The Bit UK – Rider Tension

Rider TensionThe Training Bit – The Bit UK welcomed expert trainers to offer their help, advice and support to their readers across all disciplines, including Dressage, Show Jumping, Eventing and Polo.  I was honoured to be included as one of The Bit UK’s trainers.  They describe me as …

“bringing my ground-up opinions and advice to those who look to self help”!

Black Horse
The Dressage Tipster
– Rider Tension

NICOLA DOLBY asked – “I think my main hurdle is rider tension. It effects all aspects of my riding including making me grip, reducing my feel and not taking a consistent contact. This of course has a detrimental effect on my horse’s way of going. This book would really help me sort out this annoying problem!”

My response:

“Ahh, tension – the dressage riders nemesis.  Nicola, without question the most underestimated, undervalued, unappreciated, underrated tool in a rider’s toolbox is breathing.  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 muscle atrophy and exercise intolerance.

Rider tension can be helped with a) a few very basic exercises to improve the way you breathe and b) an awareness of how your breathing affects your ability to work with your horse.

Deep diaphragmatic breathing raises levels of blood oxygen thus improving physical fitness and mental performance.  Every breath you share with your horse is an authentic cue either to relax – or not. Learning to breathe from the diaphragm will compel you to sit up; your chest will be able to expand; your ribcage will be able to lift; your vertebrae will most definitely re-align; your muscles should soften; your jaw will relax; your elbows could unlock and your legs will have the ability to 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.

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. This is very different from your breathing when you are calm, confident and in control when your breaths are smooth, deep and rhythmic.

Poor posture, anxious thinking, tension and pressure will usually result in breathing patterns which are less-than-ideal and which frequently involves rapid, upper chest breathing only. Conversely anxiety and tension can hinder relaxed breathing coupled with the physical effort you are exerting this can really zap your energy and hinder efficient muscle usage. Having an appreciation of the benefits of ‘good’ breathing when you ride is a very simple, easy to do, yet hugely positive component to correct posture.

The bizarre truth is that learning to control your breathing is not some 10 week course where you need to seek professional help, pay exorbitant fees and work hard to achieve. All you need to do is take a deep breath, put the emphasis on breathing from the diaphragm (or belly) instead of the chest; thus producing feelings of calm and relaxation.

By relearning to use your diaphragm to reduce the rate and regulate your breathing you will be taking an important first step in promoting relaxation in your riding and your horse’s way of going. This slow, relaxed and deep method of breathing takes a little time to acquire and can be practised at every opportunity, not just in the saddle. What could be more natural than an act that we do some 20,000 times each day? It is a fact that the majority of us take our breathing for granted. Recognise that you are re- educating your breathing mechanism after what has probably been years of misuse. Your breathing technique can create relaxation and rhythm. Isn’t this the essence of all things dressage?

Rider Tension – Exercise No. 1

  • Walk your horse
  • Inhale and keep your shoulders down, let your stomach expand and get ‘fat’ while you keep your shoulders down
  • By doing so, you’re lowering your diaphragm and taking in a really deep breath
  • Exhale, keep your back straight (do not collapse in the saddle), and feel your seat getting heavier in the saddle.

It’s as simple as that, the better you breathe, the more quickly you’ll get relaxation. Do this for about 5 to 10 minutes, practice whilst out on a hack.

Rider Tension Exercise No. 2

  • On the Ground
  • 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.

Hope this helps

Patricia – The Dressage Tipster

This article was first published at The Bit UK

3 Responses

  1. Thank you! Very interesting reading, and something I’m guilty of not doing… breathing properly. I practiced this the whole way around my hack out today, and even trotting towards ‘home’ no tension or speeding up, which usually happens, just a lovely loose trot.

  2. great exercises! just recently, started to do yoga and breathing is essential there as well – was pretty hard to do it correctly first, but now I am also using it while riding especially when I am nervous…

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