Without question the most underestimated, undervalued, unappreciated, under-rated tool in the rider’s toolbox is breathing. I should know I am guilty of not tapping into the power that correct breathing gives you. I have been told to learn to breathe properly and virtually ignored the advice. Really can’t tell you why, it seems that I know best and I consider being advised to breathe as no advice at all.
I’ve written some posts on how to breathe when riding, paying lip service to it really. I’d be interested to know how many of you have thought “Wow, that’s a real corker, I’ll go an give that a go”- I’ll wager not many of you. However, now that I understand clearly the benefits of ‘good’ breathing I have to say that I am more than a little miffed with myself that I didn’t take it more seriously much earlier in my training and have been looking around for someone to blame for not instilling in me just how significant it is. On this basis I am not going to be the one who does not tell you!
Breathing has proven to be one of the easiest and most effective ways to foster relaxation, build confidence, and direct focus. Breathing oxygenates every cell of your body, from your brain to your vital organs. Without sufficient oxygen your body becomes more susceptible to health problems. In a study published in The Lancet, cardiac patients who took 12 to 14 shallow breaths per minute (six breaths per minute is considered optimal) were more likely to have low levels of blood oxygen, which “may impair skeletal, muscle and metabolic function, and lead to muscle atrophy and exercise intolerance.”
So you see, every time I struggled to keep going, through lack of oxygen to my muscles and my lungs and quickly became exhausted, every time my vast efforts sent me purple in the face, every time my muscles ached through sheer exertion, could have been avoided with a) a few basic exercises to improve the way I breathe and b) an awareness of how my breathing affects my ability to work with my horse. Deep diaphragmatic breathing raises levels of blood oxygen thus improving physical fitness and mental performance.
If you are anything like me, you want me someone to give you that magical positional tweak that will revolutionise your riding and God knows I’ve given you enough of those in my blog posts over the past year or so, but as my training progresses and things click into place, we are looking at refining everything, relaxing everything, making it more subtle, stripping it back to its heart and as a result I have had to learn to control my breathing whilst in the saddle. It seems that every breath I share with my horse is an authentic cue either to relax or not.
Breathing correctly means your chest will expand; your ribcage will lift; your vertebrae will re-align; your muscles will soften; your jaw will relax; your elbows will unlock and your legs will hang long and soft.
Breathing correctly means that the oxygen gets to your brain and you are able to think more clearly; communication is calm and responsive.
Breathing it seems is a bit of a lame suggestion in the face of all that you need to do to ride well, such an insignificant idea barely warrants a try doesn’t it? But in my opinion that does not make it any less of a phenomenon but more of one. It is simple and as such should be embraced because ‘simplicity is the key to brilliance’.
“Relax!”, “Stop holding your breath!” Whilst these phrases are intended to be helpful, what affect do they really have? When you hit difficulty the first thing to go is the quality of your breathing, perhaps you hold your breath or begin breathing in short, shallow breaths, irregularly, very different from your breathing when you are calm, confident, and in control when your breaths are smooth, deep and rhythmic.
Take a Deep Breath!
The bizarre truth is that learning to control your breathing is not some 10 week course in which you need to seek professional help, pay exorbitant fees and work hard to achieve. All you need to do is take a deep breath. Basically, the emphasis is on breathing from the diaphragm (or belly) instead of the chest, as this produces feelings of being calm and relaxed.
- Inhale deeply and slowly through your nose – feel your chest expand top to bottom. Feel your belly push outward as if you were inflating a balloon.
- Hold for a moment before exhaling – concentrate on feeling calm and patient.
- Exhale gently through your mouth at a steady rate – be sure to exhale for a beat longer than you inhaled. Feel your belly flatten. Feel the muscles in your arms and shoulders relax while your body melts gently towards the ground. Let your muscles enjoy this moment of relaxation.
Drop your shoulders and let go. Breathe deep, expand your rib cage to give your heart room and exhale the calm. Inhale. Think of what you want to achieve in a positive light. Exhale. Inhale. We will do a fabulously flowing shoulder-in today. Exhale. The deep breath is actually an act of self-confidence in itself.
Taking a deep breath can be used effectively in a lesson, before going into the arena at a show, during any breaks in your schooling or even during a hack. It helps you maintain your composure, control your anxiety, keep your focus, and aids your body in getting the oxygen it needs to operate to its full capacity.
What could be more natural than an act that we do some 20,000 times each day? So, do you know if you breathe correctly? It is a fact that the majority of us take our breathing for granted. Given that often the very act of taking a deep breath brings your focus to something that you have complete control over (your breathing) by utilising ‘taking a deep breath’ you have taken proactive steps and decided not to simply wait for things to happen. Your breathing technique can create relaxation and rhythm. Isn’t this the essence of all things Dressage?
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