One of my first riding instructors always started our lessons with yoga stretches in the ring at the walk. Pigeon, half-camel, mountain – all versions of yoga postures, modified for the saddle. This routine not only prepared our muscles for the tough work of up-up down, down-down up (you know what I’m talking about!), and excruciatingly long periods of holding our two point, but also brought us closer to our horses and more aware of our own breath. The more I learn about riding and about yoga, the more I see how the two can inform and support each other. Here are some of my favorite books on yoga and riding:
Yoga for Equestrians: A New Path for Achieving Union with the Horse by Linda Benedik & Veronica Wirth
Trafalgar Square Publishing, 2004 edition
Riding draws upon physical strength, balance, and flexibility. Breath serves as a powerful communication aid with the horse, and concentration is an essential practice in the saddle, the field, or the barn. This book includes a great section on breathing as the bridge between body, mind, and horse and guidance for a yoga practice in the saddle and on the ground. There are super explanations about visualizing your power center and a yogic approach to horseback riding. What I love most about Yoga for Equestrians is its practical guidance in Chapter Nine Establishing Your Practice. The entire book gives specific routines and sequences; Chapter Nine breaks the postures down into little packages for warm up, transitioning, at the stable, at a show, and after riding. I almost always practice the Yoga at the Stable sequence found on page 149 right before my lessons. When I don’t, I notice a difference in how my body feels immediately when I start to post.
Whoa-Ga! Eight Limbed Yoga for Horse/Rider Harmony by Cathy Kan’dala Reynolds
Publishing Works, 2006
Of the Eight Limbs of Yoga, I’m most engaged with three in my daily life: postures, breath, and meditation. Yet, the eightfold path offers insight and discipline in riding as in life. I love that Who-Ga! is organized in eight sections corresponding with the eight limbs of yoga: Yama (Internal Ethical Disciplines), Niyama (External Ethical Disciplines), Asanas (Physical Poses), Pranayama (Breathing), Pratyahara (Sensory Control/Withdrawal), Dharana (Concentration), Dhyana (Meditation), and Samadi (Blissful Absorption). Studying on the first limb (Yama) includes five disciplines non-violence, honesty, non-stealing, study/training, and love toward all. Chapter Six, which covers Dharana/Concentration, addresses ways to improve the skill of concentration (ours and our horse’s) through arena exercises. The book includes a robust section covering postures on an exercise ball, on the floor, and standing postures, too. And, Who-ga! not only explains postures on the horse but yoga FOR the horse, too. Who-Ga! encourages riders to embrace the eight limbs of yoga as a basis for a leadership philosophy with horses.
Yoga on Horseback: A Guide to Mounted Yoga Exercises for Riders by Nicole C. Cuomo & Marty Whittle
Alpine Publishing, 2006
I’m so sad I’ve misplaced this book, and it’s out-of-print right now. Usually, ABE Books is a good source for hard-to-find titles, but no luck. Yoga on Horseback is a brief but thorough introduction to balance, breath, and postures on horseback for riders of all levels. Even though I can’t find my copy, I’m including this one here in case you ever see it at a rare book store or Friends of the Library sale. Here’s a good interview with the book’s co-author, Marty Whittle, on her system of Equi-Yoga.
Zen and Horseback Riding: Applying the Principles of Posture, Breath and Awareness to Riding Horses by Tom Nagel
Ko-gen Publications, 3rd ed, 2010
Tom Nagel opens this little spiral bound book with an explanation that it’s neither a book about horses nor Zen meditation. Zen and Horseback riding, Nagel explains, “is about seeing horses and riding as a Way, becoming an activity of self-development and spiritual training. It’s about improving one’s life as well as one’s riding.” In addition to explaining techniques for improving the relationship to the horse through posture, breathing, and awareness, the author really educates riders on the location, use, and health of the all-important, oft-ignored psoas muscles (pronounced so-az). The writing is logical, straightforward, and easy-to-understand. It’s not a book to plow through but to integrate. Take this for example, from page 94: “If a rider focuses on a particular object, his horse will respond in kind. If a rider holds his breath, tension in his body will be communicated to his horse. A tense body cannot move freely and will interfere with the movement of the horse. When horse’s response isn’t desired, it is important for a rider to look to his own posture, breathing and awareness first, before looking to this horse.” Words worth reflecting on.
A practical guide and an inspiring work, I’m tagging Zen Mind Zen Horse as a yoga book because of its exploration of breath, self-awareness, and suggestions for physical exercises connected to breath. It’s also a useful handbook for grooming, tacking up, trailering, and basic horse care. I’ve been reading this book for months and trying to also become more aware of myself around Angel (the mare I ride in lessons) and Albert. The idea of breath awareness always seems so simple that you might wonder why we even talk about breathing right or noticing our breath.
So, here’s an example of how the book is helping me. Recently, I was giving Albert a bath. He was really dirty, and I realized that this was going to take a lot longer than I planned. I started to rush. He started to dance around a little bit. I got nervous. I moved away from Albert, leaving a good bit of space between us, and stopped talking to him. He picked up his back right leg and held it there. Now, I noticed that foot hanging there, poised for SOMETHING and the thoughts jumped out: Whoa, what’s going on with him? Why would he want to kick me? My mind returned to Zen Mind Zen Horse. And now I noticed that I was holding my breath. So, I stepped closer to Albert, placed my hand on his croup, and let out a big sigh. I returned to nice, even breaths. “You’re okay,” I said to him. What I probably really meant was, Hi buddy, I’m back. I’m okay. Not rushing you. And, he dropped his foot and we had an incredible afternoon just being together. The magic offered in this book results from the practice of being present to yourself and your horse. There are great illustrations also and a very comprehensive bibliography for further reading.