As riders, we’ve all been told to breathe at some point in our lessons. In fact it’s easy to simply stop breathing while concentrating on an instructor or on the horse. Awareness of breath and breathing correctly is paramount to effective riding, and unfortunately it’s not something most riding instructors are prepared to discuss in any substantive way—which explains why advancement for many riders takes a slower path.
For children correct diaphragmatic or abdominal breathing is natural. This is one reason why children adapt to riding so quickly. As we age, however, the stresses of adult life can take a toll on our bodies and as a result our breathing changes. Generally speaking, our breath gets higher and shallow within our chest cavity. This inhibits our riding and our ability to communicate with the horse.
How Breathing Works
Breathing is a two-step process. The diaphragm is the muscle at the base of the chest just above the abdomen. When the body feels the need for air, the brain sends an impulse for the diaphragm to drop flat, thereby creating a vacuum which initiates the inhale of air through nostrils (or mouth). Once the lungs fill with air, the diaphragm is drawn upward for the exhale, pushing air out through the nostrils (or mouth) as it expands. While the process is mechanical, the technique is adaptable.
When you lie down, it is easy to analyze your resting breathing: Inhale the belly expands out, exhale the belly flattens. The abdomen should expand and contract in this same way when standing. Placing your hands at each side of your waist allows you to feel expansion on the inhale and contraction on the exhale. If you don’t feel this, you’re not breathing from your abdomen.
To further test your breathing, you can place one hand on the opposite shoulder and take a breath. Your elbow should not move. If it does, it confirms that you are breathing from your chest instead of your abdomen. Paying attention to your breath at different times during the day will confirm if this is a continuous breathing pattern.
So, is this problem? Breathing high in your chest is called thoracic breathing. Thoracic breathing creates tension within the muscles of the chest and shoulders, giving the lungs less room to expand and contract. Breathing becomes harder and therefore faster in order to supply the body with air. Over time the body will adjust to less air. This can be detrimental to general good health.
Upper-body tension associated with thoracic breathing affects your riding in two ways. First, your center of gravity will be too high, physically lifting you out of the saddle and disconnecting you from your horse. Then, sensing the rider’s tension associated with thoracic breathing, your horse will become tense, affecting his balance and the flow of energy within his movement.
In this situation, simply being told to breathe by your instructor does nothing to improve your breathing, riding, or your horse’s performance. You need to retrain the subconscious impulse to breathe with the correct pattern. But, not to worry: Most people can easily refocus their breathing in a short time, usually in just a few weeks—and it goes beyond better riding, it contributes to better health!
When you find your breath is high in your chest, relax your shoulders and make a point of exhaling from your belly. Practice breathing where your belly expands on the inhale then contracts on the exhale. There are many exercise routines to help you maintain this low abdominal breathing.
Abdominal breathing helps to keep you balanced in the saddle. Singers and dancers know the importance of “deep-belly” abdominal breathing to maintain a low center of gravity and balance within the body. Practicing abdominal breathing actually strengthens the diaphragm to move higher and lower with each breath to utilize more of the lungs. This is healthy breathing.
Knowing Your Dan-Tien Breath
The term dan-tien represents an area in the abdomen just below the navel and deep within the belly. Technically, there are three dan-tiens in the body, the area in the brain, often referred to as the “third eye,” an area near the heart, responsible for the immune system, and the abdomen, considered to be the body’s center for internal energy.
Dan-tien breathing refers to the lowest of the three and is focused in the area of the third chakra or solar plexus of nerve groups. (Understanding the science of chakras is interesting for those who want deeper knowledge but is not necessary for this discussion). Deep-belly breathing combined with many of the tai chi exercises is said to massage these abdominal nerve groups and internal organs to stimulate blood circulation and improve the mind-body connection that takes place during the exhale.
But for equestrians, the practice of tai chi and qi gong yields additional benefits. The tai chi stance mirrors the rider’s position in the saddle. Practicing the slow, relaxed, and balanced postures of tai chi puts the rider in touch with the much slower natural rhythm of the horse. In addition, tai chi’s meditative concentration on body alignment and visualization of movement encompasses what is needed for effective riding.
Moreover, tai chi and qi gong specifically time the inhale and exhale to the motion of the routine—the same thing we strive to do as riders: Connect our breath with the horse’s breath and breathe down into the horse’s spine while in motion. This is the level of harmony needed to accurately time and deliver the aids during certain movements and transitions. In my opinion, no two disciplines, riding and tai chi, could be more uniquely aligned.
Paying attention to your breath is arguably the most important thing you can do to improve your riding. So it’s puzzling why the topic isn’t more widely discussed. Breathing is natural and easily corrected. Just relax your muscles and use your belly to direct the movement. This is of course a condensed version of all that breathing entails, but it encapsulates what we, as riders, need to understand. Combine this with tai chi and qi gong exercise and you will be on the pathway to better riding through your dan-tien breath.
Copyright © Andrea Steele, 2009, updated 2018
You can learn more about this in the DVD Riding with Chi: Your Pathway to Energy Mastery. Watch the video trailer, buy the DVD, or rent/download the video file at www.AdvancedEquineStudies.com.