Knowing all the technical details of riding is certainly a critical component towards being successful — but equally important is mindfulness. Equestrian life coach Julie Saillant has the details.
One of the biggest challenges many equestrians face has nothing to do with the mechanics of riding, their horse, or the competition they face in the ring. The battle starts in the mind.
Did you know that you are sending out either positive or negative energy towards your equine best friend every time you meet up? And that your horse picks up on that energy as clearly as you see a stop sign on the road?
In a ground-breaking study, scientists found that “horses can not only read human facial expressions, but they can also remember a person’s previous emotional state when they meet them later that day – and, crucially, that they adapt their behavior accordingly.” See the study here.
Essentially, horses have a memory for emotion. They will remember your face when you are happy or angry and the horses in the study showed increased heart rate to more aggressive facial expressions.
In another study, it was proven that horses can analyze both human facial expression and voice tones to perceive human emotions. When the horse sees a facial expression that does not match the voice tone (a happy face with an angry voice), they stared at the incongruent match longer than a matched facial expression and voice. The bottom line is, they know when you are faking it and masking your fear. To them, being incongruent is worse than just admitting “I’m scared” or “I don’t trust myself”. The more you try to fool them, the more uncomfortable they get, just as any human would. See the study here.
To combat fear, anxiety, confusion, and any negative mindsets, mindfulness for equestrians has risen to the top as an important topic of discussion, no matter your discipline.
This is not “woo-woo” and it’s not a new age theory, but is now backed by science. The definition of mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are, what we’re doing, and not over reacting or being overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.
Mindfulness allows the rider to be in complete mind-body-soul alignment, giving you the opportunity to link up with your horse both mentally and energetically.
In short, by becoming mindful of your body language, the energy you are projecting, the intonation when you speak, and how you touch your horse is the first step in creating harmony.
This process is extremely effective at:
- Lowering your heart rate to overcome anxiety and reduce fear.
- Create openness and initiating or strengthening the bond with your horse.
- Gives you the opportunity to leave your baggage from a bad day at the door BEFORE you greet your horse, putting you in a positive frame of mind.
- Visualization of where you want your horse to go, what you want your horse to do, and how you both as a team want to execute. This is where the fun begins: you think an instruction and your horse picks up on your mental cues.
Let’s look at an example of how you might ask your horse for a simple walk. How many of the cues listed below do you use? A few or all of them?
- Stiffen your body when you take up the reins?
- Use leg pressure?
- Use your spurs?
- Cluck and use your voice?
- Most importantly, is your mind still on walking or are you already thinking of potential issues at the canter?
By contrast, this is what a walk would look like being asked from a mindful state:
- Balance yourself in the saddle and locate your center.
- Use the smallest amount of leg pressure and gently pick up the reins.
- Be completely present and think “walk.” Put an image in your mind of a horse or other animal walking releasing as soon as he moves off.
- Being mindful eliminates as much chatter as possible and encourages only speaking when necessary, so your horse is actually listening to what you say instead of tuning you out.
You are co-creating on a common frequency so what you think in your mind your horse will pick up on.
So, how do we get to this positive place of mindfulness? Below are three steps a rider can take to create mindfulness.
STEP 1: RELAXING HORSE & RIDER BY CREATING HARMONY FROM THE GROUND
To communicate with your horse on a common frequency, you must learn to be calm, patient, and centered. So often, we enter the barn from a stressful day at work and carry that frustration from the office to the barn and right up to our horse’s stall. Bear in mind that the energy you radiate out will be reflected back at you from your horse.
To create harmony from within, you must release as much stress as possible. Do this by breathing in deeply through your nose and imagine breathing in pure white light from the highest frequency available to you, surrounding your whole body.
When you breathe out, all of the negative energy comes out such as anger, sadness, frustration, anxiety and irritation. Whatever you are holding onto should be released, while breathing in new light to relax and raise your vibration. Remember to keep your eye soft and facial expression and body free from tension.
Once you are calm and centered, take your horse out to be groomed. Mindful practices include:
- Putting the cell phone away completely or put the ringer on silent.
- Keep your concentration on your horse, not on other riders.
- Be on the lookout for signs of discomfort, pain and stiffness as you groom.
- Groom your horse in a rhythmic and relaxing way, humming to your horse quietly is usually very calming for them.
STEP 2: GROUNDWORK FOR MOVING INTO PERFECT FLOW
Before groundwork starts, visualization and having a plan are key to you having a successful ride. You should have a plan and a backup plan in case everything falls apart. This is your chance to visualize what the perfect lesson will look like.
When visualizing, be as detailed as possible including:
- How you feel in the arena.
- What you and your horse see when riding.
- Any areas where he may spook or lose concentration and what you will do to bring him back to your attention.
- Visualize the lesson in detail and make sure to have a safe space for you both to go if either one of you gets nervous.
- Lead your horse to the arena or ring in a commanding, yet open and clear state of mind. Pay attention to his mental state i.e. are there other horses in the ring that may make a sensitive horse nervous? You may need to practice more deep breathing to remain calm and centered.
Lunge your horse remaining fully present on how he is reacting to your cues and where you may be holding tension in your body.
- Release tension in your shoulders and neck.
- Keep your voice slow, low, and steady.
- If you use a whip, keep it low and use sparingly.
- Concentrate on your breathing. Many horses have been trained to slow down when you breathe in deeply and think “walk”.
- Keep it fun! This is the part of the journey that should not be a chore, but gives you both a chance to be happy and enjoy each other’s company.
STEP 3: MINDFUL TECHNIQUES UNDER SADDLE
Sometimes a horse and rider may get tense when working under saddle, even if you have been mindful throughout the whole process of grooming and tacking up. Below are mindful practices you can use under saddle.
- Serpentines are a great way to encourage suppleness and relaxation.
- Practice your transitions from halt-walk-halt and walk-trot-walk remembering to bring an image into your mind of what you want your horse to do.
- Use lateral work like a shoulder in.
- Release and praise for every try your horse offers.
Remember to have fun with these exercises. They are simple, but a great way for you both to reset your attention and offer up calming signals to each other. A relaxed but mindful rider creates space for a horse to have a fun experience. The more fun you bring to the lesson, the better the experience.
Julie is offering a Mindful Riding Masterclass: check out her website here for more information.