I couldn't imagine why my horse's trot was so stiff. His normally smooth gait was jarring every bone in my body, despite my best efforts to relax and move with him. His head was up, I could feel the tension escalating in his body, and I was beginning to wonder if riding him that afternoon was a very good idea at all.
Then, as nature compelled me, I took a deep breath. Wow, that felt good, I thought. So I took another one, this time a little deeper.
Even better. Immediately after that second deep breath, I felt the tension leave Trace's body. Still trotting, he stretched his head down and forward as if to say "Whew! That's better! Thank You!"
Apparently, I was holding my breath and didn't even realize it. It's a less-than-great habit I've had for decades, and, chicken-and-egg fashion, it was affecting my horse: the stiffer and more tense he got, the more shallowly and less frequently I was breathing; the more shallow and infrequent my breathing became, the more tense and agitated he got. We were likely trotting straight toward disaster caused by — and preventable by — better breathing on my part. Here's the fix I learned — and hoof tested — while researching my new book, Riding Through Thick and Thin (Trafalgar Square Books, July 15, 2015)
Breathe with your belly.
I know. You don’t have to be an honors anatomy student to realize this is biologically impossible, but work with me here. This visualization will change they way your body processes anxiety. Gathered from the combined work of best-selling equestrian author Mary Wanless and equine sports psychologist Coach Daniel Stewart, these visualizations sound silly until you experience firsthand how well they work.
First, breathe in deeply through your nose, drawing the air in until it fills your lungs. Now visualize pressing that air downward, filling your belly like a balloon (or a chemistry flask, depending on whose imagery speaks most clearly to you) that presses, from the inside, against the small of your back until your lower back is completely flat. (If that took a suspension of disbelief, hold onto your hat — here's where it gets strange. And in my experience, totally effective.)
Now imagine that you are going to exhale all that air through your belly button (or, as Wanless paints it, a "tap" in your bikini line.) Don’t argue; just do it. (I know there's not a really hole there, but let's pretend there is.) Exhale all the air — and then some — before refilling your lungs. Repeat this process a few more times, see where your anxiety level is, and then you can tell me if you still think it's stupid.
Or better yet, ask your horse.
This one simple "breathalyzer" habit (a hilarious-only-to-me term I made up to remind myself to check out my breathing from time to time as I ride) changes the quality of my ride every single time I've remembered to do it. See what you think! Give it a try (at different points in your next ride, or whenever you feel tense or unsure about something) then leave a comment and tell us what you noticed.