Take My Breath Away!

Most of us have had those moments. Your horse spooks, leaps sideways, and you suddenly find yourself caught in your breath. Your shoulders pinch up, your breathing is shallow, or you might even find yourself holding your breath while your entire body tightens. Your horse tenses further. He may spin and try to run while you do your best to hang on. Everything in your field of vision flashes by faster than your brain can compute what’s happening. The outcome of these situations can often be unpredictable, and potentially harmful to both human and horse. It’s typically not the time we think about taking deeper breaths and slowing down our rhythm, unless we have trained outside of the stressful situation to begin with.

Hopefully, as you’ve read through The Compassionate Equestrian this summer, you will have tried the recommended meditations and breathing exercises. Even as little as ten minutes of the practice (see Dr. Schoen’s meditations and mindfulness exercises on pages 70-73 and 132-135) before working with your horse, can make a tremendous difference to your interactions and the subtle nuances of your pending activity with your horse. They are so sensitive to silent language that breathing is of tremendous importance insofar as conveying our state of mind and energy. Even without being stressed, we can find ourselves distracted by multitasking, texting, e-mails, or noise in general, inadvertently approaching our horses with an elevated respiratory rate that we might not even be aware of. They certainly are affected—as they have no other way of understanding our mood and behaviors other than by sensing the energy and body-state (i.e. relaxed, tense, angry) with which they are being approached.


“One way to master stress is to be aware of your breathing. When people feel panicked or unconsciously stressed, they tend to take short, shallow gasps of air. The resulting lack of oxygen restricts blood flow and causes muscles to tense. The way you breathe affects your whole body. Full, deep breathing is an effective way to reduce tension, feel relaxed, and reduce stress.” 

Once you have practiced some form of breathwork—and there are various approaches, as noted in the above link—try it with your horse, and see if the two of you can breathe in sync. It’s a fun exercise, and can be a great way to deepen your bonds and relationship, besides relieving some of the tension of any athletic performance required by both of you in your chosen discipline. Whether at a walk or whether you’re working on canter pirouettes, exercise requires the engagement of all body systems from the muscles to the mind, and as compassionate equestrians, we always want to return to asking the question, “What is most compassionate for this horse?” We want to be aware of how much of the activity is enough, and when we need to drop the reins, take a break, and return to slower, deeper breathing. By allowing for these moments, your training will progress more effectively, and both you and your horse will learn to look forward to those times when you can take a breather, literally, before returning to the more intense segments of your workout.

If you have practiced breathwork on your own, and with your horse, inevitably the “panic button” moments will diminish, or at least become easier to handle as your horse begins to look to you as his confident “herd leader.” Interestingly, you will also likely find that your breathing practices have a similar effect on other humans around you in your personal and business relationships too. You can always say, “Everything I know, I learned from horses.”

If you would like to learn mindfulness from some of the world’s best human practitioners, this upcoming online conference is a great place to begin:

Learn Mindfulness & Meditation

The Mindfulness Summit (October 1-31, 2015) is a not-for-profit project with a mission to make mindfulness mainstream. We’re making high quality mindfulness training accessible to everyone and supporting mindfulness based charities at the same time.


The Compassionate Equestrian blog is written by TCE coauthor Susan Gordon unless otherwise noted. Dr. Schoen’s personal blog and website may be found at http://www.drschoen.com

About the blogger:

Susan Gordon is 55 years old and lives on Salt Spring Island, B.C., Canada. She turned professional as a rider in 1983, upon the invitation of Maclay champion (1973), the late Michael Patrick. Susan trained eventing, hunter, jumper and dressage horses, apprenticing with other top trainers in her chosen disciplines. She taught freelance from 2002 until retiring in 2010, bringing elements of meditation practice, music, dance, art, and an interest in non-invasive, holistic therapies to her work with students and their horses. She has since completed courses in sustainability (University of British Columbia and University of Guelph), and documentary filmmaking (Pull Focus Film School, Vancouver). She is a nationally ranked competitive masters and age-group runner in the 400m track to ½ Marathon Road Race distances. The Compassionate Equestrian is her first book. Her second book also released in June 2015: Iridescent Silence of the Pacific Shores (Gordon/D. Wahlsten 2015), a book of abstract water photography with a strong environmental statement, and DVD featuring original Orca calls and music composed by Ron Gordon, Ph.D. 


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