Everyone knows that tension (as in negative tension) is a bad thing for riders. We all get tense when we are nervous, but tension also frequently occurs when we try and place our body into a position it’s not used to. Sometimes this is because we have forced the position, at other times it’s because we have forgotten to breathe properly. The trouble is when we get tense, so does our horse, which causes an escalating circle with nervous riders and creates blockages in our horse’s rhythm.
Laughing or singing is a great way to ease tension, you can’t hold your breath and sing but equally you’ll probably get marked down in a dressage test if you trot down the centre line singing “Time Warp”!
If you have lifted weights at a gym, done Pilates, yoga or any of the martial arts you’ve probably been told how to breath correctly but even so most of us don’t remember to breathe correctly when we get on a horse.
When we breathe we need to think about our diaphragm, the powerful muscle that goes across our body under our rib cage. The front of the diaphragm is just below our sternum, cupping up into the rib cage and attaching to the front of the lower spine. When we inhale the diaphragm is pulled down, creating a vacuum in the lungs which allows us to draw in air. When we exhale, the muscle relaxes and the diaphragm rises and air is pushed out.
The problem is that when you remind people to breathe, most of us just expand our upper rib cage and forget about our diaphragm altogether. When we breathe this way, our shoulders go back and up and our whole upper body becomes rigid. And when our backs become rigid so does the back of our horse!
If we breathe correctly the rib cage expands naturally and our sternum lengthens and our shoulder blades go back and down.
To check you know how to breathe correctly, lie on the ground and place your hands flat on your stomach just under your rib cage. If you are breathing correctly with your diaphragm, you will feel the action under your hands. Now try breathing from only your chest, you won’t feel any action under your hand and will feel your shoulders stiffen. Practice breathing properly, first lying down and then whilst seated. You’ll be surprised how difficult it can be to do correctly when you get on your horse!
So next time you ride, walk around the arena slowly and think about your breathing.