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.
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.
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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Horse Listening – Book 2: Forward and Round to Training Success
Available as an eBook or paperback.
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Finding Your Comfortable Un-Comfort in Riding: Being uncomfortable is often a good place to be in riding.
23 Ways to Solve the Riding Problem: Of course, we rarely speak of the one “true” way…
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!