We constantly strive to build a deeper connection with our horse. We know that if we do, we’ll build a relationship of trust and understanding with our horse, so that our riding and training achieves a greater state of balance and harmony.
Jenny Rolfe, author of Breathe Life into Your Riding, has accomplished just this. In her book, she provides exercises to release tightness in your body created by tension. Her teaching will help you not only to ride in good posture and balance, but also cultivate a deep sense of connection and feel.
Learn more from Jenny Rolfe from this article featured in Dressage Today magazine:
Years ago, I wish I had understood the power of core breathing to enhance a deep connection with the horse. Everyone who becomes successful as an athlete, dancer, singer or martial artist has understood how to master breathing techniques to enhance their performance. Core breathing is an extremely potent tool that can help us connect with our horse. The power of less stimulation will quickly create a more sensitive response. Our calm, focused state of mind will help us to communicate with more awareness and perception. The horse is an extremely sensitive herd animal, so we can use this trait to gain more subtle communication. The language of the horse is to be constantly aware of changes in body language, tension and breathing.
Correct core breathing is similar to filling a glass of water from bottom to top. Once the glass is full, you empty it from top to bottom. This is similar to our pattern of breathing. The outward breath releases through our upper torso and flows down into our core. In this way, balance and energy flow can be controlled by our breathing. Try this exercise, which demonstrates how core breathing can create more energy: Pick up a ball and throw it to a partner with no focus at all on your breathing. Then as you prepare to throw the ball again, take a deep inward breath. As you release and throw the ball, exhale strongly and direct the energy toward your hand. As you direct the energy from your breath into your arm, the ball will be thrown with much more intense power and speed.
In much the same way, our breathing can influence a sensitive horse. Here are some examples: To ride an upward walk–trot–walk transition (forward and in an energetic rhythm), prepare by taking a deep, inward breath. Exhale strongly, whilst feeling the energy ripple down through your spine. This releases your core and mobilizes your seat. Use your legs once, if necessary, but the horse will quickly tune into your breathing alone.
To prepare for a trot–canter transition on the right rein, first make sure your horse is balanced with sufficient energy and working correctly on the circle. To prepare, take a deep, inward breath and feel your horse re-balance. Then take a deeper exhalation whilst allowing your inside (right) shoulder and leg to move slightly forward. As you exhale, breathe into your inside (right) seat bone, which will release and energize the canter strike off. Allow the elevation of the movement through your upper torso.
Try this to visualize this feeling: Walk for a few strides, then prepare to take a step upward, as if climbing a staircase. As you place your foot on the stair, your upper body has to elevate to allow the space for your body to lift. In a much more subtle way, this is similar to the feeling of elevation within the upper torso when you ride. The power from the hind limbs of the horse create more lightness and mobility within his shoulders. This elevation can become blocked if the movement is not absorbed by the upper torso of the rider.
To ride a downward walk–halt transition, take a deeper inhalation, which will lengthen and strengthen your spine, creating stability and acting as a half halt. As the horse responds, increase the inward breath and close your fingers on the reins and your legs on the girth. Once the horse is standing still, release the pressure of your fingers on the reins and allow the horse to halt in a good self-carriage. He should be calm and still yet ready to move forward in response to your next deeper energizing exhalation.
Collection can also be enhanced. Relax your jaw and breathe into “allowing shoulders” to support the movement of your spine. This enhances fluidity as energy is harnessed and released, like a wave in the sea. It encourages a feeling of pride and also lightness in the upper body, which can more efficiently absorb the extra uphill movement of the horse within collection. These breathing techniques can be the essence of developing passage and lightness where the rider not only moves with the horse but breathes with the movement.
Encourage your horse to listen to your core breathing as your first aid when asking for any change, whether in pace or direction. Techniques of breathing can energize a lazy horse or calm anxiety, thus creating more harmony. The horse will quickly understand that this is the way of going without the constant pressure of leg aids from the rider. Excess pressure from our legs against the rib cage creates discomfort and tension for the horse.
These techniques are a journey of discovery and empowerment. When we listen to our horse, we can gain both empathy and harmony—he will become the mirror of our mind.
Jenny Rolfe is a clinician and author of the book Ride From The Heart. She lives in Devon, England, where she and her Iberian stallions help students communicate with horses using breathing and body language (spanishdressagehorses.com).