Begin with the Breath
Melinda Folse, author of Riding
Through Thick & Thin, attributes this
technique primarily to Daniel Stewart, riding instructor and former U.S.
Equestrian Team coach who focuses
on equestrian sports psychology.
“Paying attention to how we breathe
when we’re riding results in deeper
calm and control, which has a profound positive impact on horse and
rider,” she says.
Use deep belly breathing instead
of the more common, stress-induced
shallow chest breathing. This brings
oxygen-rich blood to the brain so we
can access our cognitive abilities, and
it calms the sympathetic nervous system that stimulates our fight-or-flight
response. Then, begin replacing habits of tension—
tightening up and clamping down in response to a spook or competition jitters—with the habit of maintaining awareness
on proper breathing.
Quiet Focused Intention
Allen M. Schoen, DVM, M.S., Ph.D. (hon.), offers this
technique from his book The Compassionate Equestrian. “I believe this is one of
the most important things a rider can do to positively influence the relationship
with their horse,” he says.
Before getting on your horse, spend at least 10 minutes taking in slow, deep
abdominal breaths and letting go long, slow exhales. Once your breathing is
regular, focus your intention on being peaceful and compassionate to yourself,
your horse and all other beings. This shifts your body and mind into a relaxed
parasympathetic state, which is mirrored in your horse and leads to more productive, enjoyable and safer interactions.
It Starts from the Heart
“There is an awful lot of talk these days about using ‘feel’ when working
with horses,” says Mark Rashid, trainer and author of 14 books, including
Nature in Horsemanship and his latest, Finding the Missed Path: The Art of
“The idea of feel usually refers to our connection to the horse through the
reins or a rope attached to the horse’s head,” says Rashid. “Or, others may refer
to the idea of feel by saying we should work with ‘soft hands,’ so people focus
on trying to develop softness in their hands. All of these approaches are good.”
But Rashid reveals a deeper layer.
“It is my belief, however, that softness, or ‘feel,’ doesn’t actually come from
the hands,” he offers. “Instead, it comes from the heart—and is then generated
through the hands. The way I see it, being mindful is working toward developing that internal softness in everything we do, and then finding all the many
ways it can be used when presenting ourselves to the horse.”
5 WAYS TO
Mindful riding starts in the
many hours a day we spend
off our horse. Every moment
is an opportunity to practice
how we are choosing to relate
to the present situation.
“Mistakes” are opportunities to practice
re-centering. For example, if we miss a
movement in a dressage or reining pattern,
we can accept it as the past and move on
to the next moment. If we stay rooted in
the past, we miss the opportunity to allow
the rest of our ride to shine.
Come back to the breath, again and
again. Strive to be aware of each breath
during the day, and its quality (chest,
belly, shallow, deep, rapid, slow). When
we realize we’ve forgotten to notice our
breath, we simply return to it without anger
Start paying attention to footfalls (on
the ground and in the saddle): listen to
how each hoof lands, feel the length of
strides, feel the swing of the ribs under
your legs when you’re riding.
Begin feeling things: the sway of the
leadrope, the weight of the rein in your
hand, the coolness of the muck rake
handle, the balance of your toothbrush,
the warmth of your coffee cup.
Start listening to things—the creak of
the saddle leather, the spray of footing
against the arena wall, the “poing” of the
pitchfork prongs, the rustle of wind, the
quiet between the sounds.
Whatever we’re doing, we come back
to the present moment, again and again.
When we notice our mind has strayed
from what’s going on right now and we
are thinking of something in the past or in
the future, we simply bring our attention
back to here, kindly and gently.
In time, our awareness of breath,
thoughts and the present moment will
stay longer and longer. Welcome them
as old friends who have found their way
According to Mark
developing internal softness in
everything you do.