I teach yoga on horseback. My warm-weather weekends here in the Pacific Northwest are filled by hours in arenas. Under the maritime sun or sometimes beneath cobweb-strewn rafters, I meet women who bring their horses to my workshops and I teach them how to breathe. I’ve learned to start simple.
I could explain to them how their horses are mirrors, and their repressed or unconscious emotions are brought to the surface through the behaviors of their equine partners, who invite them to look squarely at their vulnerability and open–grow–instead of close. I could begin our sessions by introducing the energy-language of the electric body and how horses can sense danger, or incongruency, from a herdmate a mile away. I could tell them that their horses are master Yogis because their survival depends upon their ability to stay present, without attachment, in each moment.
But I have found that heady explanations get in the way. I don’t have to explain it, I just help guide them to feel it. And feeling can be paralyzing, so we start slow.
Most women I meet have experienced “The Numbness” — a sense of loss of the Self, where we have given too much for too long, or have attached our identities to external objects, desires, goals, and “shoulds” and have forgotten who we are. I too found yoga at a time like this.
I grew up riding horses in a suburb near Chicago. In middle school my family moved to a small-town farm, where the closest neighbors were down the road a-piece, so my sisters and I could have horses. Though I took formal lessons and showed at competitions almost every weekend of my youth, my best moments horseback were after-school days on the farm.
I’d get off the bus, drop my books on the back porch, run through our grassy pasture and swing my leg up onto my horse. No saddle, no bridle. She grazed as I lay supine over her rump. The curve of her back matched my spine. I watched the clouds, shooed flies off her body, and listened to her munching. She shifted her weight to stabilize me, not stepping forward until she’d cleared all the grass from around her feet.
I didn’t have words for it then, but those moments took me to a place I later learned to access through yoga.
I graduated high school and my interests shifted: I wanted to make a big impact on the world, and I didn’t yet see how I could from my small town. I donated my horse to the lesson program that had raised me and I took off to study journalism in Chicago. I filled the time I used to spend riding with studying, classes, coffee shops, museums, talks, plays. And I told myself that I was far too busy to think about horses.
One afternoon I got a call from my former riding instructor. His voice was uncharacteristically serious. My horse had died. “She colicked sometime in the night and we found her this morning.” I was awkward on the phone. I knew I should be devastated, but I couldn’t feel anything.
Depressed, on meds and clinically diagnosed with a Generalized Anxiety Disorder (western medicine’s version of “the numbness”), I trudged through college until Yoga found me. I felt better than after I took a Xanax, and I was hooked.
Yoga became as natural to me as riding, but I found that opening my chest–an action that I had formerly mastered as it was essential for good posture in the saddle–was hardest for me in yoga. Each time I tried, a deep sense of sadness and loss welled up from my heart. I practiced ways of getting around it, ways of appearing to open–like pulling my shoulders back and down, or over-tilting my pelvis forward–without actually opening.
One evening I visited a friend in the city and we went to a yoga class near her apartment. It was a particularly depressive day for me, but as usual, I couldn’t decipher why. I wasn’t intrigued by the teacher, whose class I would never have attended had my friend not insisted we go. I almost felt bored. There was something edging closer, though, with each forward fold.
Near the end of class, I popped my legs overhead into shoulder stand with ease, but we seemed to hold it forever. We rolled our shoulders under, and walked our elbows close together. I was getting tired, a little sloppy in the pose. My thoughts began to wander, when the teacher said, “focus your gaze on heart center.” I looked there, lengthened my spine, and felt a POP in my back-chest. The entire pose re-energized and I spread my toes, opening my heart, gazing inward. Suddenly, I could have stayed forever.
We stayed, then slowly, slowly, we lowered our feet overhead, to the floor for halasana. And slowly, slowly, we rolled our spines down to meet the floor. I felt wrung out. We lay on our backs to absorb the benefits of the pose and my heartbreak spilled through. In Savasana, with a tangible pain in my sternum, silent tears trailed down. I am not fulfilled, I could finally admit, and it was time to change. All that I had been seeking through yoga, the sense of connection, the power of being present in the moment, all that I was protecting my heart from by avoiding, it all came to this: I needed to reconnect with horses.
Like magic, as soon as I opened to opportunity, it came. The next month, I drove to Sanborn Western Camps in Colorado with all my possessions in my truck to start a summer job as a wrangler. I bought a pair of used Wrangler jeans at the thrift store and headed to the barn.
Suddenly I was back in the saddle after four years of not so much as looking at a horse. Astonished, I felt more comfortable on horseback than I did before I quit riding. I found a natural, unforced balance in my seat, my core muscles engaged more deeply, and even my cueing was more subtle and effective.
The riding director matched me with Pete, my project horse for the season. He was a tall, beautiful chestnut with crimpy red mane. I was his last chance before finding a new home (due to his history of unloading his last three wranglers). I could tell from the start that he was highly sensitive: always alert and reactive, not only to me but also our surroundings. He jumped at sudden movements and shied away from shadows.
I led him to the arena and asked him to stand. I’d grown up riding tall horses, and I was long-legged, but Pete seemed goliath. I knew he could feel that I was nervous as I lifted my foot into the stirrup, so I took some deep yoga breaths and scratched his withers. When he seemed to calm, I stepped up and swung my leg over his back. His whole body tensed, and mine did, too, so I breathed deep again, rolled my shoulders down and expanded my belly breath, stroking his neck. He softened.
Breath calms him, too, I thought to myself. Filling my side ribs with air and exhaling completely, I smiled as he lowered his head. And he needs a human he can trust. His gait was smooth, lofty. When I asked him to walk, trot, canter, he moved beautifully around the arena, his ears flickering back toward me, listening intently to my body language.
It didn’t happen overnight, but with consistent work on being present and reassuring, he began to trust me, trust that he could leave some of his hypervigilance to me and know that I’d look out for him. Soon, we became a unit.
My horseback yoga approach began to take shape. After my season of working with Pete, I had a camper riding him without a saddle, like he was born to carry kids.
Teaching young girls to ride, I found myself drawing more from my yoga practice than my riding background. Horseback yoga was fun! We set intentions for our rides, breathed with movement, and did poses on horseback. We practiced horseback yoga poses with halters in a grazing pasture and I fully expected the horses to be eating grass while the girls stretched on their backs, but as soon as we started breathwork, the horses stood still and avoided eating; their heads lowered, their eyes closed, their bottom lips got droopy.It was as though these horses were meditating along with the girls.
The campers became members of the herd, and the horses supported them in poses I couldn’t have dreamed up. I developed a 5-day pack trip and called it “Cowgirl Yoga.” What’s more, I was deeply, effortlessly and completely happy.
Here at Double S Quarter Horses in Washington, workshops are three hours long instead of five days. After a Hayloft Yoga class, one local riding instructor exclaimed to me, “yoga teaches riders something I never thought I could teach my riders: body awareness. I’d thought it was just something you were born with or you weren’t.”
My riders here are primarily middle-aged women or folks my age, curious about this new way to ride. With this older crowd, we have to start simple; there’s more to sift through. Listening to the language of horse while uniting our consciousness with our bodies, our equine partners offer feedback when we’re not being authentic. We twist, bend, reach, and open our hearts. And through these movements, both horses and yoga help us to find out who we really are.
A student of mine—finally over telling me how she’s out of shape and how this-hurts and it’s been thirty years since she’s ridden bareback!—begins to breathe. She listens to her body, not reactively, but proactively. Her horse, who was mirroring her sporadic thoughts by looking around, pacing, paying attention to his surroundings more than his handler, calms. Leslie sinks into her skin and out of her busy-mind. Through conscious breath, by acknowledging her fears and thoughts, then channeling her awareness deeper within, she becomes congruent and her horse does, too. Then, finally, her inner world has stilled and she can lay back over her horse in Savasana, in complete trust and union.