The Athletic Rider: Breathe Deep

 The way you’re breathing could be affecting your ride more than you think. Leah Hinnefield brings us the details.

The human body is most efficient when we breathe with our diaphragm (also called stomach breathing.) When we stomach breathe, we properly use our primary respiratory muscles (the diaphragm and the tranverse abdominals,) and do not overuse our secondary respiratory muscles (the scalenes, sternocleidomastoid, elevator scapulae and upper trapezius.)


Say what? I bet you thought you were getting a riding tip, not a lesson in anatomy! Let me simplify this a bit and it will all start to make sense. When a rider stomach breathes, she uses the muscles above and around her stomach. When she chest breathes (also called dysfunctional breathing,) she uses the muscles around her upper chest and neck. Chest breathing can turn into something called habitual shallow breathing and can result in the overuse of those upper body muscles. 

Symptoms of habitual shallow breathing can include headaches, lightheadedness, dizziness and poor upper extremity posture (now can you see how we are connecting the dots to the saddle.) Poor upper extremity posture (including shoulders, chest, neck and head) creates tension in these muscles causing them to be over-active (engaged or tense.) If you have ever been told that you need to relax your shoulders or open your chest, that you need to stop poking your chin forward or should align your neck with your spine, you may struggle to do as you are told until you correct your breathing patterns — and the resulting muscle imbalances.

The first step to correcting the improper breathing patterns and addressing the poor upper body posture is to have your rider fitness trainer create a corrective exercise program that will address the muscular imbalances created from habitual shallow breathing. This program should include self-myofascial release through foam rolling and stretching of the over-active muscles. To learn if you are breathing with your stomach, place your hands on your lower ribs and see if you feel the rise and fall as you inhale and exhale. If you are still unsure ask your fitness trainer to show you the correct way to breathe with your stomach. Remember, it may take some practice before stomach breathing becomes a habit. 

Here are two other breathing tips to implement during your rider fitness training:

1. When lifting weights, exhale on the exertion portion of the exercise and inhale on the relaxation portion, and
2. During cardio exercise, breathe in and out through your nose until the intensity of your cardio session increases.

breathe 2

Leah Hinnefeld is a lifelong equestrian who spent over a decade studying hoof health and metabolism in horses before turning her attention to rider fitness. Leah is a personal trainer certified by the National Academy of Sports Fitness and offers Virtual Fitness Training for riders and horse lovers. You can learn more about how to get fit to ride at Please contact Leah if you are interested in learning more about the Rider Fitness Boot Camps offered by The Athletic Rider.

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