BY JENNY ROLFE
BALANCE FOR OUR MIND
Imagine you arrive home, feeling weary after a tedious day at work. You sit down; turn on the radio and one of your favorite tunes wafts across the airways. Your mind begins to focus on the rhythm of a much-loved melody. Good memories linger and you take a deep sigh and begin to relax. Remember how you were feeling before this music began? How did the music affect your thoughts? Did it momentarily transport your mind and lift your spirits?
The ability for us, as humans, to be able to re-direct our thoughts and look for calmness and reflection, will be invaluable when we are working with our horses. It is not easy for us to walk each day into the stable feeling truly relaxed, in the right frame of mind to harmonize instantly with our horse. The art of self-awareness will help us to tune into our own frame of mind. It is all too easy to just let things happen around us and not be aware of their effect on our equilibrium. If we can learn to understand our own nature, it can prove invaluable as we learn to be more effective in our communications with our horse.
For us to ‘master the balance’, we need to understand ourselves and also the ways of our horses and be able to tune into them, mind to mind. Balance and harmony are inter-related and for us to achieve harmony we need to understand the importance of mastering our own thoughts to help us bring together a unity of body, mind and spirit. In this way we can become the calm respected herd leader for our horse, whether we are just taking time out around the stables or practicing movements for an advanced dressage test.
BALANCE WITH OUR HORSE
All paces and movements require that both horse and rider learn to move together with a natural ‘flow’ and balance. When we sit on the back of the horse we immediately disturb their natural equilibrium. The art of balanced riding is to become aware of our own poise, which will enable us to feel ‘at one’ with the movement and spirit of the horse; to become a horse and rider, in perfect harmony.
How can we achieve these goals in our riding? We need to look at the physical requirements for balance and the harmony needed between our body, mind and spirit. Balance will require harmony between both the physical and the spiritual. The physical body will come into a balanced state, only when the mind and spirit allow a ‘centered’ and harmonious feeling.
The body of the rider may look to be in balance but, if the mind is full of only technical information or negative thoughts, the true harmony and ‘one-ness’ of art will not be revealed. When you watch any partnership in dance, it may appear to be aesthetic and visual, but it is the unseen and the spiritual empathy which is capable of creating the magic.
Several years ago, if someone had told me that they could gain a response from a horse from just becoming aware of breathing, I have to admit that I would have been skeptical. Without much thought, I was placing limitations on the mind and sensitivity of the horse. When the rider becomes open and receptive to the full nature of the horse, communications can become almost telepathic. The horse has an intelligent, sensitive and spiritual nature and we need to think of ‘Mind to Mind’ communications, which our horse can understand.
If we look at our body awareness and posture, we can begin to understand how our poise and breathing can affect the horse. We are all different in our body shapes; hence, we hold our tensions in different places. A study of the techniques of Yoga, Pilates, the Alexander Technique or Physiotherapy all have their place in helping us to achieve deeper and calmer mental attitudes, suppleness and good posture. It is interesting to observe the body poise and artistry in the martial arts. Body movements look ‘centered’ and flowing with an amazing feel of balance. It is possible to achieve a similar energy flow in our riding which will enhance our performance and the comfort for our horse.
The ancient Chinese and Indian civilizations believed that the center of energy in the body, is just below the navel area. If our breathing can help to enhance this awareness, then the rider can gain a more centered and balanced feeling. Once the rider is sitting on the back of the horse, an awareness of this important ‘center’ will help the horse and rider to master the balance.
BREATHING & RE-ALIGNMENT
As riders, we should take every opportunity to think about our individual posture.
Below are some helpful breathing techniques to help you develop more focus, balance and body-awareness.
EXERCISE ONE: LATERAL BREATHING
Standing with your feet about eighteen inches apart, take a deep breath inwards. Feel your ribcage expand and widen and your body grow taller. Let the breath flow to the sides of your ribs and into your spine, not upwards! Relax slowly on the outward breath allowing the ribcage to relax and feel the breath ripple through the upper body and lower abdomen.
Continue with your steady inhaling and exhaling.
With each breath inward, expand the body slightly, growing taller with each breath. Let the inward breath lengthen and widen your body. Allow the outward breath to relax the ribcage and feel the tension release between your shoulders.
Look forwarding, directly in front of you, squeeze the muscles tightly around your eyes, then slowly release the pressure round your eyes and relax. This is softening the eyes and facial muscles. Push your chin backwards gently into the back of the neck, (double chins may appear) then relax. This exercise will help re-align the vertebrae in the neck.
Bring both shoulders up towards your head and gently circle allowing them to relax naturally back and down. Hold the inward breath for a few seconds. Then gently exhale and feel the air ripple through your spine and abdomen. Using the pelvic floor muscles, just cough quickly and feel the muscles you use. Then tighten them to feel the core of strength which can be created.
Continue deep breathing in this way, until you can really feel the vigor of the breathing creating a strong center in the lower abdomen. This core of power will be well able to support the upper torso with strength, but also with ability to create ‘energy flow.’ This will be the key to carrying out transitions when you are riding, not the strong leg or the driving seat. We will influence our horse with our breathing and harmony.
EXERCISE TWO: FEEL
For the next exercise the arms can hang loosely down. Allow the shoulders to relax and the chest to expand lifting the rib cage. The rib cage lifts as a result of the lateral breathing and not the forward arching of the spine. The sternum (or breast bone) should remain relaxed and not tightened or pushed forward. In this way the shoulders fall more naturally back allowing your upper body more space. The upper arm (shoulder to elbow) can hang with the weight allowed down to the elbow with a lighter feel to the lower arm (elbow to wrist).
Lift the lower arm from the elbow (as if holding reins in front of you). Clench the fists and tighten the muscles in your arms. Now relax, allow the weight to drop into the elbows and lighten your lower arms from the elbow to the wrist. Feel the lightness in the lower arm, in the wrist and hand. This is the “feel” to be developed when riding.
Let us sum up body awareness:
Softening of the facial muscles and looking through ‘soft’ eyes.
Have the feeling of filling the space around you. Grow taller and expand your frame allowing your head to come forward and upwards. Create a feeling from within, of pride and self assurance. Have the feeling that your head is balanced in lightness, floating above the shoulders, as a balloon above your body.
Release the tension in your neck – looking left then right very slowly.
Keep the softer feel in the breast bone whilst breathing and widening the chest (not by pushing the rib cage outwards but breathing ‘into your spine’.)
Feel your center of energy, created through the abdominal breathing. Lengthen the spine, allowing the upper torso to be in self-carriage supported by the waist and abdominal muscles.
Shoulders blades back and down in a relaxed, (not a forced) comfortable manner – to allow natural expansion and elevation of your upper body through lateral breathing.
The arms from the shoulder to the elbow form part of the strong “center.” Allow weight to drop into a relaxed elbow.
The arms from the elbow to hand are light to receive the reins.
The feet should be in a position of slightly apart, allowing a release of knee joints.
The ‘whole’ person should feel energized with a feeling of poise and pride.
Within my book I have given many ideas to help the horseman to develop harmony, both when working the horse from the ground and also in the ridden work. An in-depth understanding of our breathing can become the foundation for our communications with the horse.
For instance, try walking (without the horse) a few steps using the lateral breathing. Then take a deeper inward breath. Feel how this can re-balance you and strengthen and lengthen your back.
Now stand and release, by taking a deep outward breath. Feel the flow of air ripple through the spine and the release of your lower back. If you can develop this sensitivity to your own body and balance, it is possible to find the most perceptive of communications with our horse.
When we sit on the back of a horse and take up the reins, the contact is not only between our hands and his mouth but also ‘mind to mind.’ If the horse accepts your leadership and trusts you, he will be more relaxed in his mind to become submissive to a contact. This is not just a physical action but very much part of a relationship; hence gadgets will never prove to be a solution.
No athlete, whether human or horse, can perform in a true and natural balance if he is restricted by his head and neck. When a horse takes a step forward, the first part of his anatomy to move is the head and this will be impossible if we restrict the natural, forward movement with our hands.
When a horse moves from halt to walk, or walk into trot, his head and neck will need the freedom to move forward. This will enable him physically to follow through the propulsion of energy from his hind limbs. If his natural head carriage is restricted, then his paces will be stilted. We will be guilty of asking the horse to move forward with our seat and legs but not allowing him the freedom to propel himself forward in a natural way. If the horse is not able to move with a sense of freedom, he will never be in his own self-carriage and will become reliant upon a heavy contact with his mouth.
If we guide and encourage the horse to move with positive energy into a ‘containing’ but not restricting contact, he will become more confident in his work.
Classical Horsemanship is all about trying to establish a bond between ourselves and our horse, based on true harmony and balance. As riders we can learn to master our own self-carriage and thoughts, but we also have the ultimate responsibility for the well-being of our horse.
To ride ‘in balance and true harmony’ requires from us: much love, respect and devotion towards our horse. He is our friend, who willingly gives his utmost attention and energy in all spheres of riding. We can build upon a pattern of communication, which will give both pleasure and enjoyment. Praise and encouragement, will enable the horse to feel proud and gain in confidence. To have a truly ‘balanced’ horse and rider requires both the physical ‘oneness’ in balance with the mental and spiritual connection in harmony. These are the fundamental truths, which can help us to truly master ourselves and become the MASTER OF THE HORSE.
READ MORE ABOUT AUTHOR JENNY ROLFE