Friday, August 7, 2009

Body and Mind Work

One thing I've been trying to work on a lot as I work with my horse is: me - my breathing, relaxation and softness. I try to work on this stuff all the time, from the moment I get up in the morning until I go to sleep at night. I still have to think about it a lot, and it still gets away from me and I have to think about it to bring it back, but I figure if I keep doing it long enough, it'll become more automatic.

Now why, you might ask, do I want to do this "body and mind work"? Two reasons - I feel better when I'm able to do these things correctly, and I'm better able to work with my horse - more available to her and more able to very softly interact with her so we can better accomplish what we want to do together.

Here's what I'm trying to work on:

Breathing. To me, this is the foundation of everything else. I try to breathe fully and deeply, using my diaphragm, not just just "sipping" air with the top of my lungs. A big part of this is making sure to fully exhale - I know I do this less often than I should. When I'm walking, or riding, I try to inhale and exhale in a rhythm that is long and relaxed - sometimes the exhale takes longer. If I'm doing this properly, all sorts of good things happen. Because I'm getting a greater amount of oxygen, I feel more alert, alive, and able to focus, and my thinking and reaction time are improved. Breathing is also a great way to deal with emotional tension. If I inhale properly from the diaphragm, my posture improves - head and neck come into line, shoulders naturally tend to relax back and I stand straighter and can look forward instead of down. I feel more relaxed - having a natural posture and more oxygen help with this. I find if I start breathing correctly after a period of not doing so, after a day or so my upper abdominal muscles may get a bit sore - this goes away with practice and to me is a sign I'm doing it right.

Relaxation. To me this isn't about being loose and floppy, asleep or unaware. It's a state of mental and physical readiness, without tension or braces. This is a hard one for me - I'm by nature somewhat tense and often carry this tension in my neck, jaw and shoulders. Starting with proper breathing is important, since it fundamentally affects posture. It's awful hard to be relaxed if your posture is hunched - you have to use a lot of muscular tension to sustain that hunch. If you're relaxed, you'll also be standing with your pelvis in a neutral position, without your knees locked, which is much easier on the back and knees. I also try to practice relaxing individual muscles - first noticing their tension and then relaxing them. This has become easier with practice - I'm a lot more aware of which muscles are tense so now I can do something about it, including those pesky psoas muscles that are often the source of back pain. This has enormous benefits for me - physical relaxation leads to mental alertness and emotional calmness. This relaxation also carries over into my work with my horse - if my muscles aren't tense I can move together with her without bracing and we can communicate back and forth much more effectively. I can also use individual muscles or sets of muscles more precisely to communicate with her - for example, giving very subtle half-halts with my seat.

Softness. If I'm breathing properly and carrying relaxation in my body, it's possible to try to achieve softness. To me this has to be an all day kind of thing - I don't think it's possible to separate the rest of my life from my horse life - whatever I do in my other life will invariably carry over to the horse - we bring our whole selves to the horse and the horse knows it. I try to move quietly and smoothly. I try to move in balance, using my center of gravity. I try not to adopt postures that involve bracing some part of my body. I find at my age, if I don't use my body correctly - bending or lifting wrong, or holding a lead rope tightly, instead of softly, and getting my arm jerked by a horse going for a fly - I pay for it later, often with back pain. And here's the hardest one for me - I try to not be reactive or emotional in dealing with other people - I find this much easier with animals, always have - but if I experience a negative emotion - impatience, irritation, anger, anxiety, fear or the like - to let it pass through and let go of it without immediately acting on it. Sometimes action is needed, but I try to not let it arise out of reactivity. Do I succeed on this one? Sometimes on the physical part of softness and not all that often on the internal/emotional part, but I'm working on it.

My goal is to build these things into my life. All of this work I'm doing on me carries immediately into my work with horses in a positive way - I've already seen benefits and hope to see more!


  1. Great focus on the essentials of riding...and living, for that matter.

    Ironically, one of my riders at the clinic today keep getting stiff each time she was called to do some individual work. Tense in her head and neck as well. While she was riding, I had her "roll her head" around and it loosened everything up. Another good exercise is doing "windmills" with one arm and then the other to loosen the shoulders. Concentrating on the exercise tends to make the rest of the body soften as well.

    The windmills also help you become conscious of squaring your shoulders and sitting up as well if you think of pulling up with your abdomen as you whirl. And, it's hard not to breathe when you are doing the exercises. *G*

  2. Kate, I just have to say thank you. You've been such a positive influence in my riding and my life. I've been working on these things too since I started reading your blog, and it's really making a difference in my ridinng. This post is a good reminder that I ought to be working on them in other aspects of my life too. Like you, I found it pretty easy to learn to keep a lid on my reactiveness around animals, particularly horses, but the other areas of my life still need work.

  3. Wonderful post, Kate.

    Okay, this is going to sound weird, but my best days with horses are days I spend doing Yoga in the morning before going out. I'm not disciplined enough to do it every day, but I try to do it on days I know I'm going to work with horses.

    The difference in my own being and centeredness is incredible. (So why don't I do it all the time? Who knows...)

    I don't have the riding training or experience, but I do know everything goes better. I can "hear" so much more...

  4. Jean - thanks for the exercise suggestions!

    Katharine - you are much too kind.

    Breathe - it doesn't sound weird to me at all - it makes perfect sense.

  5. Much food for thought again, Kate!


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