Yoga of Riding

In the past couple of months I’ve started going to yoga the day after my riding lessons. Riding is hard on the body (especially in conjunction with my almost completely sedentary lifestyle) and yoga has really helped with putting my body back together and strengthening my back muscles. Usually I ride on Saturdays and then go to a Sunday afternoon yoga class; it’s also a nice start to the week. This week I ended up riding Sunday morning and therefore will do both on the same day. It got me thinking about how there are a lot of similarities between the two disciplines.

When you ride with equitation in mind, there is a great deal of body awareness needed to not only keep yourself in correct position, but to effectively communicate with your horse. For example, I have a tendency to twist my right wrist about 90 degrees at this one part of the ring that is slightly downhill. This spot is a challenge for a few reasons: 1) it is near the entrance/exit to the ring, which the horses have a heightened awareness of since it is the path back to their warm, hay-filled stalls and 2) because of the slight downhill grade, it presents difficulty in the horse’s footing, balance, and stride. The ideal is to keep your horse at an even pace and stride throughout the ring; on a completely flat surface this is easier. But going downhill, the horse’s weight is shifted unevenly between front and back hooves. Being that this hill is on a turn, they also have a tendency to drop their left shoulders and cut the corner, throwing their left-right balance off as well. As a rider, going downhill can pull you forward. It’s important to keep your back straight, chest open and head up while sitting slightly back on your sit bones. If you keep your balance this way, you can help your horse keep his front-back balance. In addition, slight pressure with the inside leg and a small amount of tension on the outside rein will prevent him from cutting the corner, keeping him left-right balanced and making a nice round bend around the turn. This is where my wrist twist comes in. I was unaware that I was doing it, so focused on all the other elements of the turn. My instructor pointed it out to me. She often makes position suggestions based on first looking at how the horse is moving and then searching for the problem in the rider’s position. She saw that my horse’s gait was not flowing smoothly. We were generally balanced but kind of choppy and awkward going down the hill. Once she pointed out my incorrect wrist position and reminded me to achieve tension on the reins through a give and take from my elbows instead, everything changed in an instant. My horse’s head came up, his weight shifted, and his stride smoothed out. And that made everything else I was focused so hard on much easier too.

That feels so much like what happens in a yoga class. When moving into a new pose, I’m thinking hard about trying to juggle all the pieces of my body into place. Sometimes the instructor reminds the class to bring awareness to a part of the body that might be neglected in thinking about the more obvious parts. It’s amazing when you make one little adjustment, one tiny change and everything just clicks. Your body seems to flow and you stop thinking so hard. You breathe and relax into the position and that, for me, is kind of what it’s all about whether I’m doing yoga, or horseback riding, or anything else I do. That’s the moment where I feel free and powerful and right.

In Aldous Huxley’s last novel, Island, he talks about bringing awareness to every aspect of life. There are talking mynah birds all over the island trained to speak the words “Attention” and “Here and now, boys” as a reminder to sustain this awareness.  He writes:

“Be fully aware of what you’re doing, and work becomes the yoga of work, play becomes the yoga of play, everyday living becomes the yoga of everyday living.”

As I continue to learn to bring awareness to myself and my horse, I feel like I’m engaging in the yoga of riding.

Push for Perfection?

I didn’t post about last week’s ride because when I got home, freezing and beat up, I fell asleep for hours in a wide swath of sunshine on the bed, still in my breeches. Nothing that bad happened. It was just brutally cold and windy. My horse, a large Thoroughbred named Professor, is a big, energetic boy in normal circumstances. In those biting temperatures, he was ready to GO, charging forward and tossing his head to escape the pressure of my half-halts as I attempted to slow him to a pace reasonable enough for a ring full of other horses. With a martingale and a double rein, he was still simply too strong for me. We ended up trotting in small circles in one part of the ring for the whole lesson, lacking space and strength to do anything else. Then on the ride back to the barn, the wind picked up a stray plastic garbage can and it came skidding across the pavement in the traffic circle toward the horses, freaking them out. Professor wheeled in the opposite direction, which happened to be straight into traffic. It took everything in my arms and back to keep him still and safe. I was dunzo when I got home.

That’s why this week I was relieved to be greeted by a milder, sunny day and a ride on my favorite horse, Aladdin. I just needed a sane, productive ride after last week’s shitshow. But walking to the barn today, hoping for some respite, I wondered about my attitude. Shouldn’t I be pushing myself? A challenging horse can only make me a better rider.

Finding the right balance in how far to push myself has always been one of the toughest things in life for me. I want to push myself so I can get stronger and better. But it’s possible to push myself too hard and risk injury or burn out. My perfectionist tendencies have prodded me too far in that direction before, like when in one weekend I biked 50 miles, had softball practice (at which I also pitched the entirety of batting practice) and then attempted to do level 2 of Jillian Michael’s 30 Day Shred, during which I injured my quad so badly that I couldn’t get up off the floor. My pitching performance in the softball game later that week was piss poor because I still couldn’t put much strain on the muscle. After episodes like that, I vow to go easier on myself. But in my impatience I become a bully. Dissatisfied with my progress, I’ll start pushing myself again, wondering if I’ve been too easy on myself all along and thinking about the success I could have had if I’d only been less of a soft lazyass. And so it seesaws, back and forth. This seems to be the only way I ever acquaint myself with balance: I get a glimpse of it as I pass by while running back and forth between extremes.

I think that it was a good thing to have a break this week. Aladdin is small, quiet, and responsive, so I didn’t have to push myself to contend with a challenging horse. The thing is, I grew up competing with girls who only ever rode immaculately-trained pushbutton ponies and they looked like perfect pretty princesses out there in the show ring, but in my opinion that’s not riding. I rode every horse in the barn, running the gamut from sweet-tempered old friendlies to hot-blooded, tweaker Thoroughbreds, most of them outright batshit crazy in their own individual ways, and because of it in my prime I could handle just about anything.

Today I got to ride a horse that was easier to manage and because of that I was able to work hard on my equitation–my position, my horse’s balance and stride and bend around the corners–all the little things that one would be judged on in a show. Aladdin tends to drift inwardly on the long stretches and then can get stiff on the outside around the turns; so I worked my inside leg pushing him over to the rail and bending him around it on the corners. Then the next time around, I tried to do the same thing with more subtle movements of the reins and of my legs. Instead of just being a parcel on the horse’s back, I worked on uniting us, making us a single entity working in rhythm together.

These things may be subtle, but they aren’t easy. Every horse has his quirks; smoothing them over without looking like you’re doing anything and also maintaining correct position in every part of your body is no small feat. But equitation is about balance and subtlety, not perfection. I think that’s something it would be helpful to remember in the rest of my life as well.