Yoga for the Equestrian's Soul

girl with glasses looking into sun and smiling

Breathe in, breathe out. Close your eyes, and… No, wait, don’t close your eyes. This isn’t a real yoga class - at least, not the kind that helps you strengthen and stretch your physical muscles. This is a bite-size workshop in flexibility of a different kind - the kind that lives in your mind, supported by your core. It’s what helps us to be better horse people.

No doubt flexibility is a trait we’re all having to improve upon right now. Living during a pandemic is forcing us all to change our daily habits, from more frequent hand-washing, to wearing masks, to working from home at the dining room table (if you’re lucky enough to still have a job, or to work from home). We’re having to remember to stay 6 feet apart, cooking more (or ordering in), and learning to fill our weekends differently. Humans are capable of remarkable flexibility in learning and attitudes when it’s necessary.

I’ve witnessed this firsthand within myself over these past few months. I have a 3-½ year old son, and because of the pandemic I’ve been keeping him home with me as I work (I currently work as a copywriter to pay the bills). As fate would have it, I board our horse, Lilly, at a barn 40 minutes away from our house. In the old days, I would leave the office, swing by the barn for an hour, and then pick up my son from daycare. But I’m now juggling my job, my son and the horse, which at one point felt impossible (and still does, some days).

I’ve definitely had to make some concessions. My son watches way more TV than he technically should, my work productivity is lower than it used to be, and my days at the barn are way fewer. Also, I have to bring my son to the barn with me, which makes everything there a little more difficult.

Let me just say this: I completely understand now how kids in the 1800's used to get trampled by livestock and run over by wagons. Lilly is pasture boarded, which means not only do we have to get through 2 gates to get into the pasture, but we have to bob and weave between 6 other horses and 5 cows over 16 acres to find her. With a 3-½ year old that likes everything dangerous-looking and runs really fast. It is not for the faint of heart.

Thank goodness Lilly has bonded well to us, so once she sees us, she comes right over. But. What I used to call “grooming Lilly” is now my son lightly petting her neck. Picking her hooves? Never happens, literally. By the time I bend over to pick up a hoof, my son is already hightailing it across the field, aimed straight for trouble. And training… well, that’ll have to wait, too. Lilly is basically green and will stay that way while I have my little cow-pie loving, trough-splashing, bird-chasing hellion to rein in. (It is simply not possible to train two practically feral creatures at the same time).

Okay. But this is not just a story about me. This is meant to illustrate a point, which is: it is so important for us to be able to think about our horsemanship in new and different ways. It bothers me a lot sometimes that I can’t go back to training my horse to ride. I feel like a massive failure because it was a goal I had set. BUT: I have to re-frame that thought with the reality I’m living in. It is not currently possible to train my horse for riding - but in bringing my son out to the barn on a constant basis, he has formed an exceptionally strong bond with Lilly that he probably wouldn’t have, otherwise. I’ve gotten a chance to take a step back from the more structured parts of training, which had sometimes felt just like exhausting work that I didn’t want to do (and had engendered a little resentment in Lilly). And I think as a result, I’ve been able to actually enjoy my horse a little more, and do some more on-the-ground observation on equine behavior - which is my passion, after all.

But it’s important to remember that being flexible serves both ways: it helps us to successfully contend with whatever new circumstances arise, but it also helps ensure that we’re being compassionate and fair to our horses.

I think it’s a typical human trait that we frequently have a picture in our head of what we want things to look like, and try to make everything around us change to fit that vision. And unfortunately that also frequently translates to the equestrian world, which can be very rigid in its set of expectations for the horses we build our lives around. But the thing about horses is, they don’t follow our rules unless taught or forced. They have no idea about our worldview, or our expectations. All they know is reward and punishment for certain things that they do, but without a bigger context to fit it into. Can you imagine living in a world where nobody provided you a set of rules to go by, and the only way you knew what was “right” and what was “wrong” was a set of potentially confusing physical punishments like heels dug into your sides? Horses live in this world every day. So it only seems right that we meet them sort-of halfway and make some things less difficult for them.

For example, Lilly hates the water hose when I try to hose her off. It completely freaks her out. I’m gradually working to desensitize her to it, but in the meantime, I’m willing to bring a small bucket of water out into the pasture and sponge her off on really hot days, instead. I could insist on using the hose and drag her on a lead rope, spinning and snorting and planting her feet into the ground, or I can put in just a little more effort and get the same result (a cooled-off, slightly less-dirty horse) without the behavioral fallout and long-term cementing of her initial fear of the hose. It’s not a hugely creative leap in strategy, but one that makes a big difference to her experience - and to me, since I don’t have to exhaust myself by fighting with her. It's just one of many small ways to make Lilly's life a little less scary or uncomfortable, and to still accomplish one of the few things I actually am able to do when I'm at the barn (lol).

Ultimately, being open and flexible to new ways of engaging with our horses is mutually beneficial. Not only is it compassionate and considerate to the animals themselves, but it also can help us to be happier, stay more even-keeled and find more satisfaction in our day-to-day horsemanship. And honestly, in today's world, I'll take all the satisfaction I can get.

In the end, like a good yoga routine, flexibility can help us strengthen our core ability to successfully navigate new and different situations in the paddock and in other areas of our lives, and to lessen the struggle in doing so.

Breathe in, breathe out... nama-neigh.