Practicing yoga for young equestrians can increase your flexibility and strength and help you develop better balance in the saddle. Do you wish you had more control over your position in the saddle? Maybe it’s hard for you to sit up straight, stay balanced, or move just one leg to cue your horse, let alone do all three things at once! You’re in luck!
Yoga is a type of exercise that uses stretches and balance-building poses, along with meditation, to strengthen your mind and body. Yoga has become a popular form of exercise for many people, including riders. Yoga instructor and avid equestrian Gabrielle Diakon of Rumston, N.J., enjoys teaching equestrians how they can improve their riding through yoga.
“Yoga isn’t about being able to bend over backwards to touch your toes,” she says. “It’s about learning how to take care of your body. You become stronger and more flexible, but the most important part of it is developing mindfulness. When you’re sitting on a moving animal, it can be really hard to concentrate, be in the moment, and control our bodies and our horses at the same time. Yoga helps with that.”
How Does it Help?
“Imagine you’re in school, and your teacher asks you a question,” says Gabrielle. “While you’re answering that question, your teacher starts asking you a bunch of questions all at once. That would be super frustrating, right? The same goes for horses. If you have very little body control and keep accidentally bumping your horse with your leg, then your horse is going to become frustrated. But if you are soft and direct with each cue, he will naturally calm down.”
Some yoga poses also exercise your core muscles, which are the muscles that control your pelvis, lower back, hips and abdomen.
“When your core is strong and aligned, you can become a quiet rider who is fluid, flexible and strong,” Gabrielle explains. This improved balance means a noticeable improvement in your position!
Before trying a new form of exercise, it’s important to realize that everyone’s body is built differently, and some people are more flexible than others.
“There’s no such thing as being bad at yoga,” Gabrielle says. “Just like with riding, take your time, focus on your body, and build a strong foundation.”
Take a Stand
If you’re not sure how to engage your core, try this easy standing exercise. First, stand with your back against a wall. Don’t lean against the wall; instead, stand as close to the wall as possible with your arms at your sides. Make sure your hips are square, then tuck your tailbone under you to bring your lower back closer to the wall. Slowly bring your arms up in front of you, then extend them up above your head.
“When you raise your arms, your core muscles will fire up,” Gabrielle says. “It’s the same concept as when you’re in a sitting trot. You’ll feel those same muscles working.”
Calm your mind and practice your breathing with a forward fold. Find a clear spot in the barn or your backyard. Adopt a wide-legged stance, then slowly bend down to touch your toes. If you can’t reach your toes, that’s OK—just reach down as far as you comfortably can. You can also rest your hands on your shins or thighs if you need to. While you’re folded, concentrate on breathing deeply.
“Forward folds are really powerful, especially if you include really long exhales,” Gabrielle adds. “The forward fold paired with breathing is a great pre-show exercise.”
This pose can help you practice your balance and body awareness while engaging your core. Stand with your legs staggered about 3 feet apart, so that one foot is out in front of you and one foot is behind you, then bend your knees slightly.
Keep your forward foot pointed straight ahead and angle your back foot out about 45 degrees. Make sure your hips are facing forward, like the headlights of a car. Tuck your tailbone in. With your upper body stretched nice and tall, slowly lift your arms up above your head.
“This pose helps you engage your core and shows you where you might be weakest in your riding muscles,” Gabrielle explains. “For example, if your back knee tilts in a little bit in this pose, it might mean that you pinch with your knees in the saddle to stay seated, instead of engaging with your core.”
As you continue your yoga practice and get stronger, don’t be surprised if your riding instructor (and you!) notice many benefits to your strength, balance and position in the saddle.
Special thanks to Becca Schaffhauser for demonstrating these exercises.
Yoga instructor and avid equestrian Gabrielle Diakon of Rumston, N.J., believes that yoga is about treating your body with love and respect. Here are some of Gabrielle’s favorite health-conscious tips for young equestrians:
◆ Eat healthy, especially at horse shows.
“Sugar can really spike your anxiety levels, so if you eat a lot of sugar at a horse show, you might feel more anxious,” Gabrielle says. Choose healthy snacks, like nut butter on a celery stick, cheese and whole-grain crackers, or a protein bar.
◆ Practice your breathing, both in and out of the saddle. Take long, deep breaths that go all the way down into your belly. Focusing on your breathing can also help clear your mind.
“Breathing has everything to do with being able to focus your memory, so if you stop breathing, you’re not going to be able to remember anything your trainer said to you,” she explains.
◆ Finally, don’t play the comparison game. Focus on your own horse and your own form in the saddle instead of watching what other riders are doing.
“Yoga is about being present in your own body, instead of comparing yourself to others,” Gabrielle says. “This applies to riding, too. If you look over at someone else, you’re compromising your own position in the saddle and you’re not focused on what you’re doing.