes.

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.


  1. Tomorrow when I ride I am going to try your "breathing to the beat" I have been trying to get in tuned with where Bodhi puts his feet and I also trying to learn to breath. This will help both! Great post!

  2. Kate, I love the post!
    I really believe that breathing has such an influence on not only our riding but on many many areas of our life. Athletes of all types use breathing techniques to help better themselves. from runners to weight lifters and everything in between.

    I also know that when my dogs are upset by a thunderstorm or something I use my breathing (making a little whooshing noise on on the exhale) to help settle them down.

    And with my riding, breathing is such a wonderful tool that I think we often forget about. I actually take a few minutes by myself at shows both dressage and jumpers and visualize myself riding the course or test pattern in as much detail as I can and picture myself breathing nice and even. I have found that it helps tremendously.

    And I agree, I think holding our breath or very shallow breathing can be a form of bracing that the horse feels and responds to instinctively.

    Steph ps hope you are feeling better!

  3. When my horses get nervous about somethng, I do deep breathing and loud exhaling so they can hear me. This usually helps them, and they respond with a loud exhale themselves. When I get nervous out on the trail, or wherever, I sing. This ensures regular breathing because, as you know, it's pretty difficult to sing without breathing. Gives me something to do (instead of worry), and gives the horse something to listen to. It really seems to help us both.
    Thanks for the insightful post.
    Sure hoping your weather cools off soon, there are many people and animals suffering from high humidity and temperatures lately. We've been unusually cool here, but yesterday and today we're nearing 80. Fairly comfortable to most, but warm to us.

  4. I have a "purring" sound I use to calm my horses. It's a more "silent" signal than the chirp often used to slow a horse's gait. When I purr, I am breathing out in kind of a reassuring way. I also use a "hiss" to encourage my horse to move forward.

    I never quite thought of them as breath control techniques until I read your post. Cool!!

  5. Breathing is so important to the horse and rider. Great post, we could all use some practice in breathing techniques.

  6. Wow, Kate, what a great post! I need to try this.

    When I was learning to post, and I didn't have the coordination down yet, I would concentrate so hard I would stop breathing. My trainer had to keep reminding me! So I wonder sometimes how automatic breathing really is.

    I wonder if this would solve my problem with Panama speeding up at certain spots. I've tried slowing him with my posting rhythm but I'm having a hard time breaking free of his rhythm. Maybe adding breathing to my posting rhythm will help.

  7. Great was something I really had to work on along with clenching my jaw...but I ride better and more rhythmically thanks to breathing, "counting", and riding to music.

  8. Kate -

    More awards! Just enjoy! Don't feel like you have to do two!

  9. This was very interesting. I often calm myself down, and my horse, by doing deep slow breathing but never thought about breathing to the gaits and for jumping before! intrigued. can you explain a little more about how the breathing differs at the 1-2-3-4 from the other gaits. from what I understand, you breathe in for a certain amount of beats and out again the same (for example at the canter). how do you adjust this for the walk exactly? i am a little confused but really ant to try it. thanks

  10. Shinyfluff - think about the breathing in and out as related to walk, trot or canter "cycles" - so in walk, a cycle is the 1-2-3-4, in trot it's 1-2 and in canter it's 1-2-3. So let's say in trot, you try to inhale on three trot cycles, so 1-2, 1-2, 1-2, and exhale on the next three trot cycles. Does that make any sense?

  11. yes, it does make sense. with the walking breathing, just breathe in for 1-2-3-4 and then out for the next cycle. and for transitions: just slow the breathing into the trot cycle when one wants to come back from the canter?

  12. Shinyfluff - you don't necessarily want to breathe in on only one cycle and out on one - that would be taking short breaths and not fully expanding your lungs. Try breathing in 1-2-3-4 1-2-3-4 and then out in the same way and then see if you can stretch it out. Sometimes with walk it's easiest to focus on the 1-2 of just the front feet, but if you can eventually learn to pay attention to all four feet, you're taking steps on the road of being able to feel individual footfalls, which gives you a lot of good opportunities to precisely time cues, like canter departures.

    And when you change gaits, it isn't that you speed up or slow down the breathing, you just count, and feel in your body, the new rhythm you want and tie your breathing to that. Sometimes that's all it takes to get upwards and downwards transitions.

  13. I can see where this breathing to a beat would also help in music. I'm going to try it since I do have issues with rhythm, especially when I'm nervous.

    I'm like everyone else who commented, I use my breathing to calm my horses--even whistling if I have to--or humming, it makes a noticeable difference, but your last story is an amazing demonstration about how it can also affect the horse's movements. That's an eye-opener.

  14. This will definitely add to my "things to try not to think about and just do" list while riding.

    I do use breathing on the ground with both horses as a calming tool, but sometimes forget while riding. I've been told to hum or sing, which is good if it's in time with what we're doing.

    Will try to focus on just breathing. :)


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