Chapter 5: Breathing--How to Bear Down and Breathe
Description of the Ideal
Good riders bear down and breathe continually, without a sense of effort. The muscle use of bearing down can only be maintained indefinitely if it is accompanied by diaphragmatic breathing. This is the breathing pattern used by singers, and by people who play a wind instrument. Bearing down and breathing come so naturally to skilled riders that they fail to realise that these constitute the watershed that separates them from others who "don't get it."
Common Starting Points
Few riders breathe well, and if you find that you run out of breath after riding a few circles in the school, it is bound to be your breathing technique that limits you, and not your overall fitness. Even if you are not aware of your breathing as a limitation, notice how far down your torso you inflate with each in-breath. Some riders barely reach their sternum, others find that the breath goes down to their belly button. Few find that it reaches to their bikini line.
When riders hold their breath, they do so after a short in-breath that is almost a gasp. They breathe, their chest and shoulders go up, inflating only their upper chest. They then forget to breathe out.
Dressage judges often report that riders do their best work riding down the centre line at the end of a test. This is the point at which they think "Phew!" breathe out, and finally allow themselves to settle.
When you are riding, the breath must go down(not up into your upper chest) and reach all the way down to your bikini line. It is helpful to think of a chemistry flask shape inside you, with a long neck that passes down your windpipe, and extends even lower so that the bowl rests in your pelvis. As you breathe in, the air must go all the way down the long neck into the round bowl. It also helps to think of a pair of bellows that sucks air in. it helps to think of feeling the coldness of the air as it passes down the front of your windpipe. (In my experience, you can make this idea work even on hot days!) If you feel that the air gets stuck on its passage down, think of breathing in some "block dissolver" along with it. Make friends with the block; talk to it nicely, ask it to let go, and be quietly persistent, taking the time it takes to find a way through it.
On the out-breath, the bowl in your pelvis must initially stay inflated. Imagine a tap on your midline at bikini-line level, and pretend that the air leaves your body through that tap. Make the sound "phsst!" as you breathe out. This will keep your guts pressing out against your skin (i.e., it will keep you bearing down) on the out-breath. As you run out of air, your torso will inevitably deflate, allowing it to inflate on your next in-breath.
Read an additional excerpt from Ride With Your Mind Essentials by Mary Wanless in the March 2003 issue of Dressage Today.