In sync. All three of us, left leg lead, moving as one unit. Cathy Woods, Dan and Sampson. Photographer: Dell Hambleton

Applying Yoga Principles to Trail Riding | Practical Parallels

By Cathy Woods, Cowgirl/Yogini
National Yoga Teacher and Creator of Body, Mind, Equine TM

As a long- time trail rider and yogi, I find it natural to apply yogic principles to my horsemanship from ground to saddle. This might seem like a foreign concept, but if you have interest in yoga and horses I invite you to take a closer look at the similarities of these two practices. For example, when riding, maybe you’ve thought to yourself, “Hmm, I’m holding my breath” or “Relax my hands.” These are things we might observe on our yoga mat as well.

What are you doing on your yoga mat? What are you doing while trail riding?

Here are some points to examine and ask yourself: Am I practicing these in both yoga and horsemanship?

  • Paying attention and staying in the present moment where life is happening is a practice we can take from the yoga mat, into horsemanship and into all arenas of life.

    Being in the present moment: Life is happening in the now. Yoga helps us to be fully present on the mat — doing one thing at one time, completely and totally. We should keep our attention focused, alert and present when on the trail as well, or any time working around horses, to prevent injury to ourselves or our mounts. Beyond the safety issues, you will enjoy your ride more fully and enrich your experience by bringing your awareness to the here and now. You’ll feel the movements of your horse, the air on your skin, the relaxing into nature. Sometimes, there is so much distraction and chit-chat going on that when you finish the ride, you realize you did not fully experience it; it was as if you were on auto pilot. One way to bring attention into the present is through mindfulness practices that teach us to notice when attention, energy and mind wander, and how to bring it back through the use of breath and bodily sensations.

  • Breathing through challenges: When teaching a challenging yoga posture, the instructor will likely say, “Breath through it or breath into it.” Notice your breath next time you get into a challenging situation on horseback (or in life in general). You likely are holding it, or taking shallow breathes, which happens when we become stressed, scared and anxious. Your horse feels this. He can feel a fly on his back, so of course he can feel if you are breathing or not. By deepening the breath, our bodies and nervous system relax and we give the mind a focal point. Breathe fully, first into the belly, and then into the entire lung space, with a slow,steady rhythm. When you take a deep breath, your horse will likely take a deep breath too and relax more. In addition to deep breathing, humming or chanting the sound of Om is also very calming and a massage for the central nervous system. Plus, your horse might find this gentle vibration rather soothing as well.
  • Being “centered” is an important practice.
    Are you bringing calm centered, collected energy or nervous, scattered energy to your horsemanship?
    Photographer: Dell Hambleton

    Body Awareness: On the yoga mat, we become aware of where our bodies are in space and time. We notice our alignment, and we self-correct when misaligned. For example, when in a table-top position, are your wrists under your shoulders, your knees under the hips, and is your weight symmetrical? Through yoga, we are more keenly aware of bodily sensations. When in the saddle, a good horse person will be aware of these things too. Is the weight distributed evenly in each foot/stirrup? Are you sitting on your sitting bones or tail bone? Are you centered? Are your hands too high/low? Are your hands soft or do you have adeath grip on your reins/bit? When we are off, even the slightest bit, it affects how the horse moves. In addition, a rider can become sore and uncomfortable without a proper seat. When the body is crooked, tense or stiff, and the movements are jerky, it uses more energy than necessary to complete a task. The horse’s movements mimic the rider, and they too will become stiff or jerky if the rider is not fluid. In my workshops, I will often have different people lead and/or ride the same horse and instruct them and the onlookers to detect any difference in the horse’s movement, attitude and energy.

  • Energy Awareness: Yoga practice puts us in tune with our own energy and the energies around us. We can experience life force energy that flows through us, which is the energy that allows us to move and feel. This same energy flows through all life and all of creation. It’s what makes the flowers bloom, the rivers flow, the planets orbit. When we’re in tune, we notice energy shifts, whether on the yoga mat, in a conversation, in any space, and with our horse. I always say a good rider is not necessarily the most technically trained — but, the most aware rider. Keen riders will detect when energy changes within themselves, their horse, or in natural surroundings — for example, if the wind has picked up, the temperature dropped, or if wildlife is present. Likewise, a fellow rider may be getting tense or agitated or having trouble with their horse. All these things can affect your horse’s energy and your ride. Because horses are such in-tune beings, with keen instincts, they often detect these things sooner than we do. Practicing awareness while riding can prevent or diminish many unfavorable situations and make you a more mindful, safe rider. Remember, everything you do — from leading your horse, to holding your reins, to grooming — you transmit to your horse. Do you want to transmit nervous/fear energy or calm centered energy?
  • When our inner is balanced, our outer is balanced and when our outer is balanced our inner is balanced.
    Photographer: Cynthia Hughes.

    Balance: On the yoga mat, we work on balancing poses,such as tree, dancer and the like. These postures not only improve our physical balance, but are metaphorical, balancing our inside and outside. Being balanced physically on your horse clearly has its advantages. Staying centered is key to good, proper and safe riding, allowing a much better chance for you to stay in the saddle should a sideways jump, crow-hop, buck, or slip occur. A good life practice is to “stay balanced in all that we do.”

  • Grace: Yogis practice each yoga pose with as much grace as possible, even when we feel challenged, and we carry that over into life situations as well. Some days, we organically feel graceful and balanced, and other times more clunky — in life, on the mat and in the saddle. Many things factor into this. Sometimes, it’s simply awareness and collection, other times it’s life circumstances, how much rest we’ve had, what we’ve eaten, etc. In both yoga and riding we talk about “being collected.” This does not just mean collecting ourselves or our horse physically, but mentally, emotionally, and energetically as well. Sometimes we have to pause and examine what we need at the moment to collect ourselves, be it rest, food, or a few quiet moments. Find the edge where acceptance meets grace.
  • Celebrate: In many forms of yoga, we pause between postures to notice and celebrate the experience, our aliveness, the blocks shifting and tensions dissolving. When you accomplish something with your horse, stop and celebrate what you just did, be it getting over that big log, a challenging creek crossing, or navigating a technical section of trail.

These are some of what I call “metaphors” of yoga and trail riding gleaned from my personal experiences. I think you will find them useful in either discipline, and doubly enhancing when used with both. I have applied each of these principles on countless trail rides, pack trips, trail clearings, and events, and found them quite helpful.

During my retreats and workshops, we explore even more parallels of yoga and horsemanship from ground to saddle. The richest thing about fine tuning all these skills is that they really can be applied to almost any arena of life.

Happy Trails & Namaste,

Cathy Woods
Yogini, Retreat Leader & Trail Rider

Cathy Woods, Cowgirl/Yogini, combines her passions of yoga and horsemanship and is the creator of Body, Mind, Equine . Cathy offers programs nationally teaching how to use yogic principles to improve horsemanship from ground to saddle and how to become a more aware and conscious rider. Cathy teaches yoga as an “awareness practice to be used on and off the mat.

To learn more about Cathy and upcoming events visit www.cathywoodsyoga.com