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Just Breathe

 | Published on 6/22/2020

Just Breathe

Congratulations. You’ve thus far managed to survive the Coronavirus.

Now if you can survive the summer heat, you’re golden.

Of course, we live in Florida.No use complaining about the heat, right? It’s a challenge to be embraced!

If you are like many people, you walk outside in the morning to feed your trusty steed only to be smacked in the face by a blanket of heavy air that seems more akin to breathing water. But you persevere.

You groom and tack your horse, and you’re ready to ride. You warm up your horse only to find that after a couple of canter transitions, you’re breathing as though you’ve just finished a high-altitude marathon on foot.  How can this possibly be? You have no problems at the gym! You’ve always had an above average amount of endurance.  What’s going on?

Perhaps you’ve fallen into the dreaded realm of “the neck breather.” Your need for oxygen has you gasping like a fish rather than using your diaphragm to lift your sternum as you breathe.

While breathing seems like it should be a natural occurrence that requires no thought, learning to maximize your breathing potential can go a long way in improving your riding. According to  Galina Denzel, coauthor of Eat Well, Move Well, Live Well: 52 ways to Feel Better in a Week, “We tend to hold our breath as a way to stabilize the torso and create pressure around the abs.”

When we think of time spent in the saddle, it’s all about the core, so it’s very easy to see how we might hold our breath in an effort to try to maximize the effectiveness and add strength to the core.  Combine that with trying to listen to and implement instruction, or trying to hear, remember, and ride a test, it’s really a wonder we’re breathing at all!

Unfortunately, knowingly or unknowingly attempting to stabilize the core by holding one’s breath will only take the rider into a downward spiral. As riding becomes more intense, the rider actually seeks to hold her breath more to maximize effectiveness to the point that holding the breath actually becomes a crutch. That’s not good.

Regular oxygen is an absolute requirement for feeding our muscles. Running and walking tend to promote rhythmic breathing, and muscles receive much needed oxygen.  However, riding tends to be a horse of a different color.  For one thing, transitioning from a four beat to a two beat to a three-beat rhythm requires a little more attention to breathing than the steady slap, slap, slap that occurs when we humans run or walk.Then, it seems as though the rhythm of breathing finds us.  No searching or contemplation required.

Asking for a segment of canter work , seeking that upward, powerful, jump, jump, jump while keeping your horse straight, collected and forward, can be likened to a high intensity workout in an interval training routine at the gym. In an attempt to get more oxygen fast, you may find yourself taking big breaths in through your mouth. However, this actually decreases the body’s ability to release oxygen into the cells which ultimately results in loss of control of your position.  You become more like a wheezing rag doll rather than an elegant, controlled equestrian.

According to STRIDE member and F.E.I. competitor, Petra Wilder, “You must learn to breathe like a yogi. Inhale through the nose, exhale through the mouth.” She suggests inhaling deeply through the nose for a couple of seconds and exhaling through the mouth for a few seconds in a relaxed, rated fashion. Observe her in a horse show, and you’ll see her appearing cool and composed in the ring on even the hottest of days.

The more consistent and even your breathing, the more you’ll be able to utilize the nitric oxide you’re getting into your body.  This helps dilate the blood vessels and increases oxygenated blood flow to the heart, helping it to work more efficiently.

If you still discount breathing as something too innate to make much of a difference, keep in mind that James Nestor has written an entire book on the subject titled Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art. Not only will you achieve more core control and relaxation while riding, but proper breathing can improve your sense of well being and improve your health in a myriad of ways. So as the sun holds you in its grasp this summer, remember-just breathe!