Every Little Breath You Take… Can Improve Your Riding

Photo © Lauren Mauldin

By Tonya Johnston, MA

The most powerful skill you possess is something you have in common with your horse: breathing. Of course, you were both born knowing how to breathe. Most of the time you really don’t think about it and things tend to work out fine. However, just because you know the basics of how to breathe doesn’t mean you know how to breathe optimally. In fact, according to experts, most people breathe at only 10 to 20% of their full capacity. Should this be interesting to you as an athlete? Absolutely! In fact, it should be exciting to know that you are probably walking around with a fair amount of unused potential.

Improving your regular, everyday breathing habits will enhance things such as your:

  • Ability to focus
  • Stamina during exercise
  • Overall wellness
  • Sleep quality
  • Immune response
  • Quiet mind

Now, you may have already built some breathing techniques into your pre-ride routine and your time with your horse, which is a wonderful start! However, employing high quality breathing methods all day long (instead of just before starting a course in a lesson, for example) will allow you to have a good store of energy and calm to draw on when you need it. Now let’s explore ways to make sure that influence is positive and improve your regular breathing so that you have more positive energy to share with your horse.

Optimal breathing practices for every day:

1. Breathe through your nose.

This may sound obvious, because that is what your nose was designed for – but many, many people breathe through their mouths. Breathing through your mouth activates shallow, upper chest breathing, which is bad for many reasons, especially because the body associates it with the fight-or-flight response. By contrast, nose breathing encourages high quality abdominal – or diaphragmatic – breathing.

Exercise: Place one hand on your chest, and one on your stomach. Now take a deep breath through your mouth. Notice how your chest expands and lifts up. Now take a slow deep breath through your nose and feel your belly expand under your hand. Breathing through your nose encourages you to take full, deep breaths, which in turn increases oxygen in the bloodstream. In addition, your sinuses produce nitric oxide, which when carried to your lungs by your breath will help you fight disease, regulate blood pressure and boost your immune system.

The Oxygen Advantage

2. Breathe slowly and smoothly.

Although this idea simply sounds like common sense, recent research supports the idea that if you breathe slowly and smoothly you will naturally feel calmer. Stanford scientists have identified neurons in the brain that track how you are breathing and report it to the structure that generates arousal. Therefore, if you are anxious, your rapid breathing reinforces this state of mind and you stay stuck in a challenging feedback loop between your breath and your brain. When your everyday breathing stays slow and smooth, however, your mind will operate from a more composed default state.

This high quality, functional breathing will have a positive effect on your day – including your pre-ride preparation and your skills on your horse. Slowing down your breathing but taking in more air per breath will also help you to maintain
a better level of energy throughout the day, giving you more to draw on when you get on your horse to hack, take a lesson or go to the show ring.

Exercise: Set a timer for one minute and count the number of breaths you take. Observe the total and write it down. Pay attention to the speed of your breathing this week and repeat a one-minute trial every day, recording your total. See if you can get more comfortable with slow, smooth breathing each day – striving for an optimal 6 breaths per minute.

3. Be mindful of maintaining a tall, open posture.

Your posture can affect the quality of your breathing by up to 30%. Rounding your shoulders and keeping your head down (for example when scrolling or reading on your phone) causes the muscles around your chest to tighten. This tightness keeps your lungs from expanding, keeping your breathing shallow and fast. Conversely, breathing with your chest open and your upper body tall helps your muscles stay relaxed, enhances flexibility in your mid-section and therefore increases your breath capacity and the amount
of oxygen you can bring into your body.

Pay special attention to your breathing posture when you are seated – like when you are watching ringside or driving to the barn or horse show – because sitting can negatively affect your posture, and consequently the quality of your breathing. Check in with your posture regularly throughout the day and stretch tall as you inhale in order to optimize your breathing.

4. Breathe horizontally instead of vertically.

Exercise: Sit down, staying away from the back of your chair and take a big, giant breath. Did your shoulders go up towards the sky? Did your lungs lift? You just experienced a vertical breath. You want to retrain your body to take horizontal breaths to maximize the quality of every breath your body takes.

Vertical breathing means that as you inhale your shoulders and upper body lift up towards the sky. Your breath typically stays shallow with this type of breath, utilizing only the top third of your lungs. This can throw off your balance as you overuse your neck and shoulder muscles, taxing your back muscles that are working to keep you upright. Vertical breathing also makes you anxious because your breaths are less efficient, which induces mental and physical stress. Another factor that can induce vertical, shallow breathing is bracing your belly. Fear, nerves, tight waistbands, old injuries, etc. can all play into this bracing as well.

When you take a horizontal breath, you expand your diaphragm and belly as you inhale. It will then feel natural to bring your breath to the center of gravity in your body which is a place below and behind your belly button. You will feel more grounded as a result. The balance you will feel is both physical and psychological, leaving you better prepared to face the demands of the day. Please note that to take a proper horizontal breath you want a full extension – 360 degrees around the middle of your body. Think about expanding all the way around your midsection (as in your belly, ribs and back) to make space for a complete full breath. Making this type of horizontal breath a habit will help your balance and ability to stay in the center of your horse’s back.

Exercise: Lay on your back, with your knees bent and your feet on the floor. Put a small stack of books on your belly. Breathe slowly through your nose and make it a goal to watch the books rise and fall with your breath. This exercise will make breathing horizontally with the diaphragm more tangible and realistic. You will actually see and feel the outcome of using the proper muscles to breathe, a feeling you can then memorize for reference.

The physical and mental benefits of effective breathing are immense, and your breathing can help you with every part of your riding. It helps you harness the mind/body connection, feel energized, let go of tension, be present in the moment, focus on a task – the list is long. Pay special attention to improving your everyday breathing so you can bring your best self to the partnership you share with your horse.

References and Recommendations:

Breathe. (2016) Belisa Vranich.
How to Breathe. (2019) Ashley Neese.
The Oxygen Advantage. (2015) Patrick McKeown.
Breathing for Warriors. (2020) Belisa Vranich & Brian Sabin.

Recommended Breathing Apps:

Box Breathing
Breathing Zone

Putting it All Together with Your Horse

Try this everyday breathing practice the next time you are hand walking your horse or when you get on for your walk warmup:

  • Take a slow inhale through your nose. Lengthen your spine by lifting your head towards the sky, open your chest and allow the breath to expand your midsection. 
  • Exhale slowly through your nose while feeling your belly flatten.
  • Repeat and get in touch with your horse’s walk rhythm. It may be quick, slow or medium, depending on the day. Allow yourself to settle your mind and connect to your breath.
  • Count your horse’s steps with your inhale and exhale. Repeat.
  • Experiment to find an optimal count that feels right to you and then adjust your count to exhale for two steps longer than you inhale. Try this for a few breaths in a row, take breaks as you need. With practice this will become a terrific way to get in sync with your horse while fine tuning your breathing. You may even notice your horse exhale with you – what a wonderful way to connect!

Tonya Johnston, MA is a mental skills coach for riders with over 25 years of experience. Her book Inside Your Ride is available on Amazon.com, and her podcast is a part of The Plaid Horse Magazine’s Plaidcast. Connect with Tonya at TonyaJohnston.com.

Originally from the April 2020 issue.