Calming Signals: Yoga Mind/Equine Reality

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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28 thoughts on “Calming Signals: Yoga Mind/Equine Reality”

  1. One by one you nock down the list of things I know I don’t wanna do. First filming and watching my videos…then writing and journaling…now yoga? Good thing you are always correct and I trust you. Harrumph! You are slowly prying my curmudgeonly armor away piece by piece.

  2. This couldn’t have been more timely for me as I gingerly hobble around after doing something horrid to my back yesterday….improper footing/lack of core engagement/and so on….while I unplugged a water trough heater. It never is the spectacular, story-worthy events for me, just the human fault of not being in my body, but in my head, as I clip a toe on the coffee table/slip on the ice patch I know is there. Thanks for the gentle and poignant reminder using the words my brain will ruminate on all the while my body screams them.
    (I also share your feelings of goat yoga, and laugh at, but welcome everyone who asks the moment they find out I have goats – be my guest, but I will not be joining your sun salutations in my pen of 20 full sized/200lbs alpines)

    • Gosh. I was rolling along feeling sympathy for your back and recognizing your description of when I get hurt too. It was all fine until you mentioned your goats. Now I’m laughing with you, we are the lucky ones indeed. Thanks, LBA.

  3. Dear Anna Blake. You are my hero. You give me permission and understanding to follow what my inner voice and my heart have been telling me but I was too new at the sport and too easily intimidated by trainers who pushed for more, for harsher. I am finally older and thanks in great part to old souls like you, more confident in facing the know-it-alls and naysayers.
    I moved to clicker training with my first heart Airedale Charlie after my trainer forced me to pinch his ear so he would open his mouth to accept the dumbbell. Charlie yelped and I fell onto the ground before him and begged his forgiveness. Never put another choke chain on him or yanked him ever again. Our training stalled, but our bond did not and to this day, years later, that pinch is one of the great regrets of my life.
    My thoroughbred Romy dumped me after he clearly told me he was done with the lesson and my trainer insisted on one more canter circle. Well good for him. This trainer does no longer teach me.
    I cannot say that my intuition or tuned-in state to my animals has changed. I always was tuned in. I just did not allow myself to follow this, I was intimidated by my new-ness and instead listened to the “voices of authority” . Thank goodness I am older (yay!) and now I chose my voices of authority to harmonize with my inner voices.
    Thank you!

    • thanks, Joanna. I appreciate your path… it’s so important to pursue an education. There are things about horses that we need to learn, but also then to be able to discern, as well.

    • Isn’t it incredibly freeing when you can gaze thoughtfully at the ‘know it alls’, smile and say ‘how interesting’ and then go ahead with your own plan of action without a care!?

  4. Dear Obi Wan,
    You know how horses get excited or anxious when they see/feel the thing that happens just before the thing they want to happen (or don’t want)? Thinking about going to yoga is that don’t-want tip-off for me. I go to a class and expect to walk away feeling like such a better person (on any level) that I want to go again regardless of the body/clothes/supplies/flexibility humiliation I might’ve felt. But it doesn’t happen. It’s not the teacher cause I’ve tried several 5-star options. It’s me. How did you get past the tip-off thing to make a habit of it anyway, assuming you did? Or ask the Dude Rancher. I can’t get my reward analysis to beat my resistance level but I wanna.
    Yours truly,

    • I hear that. I’m not a joiner and I have a life, thank you. I think going private helped us continue. I think I needed it badly. Good luck, or try T’ai Chi or some other???

  5. Thank you for another beautiful column. I am going to share this with my daughter, whose being educated in the “make that horse respect you” school of crops and punishment.

  6. Love the photo !! and love the thoughts expressed as well. Like the comment above, simple is the new advanced is a great theme for 2020. I have had a few chuckles today, as I imagine you and the Dude Rancher at yoga. A timely reminder for me as I have grown quite stiff the last year. Not so long ago , I had discipline about going to the gym, working out, fitness classes etc.. and then I got back into horses and moved out into the country. ….moving hay bales around and mucking doesn’t seem to be sufficient !

    • Sarah, we are totally laughable, but that’s the point. We don’t practice outside of class either. but yoga mind is the mind we need for horses. I learned it riding up the dressage levels, you have to stay in the real moment to do it…yoga might be easier for some of us.Thanks, Sarah.

  7. Unfortunately yoga, like so many other modalities, is being overcomplicated to make it seem more interesting to the (Instagram) masses. So, when my teacher steadily stated “Simple is the new advanced,” I realized that we live in a complex world, so to create balance, we must actively seek out and create experiences oozing of simplicity.

    I cannot overstate the joy I feel when we get together and geek out over the intersections of yoga and riding. But it is funny really to find that at all surprising as it is all essentially the same – awareness, breath and a strong dose of empathy.

    And yes, you and the Dude Rancher are some of the best breathers and lying on the ground-ers that I know!

    • Why, thank you!! We humans are so drawn to gadgets and techniques, you are so right about our love of noise and complication. All these years with you have been such a blessing. Thanks, Tracey.


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