Returning to Nothing: Improving Horsemanship with Yoga Part 1

Updated: Dec 1, 2020

As a yoga teacher I work with people to develop control of the breath, the mind, and the body through practices that have been passed down over thousands of years. These skills help us to become grounded, centered, self-aware, balanced, strong, resilient, and open to meeting each experience from a place of self-control. All of these qualities benefit our relationship with the horse and improve our effectiveness as handlers and riders.

On the mat we can gain access to the part of ourselves that we will rely on as we engage with the horses. As we move through the poses we work on releasing tension in the body, regulating the breath, clearing the mind, and as we make our way to Savasana we are reminded of the bliss of “nothing.” No tension, no pressure, no intrusive thoughts, simply a state of being in awareness, appreciation, and non-judgement. When we can come to the horse from this place of “nothing” we are in the optimal state of mind to meet them where they are, without expectation or preconceived notions. We create a space of endless possibility and an awareness to notice and respond to what is happening in the present moment. To achieve lightness with the horse we must begin and return to “nothing.” Nothing really matters!

Whether or not you practice yoga you can embody this state of “nothing” as a sense of clarity and safety in your personal space. Often people focus on controlling the horse before they have ever considered the need or importance of controlling the self. In each moment we can maintain our feeling of grounded, calm stability and set clear boundaries for ourselves so that the horse recognizes and respects our personal space. We will never contribute to our horse’s sense of well-being if we don’t feel safe.

Recognizing what is happening with our own nervous system is a first step in being able to influence what is happening with the horse. When the sympathetic nervous system is activated we are in a state of fight, flight, or freeze. This is not a state conducive to learning or successfully interacting with our horses, we are not in a position to lead our horses back to feelings of calm and connection. Our parasympathetic nervous system brings us into a state of rest and relaxation, or “back to grazing” if we were horses. Somewhere in between is a state of engagement and play, arousal that is stimulating and fun yet not overwhelming. Horse training happens in that realm. The ability to regulate our own nervous system is paramount to influencing the horse in a positive way. Just as members of a herd are energetically connected, our horses pick up on subtle changes in our energy and will respond to them.

One of the simplest ways to help calm the nervous system is by using the breath and focusing the mind in the present moment. When we are triggered physical changes occur including shortening of breath. Simply taking a deep breath and lengthening the exhale can help us to engage the parasympathetic nervous system. Noticing the thoughts that enter our mind and releasing them to achieve focus and clarity allows us to truly see what is happening in the present moment rather than what we think is going to happen or what we project onto the situation based on assumptions or past experience. Becoming calm and grounded gives us a starting point to engage with the horse in a beneficial way.

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