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Just Breathe

Updated: Feb 27, 2023

I forget to breathe.

When I'm focused, I find myself holding my breath or breathing very shallow.

As if breathing would get in the way of what I'm trying to do.

The first time someone suggested breathing exercises, I rolled my eyes and thought that since I had been successfully breathing my whole life, I didn't need help with it.

I wasn't wrong.

But there is more to it than that.

It regulates how we feel and tells the body what setting to put itself on: anxious, calm, active, sleepy...

Your breath is controlled by your vagus nerve. Your vagus nerve speaks to the rest of you. And you can hijack that message by controlling your breath.

Here is a really cheesy video from that shows you how to breathe correctly. This is probably why I have always strayed away from these techniques.

So basically regulating your breath lets you take charge of the message you want your body to receive:

Feeling sleepy - take some long deep inhales followed by short brisk exhale and you will be invigorated.

Feeling anxious - take some long slow deep breaths, pause and then a longer exhale, pause and you will start to relax.

Or you can try the 'psychological sigh' which is two quick sharp inhales followed by a long relaxed exhale. This is like an emotional reset.

I've come to rely on these, especially after a long warm car ride where I lose all motivation to do anything active out in the cold.

But mostly I've come to use my breath to talk to the horses.

Turns out they are set up pretty much the same way we are. Only they are listening to these breaths and gleaning intention and mood from them much more consciously than we do.

I think of the horse in a herd on the grassy plains. It's Sunday afternoon and you have nothing better to do than watch and listen. Breaths must have been a significant source of entertainment and relevant information, like listening in on the other horse's thoughts.

Back at the barn, we've all done the long slow exhale to get a horse to slow down. It works not because of training but because it makes sense to them. You can also do some quick brisk exhales to get a horse to speed up. Let your nostrils flare for extra emphasis.

Your horse will snort like a dragon to warn you of impending doom or with his nose to the ground, to mention that something scary walked through right about here.

Just raising my chest rhythmically has gotten my mare's attention. "Wait - what are we doing?"

Some other ones are more subtle.

A set of soft inhales in the direction of your horse is like asking "hey I want to check on you" and when your horse turns to look at the green, green grass you might notice them doing that same breath as if they are telling you "hey, let's check that out".

Three sharp inhales in the direction of something scary can mean "I see something - what is it?". You can then follow it up with the psychological sigh to tell your horse that it's nothing to worry about. I've used this to call my horse's attention to something on the trail that I think she might spook at if she doesn't see it until we get closer.

A quick look and a sharp inhale has come to mean "take that obstacle", be it a jump, poles or barrels. This one came in handy for horse archery. "Please take that jump" while my hands are busy knocking the next arrow. No need for the reins and my seat is up off the saddle for stability, but with a swivel of the ears he would let me know "I'm on it".

I've done mixed messages too - a long exhale as I ask her to trot. "Please don't take off like a wild thing, just a quiet trot."

When a horse is about to take a nap it will take long, slow inhales followed by long slow, strong exhales. Almost like you are about to start snoring. I once used this on a horse while we were listening to someone give a long explanation. I started doing the nap breath and watched from the corner of my eye as my horses's head started to droop and his eyes started to close. He then popped his head up and turned eyes and ears on me as if to say "wait - did you just suggest a nap?!?"

My favorite is what I call the Lovely Day. When my mare is really enjoying something - like tall green grass after a cold night - she makes this rolling/snorting exhale that sounds like a snore but is the kind of breath we humans tend to give out when we're exasperated. It doesn't require a response. It's like saying "this is nice, I like this". I will use it to tell her the things I really enjoy, like taking a quiet walk down by the creek on a sunny afternoon. It's just nice to be able to let her know that I enjoy this. I've seen her give me a look and become more engaged when I do it. It helped her relax the first time she went to the beach: "this isn't scary, this is nice". Timing as always is crucial.

There is one that I've seen people do, which I don't think is what we think it is. I've heard it's suppose to be a greeting but I've not gotten much of a response from the horses I've tried it on. You blow softly into the horse's nostrils. My mare has always responded playfully with a lip twitch threatening a play bite and then running away. Maybe I have the accent wrong :)

I've learned a lot of these from Sharon Wilsie, who has gone to extremes to figure out the protocols of horse communication. Some I've learned from my mare. I've also tackled this podcast in an attempt to understand more. Mostly I've tried things out to see what happens - I will always be heuristic at heart.

It's easy to forget how effective the breath can be. We just don't think of it as a way of saying something. A friend of mine told me that she struggles to get her students to use their breath while riding. I often have to remind myself and my students that we have this tool built in. We use our hands and eyes too much and our breath not enough. Most of our breathing is subconscious and gives us away to the ever alert horse. But in the end - we all use our breath when we speak to our horses. A quiet "ho" is nothing but a long slow exhale. An "up! up! up!" is the quick sharp exhale. And whispering sweet nothings towards you horse (which none of us do, of course - we are serious horse people) is like softly breathing in their direction.

Just be sure to keep the word and the breath in tune with each other. A loud, brisk "EASY!!, EASY!!" is not going to convey the message you're hoping for.

Or you could just sing.

Either way, you're harmonizing your nervous system with that of the horse and I think that's magic.

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