Besides the obvious fact of if you aren’t breathing you have bigger problems then whats going on in your riding.. breathing mechanics (how we physically breathe and the impact of that movement on our anatomy, physiology, and neurology) have a big influence on how we move and therefore how we ride.
On top of this, because breathing is deeply connected to our nervous system and our psychological output, changes to this system will influence our horse’s interpretation of our body language; for better or worse.
Let’s go over how our body moves during the ideal breathing mechanism. When we inhale our diaphragm muscle (a sheet like deflated balloon that sits on the inside layer of the bottom of the ribcage) expands and moves our rib cage outwards in doing so. This movement also mobilizes through our spine, abdominal cavity and muscles like our hip flexors, spinal supports and pelvic floor. On exhalation the pressure created in our anatomy by the inhale is released and as we continuously breathe we create a pump like effect for the cardiovascular and lymphatic structures throughout the abdomen and heighten circulation through the musculature above and organs throughout.
Breathing also helps to regulate our nervous system. Meaning: it’s one of the first systems to change when stress is sensed, and the movement of the diaphragm and surrounding structures is an important support for our vagus nerve which runs from our head, through our cardiac system, makes up the enteric nervous system (aka our gut instinct).
When our nervous system senses a stress or a threat to our survival, it will put us into a sympathetic state of reaction (think fight- flight- freeze). Our breathing in this instance will become shallower, less use of the diaphragm and more use of the accessory muscle groups in the upper chest and neck to create the shallow intake in breathe predominantly in the upper ribs and lungs. This allows quicker intake of necessary air, support a quicker heart rate and increase in blood pressure that allows for faster reactions and survivalist based action. In this process we also typically feel more reactive emotionally and our thoughts are less big picture and more immediate need.
This system change is really, really beneficial when we are in a emergency situation or in an adrenaline heavy zone (riding a jump off as an example). Its a state of being superbly designed for short term use in key moments - and detrimental when employed chronically without contrast.
Unfortunately for many of us, the sympathetic/shallower way of breathing has become our normal. A few ways this can impact our riding:
Heightened anxiety, fear based thoughts and postures for us and the horse will match
Tension/stiffness in the neck, shoulders, spine and hips = decreased force absorption = stiffness transferring into our horse’s body
Limited breath capacity and increased fatigue
Increased sensitivity to pain and emotions
Decreased ability to tune into our horse’s movement
Decreased core engagement (our nervous system limits core access along with diaphragm utilization)
Heightened state in our nervous system will increase activation of our horse’s prey instinct creating all of the above in their bodies, too.
Sitting or laying on your back with knees bent and feet resting on the ground place one hand on the lower side of the bottom half of your rib cage and one hand at the base of your neck/upper chest. Take a few deep breaths. Which hand moves first and more? If you’re utilizing your diaphragm during that inhale, the air should inflate under your bottom hand first. If you’re utilizing your upper body muscles, the top hand will. This test can become an exercise: concentrate to shift your breath down to the bottom hand (and it will likely take focus!). Repeat this practice daily for a few minutes at a time, simultaneously working to increase the length of your inhales and exhales too (ideally a healthy adult can inhale for 8-10 seconds and exhale for the same).
This simple practice of tuning into the breath will not only help regulate your nervous system and decrease stress on the whole, it will physically help you engage and access appropriate mobility and stability into your spine, upper body, abdomen, and hips. There is plenty of evidence to support that regulating the breath and consequently the nervous system also helps to relieve digestive complaints, anxiety, depression, sleep issues, pain and overall tension.
When you ride you can employ a deeper, fuller breath to assist a horse in relaxing and staying focused. Exaggerating a full exhale can help smooth out downward transitions or settle a anxious horse as it communicates a release of energy and is a global sign of relaxation when it comes to body language.
When you’re in the saddle spend the first little bit of your ride consciously working to breathe into your seat: fill up your belly, spine and hips with your inhales, and let the exhales connect you to the movement of your horse. I can guarantee spending just a few minutes like this can change the outcome of the following ride for the better.
If you’re a rider that struggles with anxiety, beginning to tune into your breath on and off horse has endless proven results. It may not happen overnight, but regulating our nervous systems is the first step in building awareness around the roots of our anxiety: and flipping the script towards seeing our anxiety as an ally.
Overtime as we become more attuned to our breathing we can utilize various breathing mechanisms while doing certain things. A more stimulating breath for moments where we want a higher, quicker output of energy (running a barrel pattern, fast paced movements), more rhythmic breathing for our endurance based tasks (a longer jump course, eventing round, etc) or relaxing breathing patterns to regulate and release pent up energy for a quieter vibe (great for working young or green horses with histories of anxiety or reactivity!). The opportunities are endless. Breath is one thing we always have conscious access to, and because it effects so many other systems and processes in our bodies this means that no matter what we face we have the ability to change our reactiveness simply by tuning into our breathing.