Dressage for people

Practicing yoga can enhance your ability to ride and help you become a better partner for your horse
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I did my dressage today! Uh, I meant yoga….”

So said one of the riders who takes yoga lessons from me, happy to share that she had “schooled” between her weekly sessions. She had inadvertently and intuitively made the connection that yoga is dressage for people: Just as dressage helps enhance strength, suppleness, focus and responsiveness in horses, with yoga we can learn to execute impressive feats of athleticism and balance.

Yoga can make any discipline easier and safer for riders. Younger people may maintain natural strength and suppleness more easily than older riders do, but often they can benefit from deeper work. Yoga can also offset some of the stiffness and loss of strength that naturally comes with age. Practicing yoga regularly is a way to enhance your ability to ride well and become a better partner for your horse.

Scientific studies have documented numerous health benefits of regular yoga practice. Almost every pose requires core strength, which in turn releases the lower back yet also stabilizes it. Regular yoga practice enhances digestion and hormonal balance. Yoga also can decrease stress and anxiety, increase focus and possibly relieve insomnia and depression.

The concentration that one practices on the mat when doing a complex balancing pose translates to focus that can be useful in other situations, such as remembering your dressage test in the arena or counting strides between fences.

With all of these benefits, why don’t more riders practice yoga? I often hear one of these two excuses from those who resist: “I can’t do yoga, because I can’t even touch my toes” and “Yoga is boring, and I want a real workout.”

If a rider cannot touch his or her toes, there’s no time to lose in remedying the situation. The flexibility required to move with a horse requires a rider’s back be pliable and mobile. And if a tumble occurs, which is almost inevitable through our years of riding, tighter muscles, tendons and ligaments will tear more easily.

Riders who think that yoga is boring are often the adrenaline junkies who love a good gallop and jumping course. But think of how these activities can be enhanced with a flexible, strong body and a focused, attentive mind in both horse and rider. Once they get on the mat, many first-time yoga students are amazed at how difficult it is to execute the movements. Even if they can intellectually grasp what the instructor is asking---for example, simultaneously engaging the core and letting go of the gluteals---they find it hard to actually do it because they are not used to controlling their bodies with such subtlety and precision.

Yoga is a tool for healthy living. Wouldn’t we all want to still be moving gracefully and happily riding our horses when we’re 80?

This article first appeared in the December 2017 issue of EQUUS (Volume #383)