The Dude Rancher and I practice yoga. We started years ago; he was having way too many headaches and my back was killing me. We each thought the other person was the problem, but we went to a Yin Yoga class at a local rec center. Our teacher, Tracey, explained in a soft voice that we should only do what we comfortably could. It was about listening to our bodies. The implicit message was don’t feel competitive, but no worries from us. We were class stand-outs. It would have taken five other students to add up to our cumulative age. No doubt that the others all had taken lots of classes because everyone had very cool yoga clothes. The Dude Rancher had gym shorts and I was wearing old breeches that had given up the last ghost of elastic. One of us can sit cross-legged and one of us can’t, but right from the beginning we both had world-class, and I mean this with great humility, Pentacle poses. We could lie spread-eagle on the ground with the best of them. Not that we cared.
Then Tracey gave us a riding lesson disguised as yoga, and in my sublime stillness, I was wagging and yipping inside; we had a shared language. I knew yoga and riding were practically the same thing; I’d practiced and taught T’ai Chi and never saw it as anything but dressage. It’s just that I felt welcome, like one of the herd.
To be clear, this wasn’t horse yoga, that’s something else and I feel the same way about it that I do goat yoga. With my three hundred pound goat. I’m not interested in how we feel around horses. It’s a no brainer that they make anything more pleasant; I’d like going to the dentist better if horses were grazing nearby. What I am most interested in is the horse’s side and how we can benefit them.
Yin Yoga is slow-paced with simple postures are held for longer periods. In a pose or asana, you arrange your body and breathe. Gravity does the work, very appealing to me since I did barn chores for eight horses and wrestled against gravity all day, but in a peaceful zen-like way. Yoga creates a great opportunity to notice, without judgment of course, that when you lay down, your shoulders might be curled round, elevated four inches off the ground. Again, without judgment, because it takes a while to figure out that they weren’t born that way. In the beginning, a simple twist might burn from your IT band, a part of your body you won’t ever ignore again, to your opposite ear. You focus on breathing while it feels like blood might be coming out of your eyeballs, behind their serenely closed lids of course. All this in the first five seconds and there were still another forty soul-killing seconds to hold, as Tracey explained that we should find a way to allow our body to do less. Less than lying on a yoga mat.
See, I make jokes about yoga. In our world, doing less is seen as lazy or embarrassing. I make it sound painful, because we don’t value things that don’t hurt. It isn’t real if we don’t feel the burn. Suffering is the currency most of us were raised with. Real exercise should make you feel like you’re in boot camp. A good massage should hurt or you didn’t get your money’s worth. If I was a real man, I’d run a marathon. Barefoot on burning coals.
I notice we do that in horse training. We injure and lame horses in the name of making them stronger. We push them through resistance, we think we can make their thousand-pound bodies obey and be perfect. Tense hands force their heads into correct positions, as if pulling on their mouths had anything to do with relaxing their back, so that their heads could naturally seek that same position. It’s as if we cared more about striking a pose than balance and movement. But we train with compassion, our horse culture says we’re sissies, boring to watch. Yada-yada. I’m sick of hearing it.
We practice a long slow, dare I say, Yoga-like warm-ups with horses. We ride body to body, with fluid softness. We know the most primal calming signal we can give a horse is our breathing and that it’s healing horses, moment-by-long-slow-moment, because we know horses do better at everything when not in anxiety or pain. Yay for affirmative training. It sounds obvious but if it was, would whips be the best selling item in tack stores?
Back in yoga, we’d moved to private lessons and it was the sweetest time of the week. The less we did, the more our physical issues healed. The headaches became infrequent, my back was flexible again. Eventually, we’d hold a pose for five minutes, an eternity, and when Tracey asked us to unwind, I’d passively resent her, as if she was asking me to leave the barn before I was ready.
I think good conditioning is as important for riders as horses. If you are looking at serious competition, it’s crucial. Most of my riders are all too aware of their physical limitations; bad knees or arthritic hands. We have come off a few times, we have a literal hitch in our giddy-up. We ride horses who had a rough start or are a bit long in the tooth. We strive to accept ourselves and our horses in all of our imperfect glory. Yoga is a forgiving fit for us, but the best benefit of yoga for horsepeople is beyond the physical.
The understanding and use of calming signals means keeping a quiet focus on the small nuances in the body language of our horses, to be answered with similar nuance in our bodies. Horses live in the eternal, environmental now and we cannot truly connect using our overthinking frontal lobe, but when we gain internal awareness of our own bodies, we gain equine fluency. A horse’s calming signal tells us that they are no threat to us and we can answer that most eloquently with a soft deep breath. Yoga is the gift of connecting us with our own bodies, letting a wave of oxygen deep into our bellies, then exhaling ease and peace to… well what we care about, our horses. When we put breath first, we speak their language and horses recognize it immediately. They begin to think we might be trustworthy.
Meanwhile, the Dude Rancher and I have evolved to something less than Yin Yoga. We now practice Restorative Yoga with bolsters under our knees or blocks supporting our various parts. Certainly it would look silly to someone watching but we’re past caring. Gravity is getting some help and we are doing even less. We wholeheartedly throw ourselves into the glorious release, the ebb and flow of breathing, and as recently as yesterday, you can count on at least one of us falling asleep. As we left, I told Tracey again how similar we teach our different things. How much horses flourish given an affirmative choice and that maybe “restorative” might describe our worn mantra, Less is More.
Tracey shared something her teacher, Gina Caputo says, “Simple is the new advanced.” Boy howdy, does that sound like something a horse would say or what?
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
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