Yoga For Life: Harmonizing the Relationship Between You and Your Horse

By Colleen McLaughlin

It's hard to believe that creating the perfect relationship with your horse can start with one simple breath. Yoga practitioners have long known that the basic act of inhaling and exhaling can channel positive energy and create harmony that radiates through mind, body, and soul. Today, yoga is taking the United States by storm and has become one of the trendiest workout routines popping up at gyms and studios all over the country. Along with the estimated 18 million yoga practitioners in America are an increasing number of equestrians who are discovering the ancient art of yoga and incorporating the philosophy and physical movements into their riding routines.

Yoga, or yuj, a Sanskrit term meaning ‘to connect or unite', originated centuries ago in India. While there is no absolute definition to fully capture the essence of yoga, the basic goal is to harmonize mind, body, and soul. To most, yoga is a life long study involving a series of mental and physical exercises that emphasizes, above all else, establishing balance, body awareness, and a calm mind. A quiet mind and relaxed body along with rhythmical, controlled breathing combine to create harmony and union within the individual and between the individual and his or her surroundings.

There's more to yoga than most people realize. The great body of Vedic literature, written thousands of years ago by Indian authors of the Vedic civilization, embodies the many facets of yoga study from physical exercises to meditation and from spiritual to commonsense guidance. Today yoga has spread from East to West and comes in a variety of customized practices. Perhaps the most popular type of yoga is Hatha-yoga which focuses on physical movements and breathing exercises.

'A human body is like a wind instrument,' explained Linda Benedik, professional horsewoman and co-author of Yoga for Equestrians: A New Path for Achieving Union with the Horse. 'You need to know how to play it in order to ride effectively.' Benedik, who started her riding career in Maryland before moving to California, came up with the idea for her book while studying for a degree in equestrian studies at Lake Erie College in Ohio. During college, Benedik studied voice and learned the importance of abdominal control and breath manipulation. Later, she and her mother began studying yoga.

'I began to integrate breathing into my work as a riding teacher,' Benedik said. 'No one really knew how to breathe correctly. I would see riders lift their shoulders and their upper chests when they inhaled.' She began dedicating 5-15 minutes to unmounted breathing lessons. Students are taught to breathe deeper by expanding their lower abdomen which draws the diaphragm down and pushes the internal organs out. As this happens, the abdominal area creates a vacuum allowing the lungs to inflate more fully. Lifting the diaphragm up allows the lungs to exhale. A rider who accomplishes controlled, rhythmical breathing patterns is balanced, centered, confident, and more open to learning.

'The average person isn't thinking about their anatomy,' explained Benedik. 'Riders need to know how their bodies function in order to ride effectively.' In fact, a rider without self awareness tends to have an insecure seat and ends up compensating by holding on with the hands and gripping with the legs. 'It's like riding with the brake on all the time,' said Benedik, who calls these riders ‘tight little squeeze boxes'.

'Riders hit a plateau and can't move to advanced work because they've developed a way of riding that doesn't allow the horse to be how he should be,' said Benedik. 'We're prone to be active on the horse rather than passive. We need to learn polarities and balance the two.'

As if that weren't enough, there's the stress factor. Tension caused by the workplace, families, and life in general leads to tightness between the shoulders, in the hip joints, and lower back.

'Everyone carries it in the same place,' says Benedik. 'The frustrations are taken out on the horses by using longer spurs, stronger bits, and draw reins.'

Think about this for a minute. Our horses are sensitive creatures. They can swat a fly with the precision of a sniper and even react to changes in barometric pressures. How often have you felt your horse shut off and stop responding to your aids? Irritating wiggling in the saddle, tight fists on the reins, his rider's legs banging away with every stride, or being asked by his rider to execute a movement he's not able to do can make a horse go numb.

'The horse will brace, block, and lose sensitivity,' says Benedik. But don't blame your horse: the rider is responsible, and the rider is also the one who will break the cycle by becoming more aware of body and mind. In their book, Yoga for Equestrians, Benedik and co-author Veronica Wirth provide the rider with the necessary tools to learn everything from quieting the mind to learning how to breathe in a whole new way. The book includes sketches and photographs that help the reader get a better grasp of the exercises as well as a depiction of the human anatomy.

Benedik strives to help her students create a harmony and balance that generates an energy flow that fosters a healthy, creative, positive, peaceful rider. The reward includes happy, expressive horses that enjoy being ridden.

'You always want to become one with your horse,' said Jeri McDonnell, a 47-year-old paralegal from southern California who is a serious yoga practitioner. 'I think yoga is the best discipline for riding because it deals with the mind and body.'

McDonnell, who claims to have grown up in diapers and cowboy boots, leases a 17hh Quarter Horse mare named Jubilee. 'I showed western when I was young,' she said. 'Now I'm strictly a trail rider.'

When she's not hitting the trail, McDonnell spends her free time in yoga class. Ever the die-hard athlete, she's chosen to practice one of the most difficult and challenging forms of yoga called heated yoga. The hour-and-a-half routine integrates different postures from different types of yoga in a room steam heated to a sweltering 99 degrees.

'I always feel 100% better afterwards,' said McDonnell. 'Yoga improves your posture and quiets your mind so you have more empathy for what your horse is feeling.' McDonnell and other riders in her class found that their time in the saddle improved after just a few sessions. 'Yoga awakens your senses,' said McDonnell. 'It helps in every area of your life.'

As more and more people flock to yoga studios all over the United States, Westerners are finding that the ancient Indian practice involves more than just contorting the human body into strange shapes. Instead, people are discovering that yoga can eliminate or reduce stress, reshape and heal the body, and bring a general sense of well-being to its students. Medical studies have shown that yoga can alleviate asthma, chronic back pain, and heart disease as well as dissipate psychological maladies such as stress, anxiety, and depression. Other benefits include increased energy and endurance, improved sleep patterns, and better posture.

When Margo Marano discovered yoga four years ago, she was amazed to find how stiff and inflexible her body was. 'I have always been into fitness,' said Marano, a 40-year-old radio personality and second level dressage rider from Malvern, Pennsylvania. After only three or four yoga classes, Marano felt a remarkable difference in her riding ability. Her instructor, who didn't know about the yoga classes, was amazed to see the tightness around Marano's pelvis and lower back dissolve, her hip angles open, and her seat bones come down from their perched position to settle deep in the saddle.

'I kept up with yoga classes and spent six months studying the different limbs of yoga,' said Marano. 'Power yoga is what I eventually wandered into.' Power yoga is an intense workout that strings a series of yoga movements or poses together in a seamless routine that provides students with very few breaks. The tropical 85 degree room temperature heats the muscles and sweats toxins out of the body.

'Yoga is like dressage,' explained Marano. 'It's better to ride for 20 minutes four days a week than two-hour rides twice a week. Little bits of time are better.' Because of her hectic schedule, Marano uses yoga video tapes when she can't get to a class. She's quick to point out the importance of attending classes since nothing can take the place of a trusted instructor when it comes to achieving various postures.

While for some of us, yoga may seem like an awkward fit with riding our horses, there are tremendous benefits to be had by those of us who aren't afraid to try something new. Yoga could be that missing element in our lives that could help us achieve that wonderful (and often elusive) unison between horse and rider. And all of you nay-sayers, don't fool yourselves by thinking that yoga is easy. You will stretch muscles you never knew you had and move your body parts in ways you never thought possible. But you'll leave your yoga mat feeling a sense of peace as physical and mental tensions dissipate, and a sense of well-being as your self-awareness increases and your digestion, circulation, and breathing improve. When you return to the barn, you'll see a different world from the back of your equine companion as you approach riding with a clear mind, supple body, and self-awareness, the bond with your horse will improve and deepen. The power of yoga will permeate the way you and your horse work together. Your mind, body, and horse will thank you.

About the author:

Colleen McLaughlin is a freelance writer and hunter-jumper rider in Pennsylvania. She's currently working with and enjoying her 5-year-old Thoroughbred gelding, Isaac. She can be reached at

For more information:

Yoga for Equestrians: A New Path for Achieving Union with the Horse , Linda Benedik and Veronica Wirth