Magic Carpet Relaxation

On the ground or in the saddle, the one thing that we can't do around horses is relax. They often say that some of the worst horse-related accidents happen when the horse has been standing around quietly and people have let down their guard, not expecting anything to happen. That's because just by virtue of their sheer size, horses can hurt us in one unfortunate moment. 

The same goes for when we're in the saddle. Too much relaxation can make you into a blob of a rider, or prevent you from being athletic and aware enough to ride through a sticky situation. 

So what's the alternative? Here are some suggestions. Every time someone tells you to relax, replace the word (and concept) with some of the tips below. 

Release or loosen.

I think the words "release" or "loosen" are much more accurate in terms of what we should be doing while we are on the horse's back. Focus on one area of your body (say your elbows, lower back or knees) and try to release the joints. You might not even have to release or loosen all the time - just in short duration that last as long as your horse's strides. Find your horse's rhythm, and loosen in sync with the rhythm.



This allows you to support your weight and balance, keep your contact without fully letting go, but still find moments when you can allow the horse's energy through your joints and body.

If you can loosen after being tight for some time, you might feel a dramatic softening of your horse's tension, or maybe a surge of energy forward. Often, the horse will sigh or snort or just look more content.

Tone.

Remember that little kid that could make herself feel almost weightless when you went to pick her up? Maybe you were one of those kids when you were younger. Those children can make themselves light as a feather by tightening their bodies and wrapping their arms and legs around you once they're "on board". You can probably carry those children for a long time without feeling tired - because they are doing half the work for you.

Try doing that while you are riding your horse. One of the ways you can look like you are relaxing on your horse is to NOT be a blob. In other words, hold yourself up. Be tall, be strong through your core, don't slouch and avoid falling to every imbalance. Trust me, for those of us who are not used to holding our bodies in a toned manner, it might be difficult at first. But give it a try. See what your horse thinks of it. If you do it long enough, it becomes easier. And maybe, your on-the-horse toning might become more of a habit even when you're off the horse.

Harmonize with the horse.

One of the key methods to relaxing on the horse is to harmonize. If you can ride in better coordination with the horse's movement, everything becomes easier for both you and the horse. Nothing makes you appear to be more "relaxed" than being in sync with your horse to the point that an onlooker cannot tell where the aids come from.

Feel for your horse's footfalls. Time your aids according to the horse's strides. Find the best rhythm for your particular horse. And do your best to move within the horse's movement.

Breathe.

And I don't mean big long yoga breaths while you meditate on your deepest secrets and passsion! No, this type of breathing is much more practical. Make sure you are taking in a breath and releasing a breath in rhythm with your horse's movement. This is the kind of breathing that keeps circulating oxygen to your muscles and brain, so you can think and stay in balance! 🙂

If you find yourself huffing and puffing after a few minutes of trotting or cantering, chances are that you aren't breathing "enough" for the energy output you are producing. This usually happens when you are focusing on one aspect of riding so you forget to breathe. Until your body can automatically breathe regularly while you get down to riding, you need to have a strategy that will teach your body how to breathe while you ride.

I know it sounds silly, but try this. Think of a song that is easy for you to sing. I usually tell riders to sing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star -or pick a song that you know off by heart! But try it. You don't even have to sing exactly. Just say the words out loud enough that you are forced to breathe.

Do it while your horse is moving, and say the words in rhythm with the horse's movement. That's the key. Find your horse's rhythm, sing according to the gait, and keep riding. If you do this enough, your body will start to take over and breathe on its own.



Lengthen your leg.

Tension radiates through your body if your legs are tight. If you knee grip and contract through the thighs, your body automatically becomes less supple and more reactive to the horse's movements. I know how hard it is to loosen and lengthen the leg in movement. But it doesn't mean you can't try over and over again until it becomes more automatic in your muscle memory.

So there you have it. Looking relaxed on a horse can be a difficult and often lengthy process of developing your riding skills to the point of maintaining good basic equitation. The next time people tell you to relax while riding, tone your core, lengthen your leg, harmonize and breathe. They won't know any different!

What is your take on the word "relax"? Do you have any other alternatives? Comment below.

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Riding is Simple, But Not Easy! Let’s face it – all we want is for the horse to do what we want, when we want, where we want, with suppleness and strength!

12 Comments

  1. This is really helpful, especially the part about loosening. I was just commenting to my husband the other day how usually when someone tells me to relax, I have to think about it and concentrate on it and when I’m thus fixated, it’s kind of hard to relax. (I was thinking of my childhood chiropractor who instead of telling me to relax would say, “Wiggle your big toe.” I’d to just that and then get a great adjustment. I appreciate your post. 🙂

  2. My horse has been in rehab for a while and mostly walking. I found this an excellent time to do as you’re suggesting. I probably spent a week just reciting to myself, “both bones evenly relaxed in the saddle” referring to my seat bones especially on bends. I developed little chants for aspects like bending, “length of leg, THEN shoulder (rein), to break the rein-first habit. Now when I do a position check I find that as soon as I correct one thing, everything else follows. I do like the idea of singing and will try to incorporate that. Since I have to ride during the morning feeding, I’ve found my mare to be much more relaxed in spite of the feeding activities and less inclined to chilly weather frolicking.

  3. I envision melting into the back of my horse till I feel we are one – allowing his hind legs move my body. I don’t feel heavy in the saddle, just a part of the horse. When I’m successful (happening more and more) I move with him and can even feel “energy” moving down the backs of my calves and through my heels, making my heels feel heavy but putting no more weight in the stirrups than necessary to make them part of my feet and legs. People I’ve mentioned this to look at me like I’m crazy – till it happens to them.

  4. I agree with all the comments above as it is an ongoing mental to physical exercise in focus ! The subject was well covered in the language of an experienced horseman Thankyou from those who can’t always think a of the words at the right time

  5. My shoulders are particularly tense. I’ve been told this by dance teachers, piano teachers, calligraphy instructors, and riding coaches! Now, one year after rotator cuff surgery, I really have a problem. Does anyone know specific exercises that ill help?

  6. Carol, I highly recommend tai chi to help loosen your shoulders. I’ve gotten the same comments as you and less than a year into the practice I’ve been noticing a huge difference. Tai chi also strengthens the legs and mobilizes the hips, two additional pluses for both riding AND life in general!

  7. All of the suggestions are good, but I was tickled to read about singing… I’ve made a practice of amending a special song for each of our horses, and always whisper it to them during heightened anxiety, such as riding in deep woods where game is known to suddenly appear. (e.g., “Hi Lily, hi Lily, hi lo…” from “South Pacific” for, of course, Lily!) Given my lack of singing ability, it probably helps me more than the horse.

  8. I just have to say how much I thoroughly enjoyed this article! I feel like I just went to school! As I continue to refine my riding – I’ve found it so hard to find someone who can actually put into words the fundamentals of riding and give such specific and practical applications on how to go about it! Anyway – thank you so very much for this delightful article – it’s been life altering!
    Sincerely – Corinne

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