Reconnecting to the self through yoga on horseback
Hollow, a word one can use to describe how we feel inside that is reflected on the outside. We see it walking down a street noticing the expressions on faces of someone passing by. We feel an empty space, a hint of something we have forgotten long ago that echoes with a knowing long forgotten. It is something we all feel but try to hide, suppress, deny or even numb with many manner of sometimes self-destructive behaviors. But it cannot be filled by something on the outside. There was a time when had a knowledge of connectedness to the world around us. We were OF the natural world not separate from it. Our lives had a deeper connection to the divine spirit that dwells inside everyone and in everything. There was no distinction between man-made and nature made; we were all one. Somehow we have lost that connection and have separated ourselves from the rhythms of nature. Yoga is a practice that reconnects us with our inner landscape and can guide us to the divinity that dwells there. Through the practice of yoga our minds, bodies and spirit are reconnected. Off the mat we realize that connection extends to anything and everything there is no separation. When we begin to go inward there is a desire to reestablish that connection to nature. There is no singular method of reconnecting, many people have found peace combining their practice with nature which might be practicing outside, paddleboard yoga on the water or practicing on horseback.
There is something about a horse that tugs at that empty feeling. Their beauty and power inspire awe in us. There is both fear and respect when we come close to them. Even if you are a seasoned horse person, there is always something that keeps you coming back to the barn. Many people have started to see horses as a way of reconnecting back to that knowing. Counselors and other mental health professionals integrate them into their practice when traditional therapy is ineffective. Physical, occupational and speech therapists integrate them to help people grow stronger and more independent. Other professional’s partner with horses to enhance learning and improve quality of life and now yoga professionals are partnering with horses to take their practice to another level. The practice of yoga on horseback is not just for seasoned riders. It can have many benefits for both newbies and experienced horse people.
Yoga on horseback is more than a novelty and should be approached with a serious intention. Just jumping into any relationship can be tumultuous let alone creating a relationship with a horse. And just as yoga is more than just asanas, there are several considerations before beginning a practice with a horse. The first thing to remember is that the relationship between horses and humans is unique. By nature we are predators and they are prey. This creates an almost guaranteed mistrust from the horse that must be satisfied. Those who have been around horses also know that it is hard to hide anything from them. Keeping a check on your fears and emotions of uncertainty is crucial to being safe and being able to really connect with them. When coming face to face with a horse it is healthy to have some fear but trying to hide it can lead to potential dangers. Just acknowledge what you feel, make sure you are guided by people who know what they are doing. If you have been around horses your whole life, this is a perfect opportunity to take the relationship back to the beginning and deepen the connection. That is the first step to trust. Next, depending on your comfort level you can begin simple interaction to get to know the horse as you would in any relationship. Open up your awareness and breath; soften your eyes to allow your perception to take it all in. Take a moment to lay your hands on a horse belly and feel their breath. Try to match the inhale and exhale as you engage in ujai breath by constricting the back of the throat to control the breath. This can be a practice in and of itself. Observe what happens to them and what happens to you. What do you notice about their body, what do you notice about theirs. This is a practice you can try with any animal you feel comfortable with.
If you decide to move into asana practice in the saddle, take your time to make sure you have what you need to be safe including the proper knowledge of both yoga and riding. This doesn’t mean you need to be the expert; it just means that you need to fill the gap in your knowledge with another professional to ensure that the experience is positive for both the horse and human. Too often people jump into something without really considering the potential outcomes. If the rider twists and moves their body without good balance, they can cause serious harm to the horse. There have been discussions about riders trying their horses and then moving in and out of postures on their back which can also be very dangerous and doesn’t take into account the entire purpose of practicing with a horse is to connect with and through them. If they are merely a prop or tool, the intention and trust is lost.
When you have in place what you need to be safe and honor the unique relationship between horse and rider you can begin to explore the movement. Start with just walking your horse and finding that same special connection that you may have experienced on the ground. Feel your energy mingle with theirs and how as you release, they release. The asana practice can be done at a walk or halt while the attention is always on the micro cues they give you. Horses are like an instant biofeedback, they can tell you if something hurts or they are not ready for it. They can tell you if your alignment is off balance or you are going too far. The communication is two-way which creates an entirely new level of mindfulness. Give the horse the choice to respond and they speak volumes. If they are asking to walk on while you are going from warrior into exalted warrior, that may mean your seat bones have shifted and they need to rebalance. They often now better how to honor their body than we do. In the saddle you must bring yourself to a place where you can read them and respond.
Yoga on horseback or Equiyo is a method of creating a better relationship with your body and with your horse resulting in real growth. In riding we talk about discipline to describe a methodology of riding but it also insinuates a path that takes dedication and commitment to master. The first step in any type of growth is self observation. Yoga is about awareness of the body and the ability to unite mind, body and spirit through that awareness. When we begin to observe who we are and how we act without judging it a certain freedom ensues. If we can take that same finer quality and apply it to our riding we reach an entirely new level. It is no longer about training and perfecting a movement. It is then about the relationship between horse and rider. When my body does this, the horse does this. If I do this my horse reacts in this way. When we observe the self and relax in that state of attention our body relaxes, we notice and sense our body. We can see where we are blocking our own movement and carrying tension and in turn release that tension moving more in concert with our horse. Our horse responds with the same suppleness and grace. Yoga not only transforms traditional views about relationship with horses from dominating to leadership and communication, it can transform the way we interact with nature in the same way. An internal awareness is created that is carried from the saddle onto the mat and into the world. We create a connection that goes beyond the horse. Horses become a bridge back to the lost knowing, back to the rhythm and cycles of nature. When we reconnect that hollow space begins to fill and the longing eases. We remember we are not alone and that we are all connected through spirit. If we can get to that place of connected attention things become clearer and we see possibility.
Blair McKissock MSEd RYT is a speaker and author on equine assisted and experiential learning. Learn more about coaching, OmHorse yoga and upcoming events at www.omhorse.com