Stress follows you everywhere, even into your ground work and rides with your horse, and it is powerful. It reminds you how much stuff you have to do and how many things you've been putting off. It's the adversary that puts strain on your mind, body and spirit. It makes you feel unmotivated and convinces you that your workout is too hard. If only you could eliminate stress completely out of your life and take a vacation at the beach without any responsibility. Unfortunately, your schedule is overloaded and time is constrained. One way you can deal with stress and not let it affect your ride is by combining a workout for your body with a workout for your mind. You can do it with what I call mind-body riding.
So many times I have seen horse owners get so mad at their horse because of a bad ride, a bad spook, or something else. The owner gets off of the horse pissed off and declaring, “Today, this horse is for sale…CHEAP!” But what they don’t take the time to acknowledge is that they had a bad day and took it out on their horse. We all know how horses pick up on our emotions. Through the practice of mind-body riding, we can learn to leave our bad emotions at the barn door, come into the present moment, have great rides and enjoy our horse!
This idea is nothing new. Henry David Thoreau was aware of mind-body walking more than 100 years ago when he wrote, "I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit."
We as horse enthusiasts are taking this to a whole different level by applying it to our riding. This component can be accomplished by focusing on breathing while warming up your horse at the walk or listening to the rhythm of the gait at a four beat walk or the two beat rhythm of the trot—walking just happens to provide one of the greatest vehicles for melding mind with body.
What Is Mind-Body Riding?
Mind-body riding can be thought of as a spiritual approach riding. It's ridinging that is spirited in nature and thoughtful. It's aerobic mindfulness. In other words, it's something you're probably not used to doing.
If you're like most people, your mind never stops thinking of everything you have to do and what is going on in your life. We all know how our schedules become over loaded. For years, our society has engaged in mindless exercise. We talk on the phone while walking or listen to music while we run or have the radio blaring while we clean stalls. Mind-body riding means becoming aware of the talking/noise and choosing to shut if off and choose peace and quiet.
What Can Mind-Body Riding Do for You?Mindfulness is scientifically proven to increase your overall health and well-being. Whether it's lowering blood pressure or decreasing levels of "bad" cholesterol, physical activity provides numerous physical benefits and riding is definitely physical. So let’s explore what happens when we combine the two and call it mind-body riding.
First of all, it can reduce stress. When riding becomes a mind-body workout, the mental benefits increase. The most obvious benefit is a reduction in stress, and therefore, stress-related illnesses.
Second, it can assist you in achieving your goals with your horse. Mind-body riding also allows you to achieve what you might never have thought possible. For example, there might be a particular maneuver you find difficult with your horse. However, if you were to repeat to yourself the mantra, "I am perfectly capable of accomplishing this maneuver and so is my horse.” The maneuver will become easier. This is a result of the mind-body connection.
And last, mind-body riding can enhance your personal growth. Mind-body riding improves self-esteem, stimulates creativity, keeps exercise from getting boring, and allows for present moment awareness. You learn to stay in the present moment as you feel and connect with your horse. Pay attention to how your horse’s feet strike the ground and you become aware of the way your body is in sync with his or her body motion.
Learning to Focus
So how do you experience a mind-body ride? First, you start by tuning out the meaningless mind chatter in your head and begin to focus. While you are at the walk, trot, canter, halt, etc., focus on how it feels, focus on your breath, and focus on the here and now. Try to not think about yesterday’ ride or what your expectations are for today’s ride. Of course, this occurs though practice. It may take time to learn to concentrate and be in the present moment enough to experience this connection on a higher level. But don’t give up! With time and patience, it will come naturally to you!
Your mind most likely will stray in several different directions, but keep bringing it back to you and your horse. It will be challenging to focus for an entire ride. So set a goal of focusing for just five or 10 minutes at a time.
You don't have to do this for every ride. However, I have found that by doing this during your warmup, one becomes more grounded and in the present moment and therefore ends up having a better ride. I do recommend turning the radio off in the barn and leaving your cell phone on your tack trunk.
Activities to Bring Mind and Body in Tune
To experience mind-body riding, try adding these exercises to your rides:
Breathing—This is such an important part of mind-body riding because it gives you physical energy and the meditative aspect. Focus on breathing into your belly so that you feel your stomach and diaphragm expand. Then establish a rhythm with the footsteps of your horse. Consider counting in rhythm with the gate of the horse "one, two, three, four" for a walk “one-two, one-two” for the trot and “one-two-three, one-two-three” for the canter or lope. Don’t forget to breathe as you inhale and exhale to the beat of your horse hooves. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth, pursing your lips to control the exhale.
Visualizing—Start by thinking of a major goal that you're working toward. Perhaps you are starting to work on lead changes or maybe you are still working on picking up the correct lead. It doesn’t matter what your personal goal is, but what does matter is that you ride as if you already accomplished these goals. In your mind, congratulate yourself for having met your goal or tell yourself how wonderful it feels. Feel the rush in your body, that incredible high that comes flowing through your heart.
Repeating affirmations—In order to alleviate your negative self-talk that tells you can’t do something, create a positive phrase and think of it as you ride. You can say a prayer or repeat a mantra. By keeping it simple, using one or two-syllable words, it will keep you in a positive present moment.
For example, you might recite "I trust my horse. I love my trust. I trust my love" one syllable or word per step or “let go and let god”-whatever works for you. It isn’t a right or wrong thing. When you do this, you'll pull yourself into the present moment and be more in tune with your breath and your horse. You'll also start breathing more deeply which will boost your energy. Most importantly, you'll complete your ride restored and strengthened for the next ride!
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