Over many years as a Yoga teacher, I’m often surprised by how little we know about our breathing and yet how closely connected it is to the way our brains and bodies function. During one of his Intelligent Horsemanship demonstrations at Kingston Maurward in June 2016, Monty Roberts explained that horses respond instantly to the breathing patterns of their handlers and encouraged everyone to learn diaphragmatic breathing. It occurred to me that not many people in that audience would have a clue what that meant so I offered to practice with Scarlett, whose lovely but nervous ex-racehorse Tabby won everybody’s hearts at the demonstration and wrote this piece for Intelligent Horsemanship (UK).
When the human body responds to danger and stress through the ‘fight or flight response’, the release of adrenaline triggers changes in our bodies which speed up the heart rate and breathing. This sudden burst of adrenaline gives our bodies increased abilities, and heightens sensory perception. However, it’s not a pleasant state to be in – we feel stressed, frightened and anxious – some people can ‘freeze’ under these circumstances, like a rabbit caught in the headlights.
Horses have very much the same responses as we do, and as prey animals, their ability to turn and fight, or to run away quickly, is paramount to their safety. Monty says, “Adrenaline up, learning down”. Scarlet wanted to teach her horse Tabby new things and to encourage her to respond differently to things that had possibly caused her pain or stress in the past but how could she help Tabby to feel less stressed, frightened & anxious?
Studies have shown that we humans can encourage our bodies to release chemicals and brain signals* that make our muscles and organs slow down and increase blood flow to the brain, the opposite of ‘fight or flight’. Studies have also demonstrated that meditation and breathing can bring down our stress levels, release tension and so help all kinds of health problems that are caused or exacerbated by chronic stress.
But horses can’t ‘breathe themselves down’ like we can. They measure the anxiety level of the rest of the herd by observing the breathing, heart rate and body language of those around them. In a training and learning situation Scarlett wanted to help Tabby by regulating her own breathing, slowing her heart rate and adopting the relaxed body language which gives horses comfort, and tells them everything is OK – they don’t need to prepare to fight or flee.
I sent Scarlett some breathing exercises. At first she said it made her feel very sleepy. Later, she said, “I can now do the exercise in different circumstances, with out thinking about it. I also wanted to let you known that I have found it very useful when working with Tabby.”
You need to find a quiet place and time to focus on your breathing. The best time to practice is first thing in the morning for ten to twenty minutes. By practicing just once or twice a day you can learn to access relaxation and a more peaceful state of mind, which in turn reduces the heart rate so your horse will feel more relaxed and comfortable around you even when you’re asking him/her to try new things: ‘adrenaline down, learning up’.
- Sit quietly in a comfortable position. Close your eyes.
- Allow your body to relax, soften your muscles, starting with your feet and progressing up to your head.
- Relax your tongue. Take it away from the roof of your mouth. Now your thoughts are quieter and you are more aware of your breathing. Breathe through your nose: mouth closed, teeth apart, jaw relaxed.
- Let the breathing become slow, soft and steady. Each time you breathe out, say the word “one”* silently to yourself.
- Continue for 10 to 20 minutes**. When you finish, sit quietly for several minutes, at first with your eyes closed and later with your eyes opened. Do not stand up for a few minutes.
- Try to ignore your thoughts – they will come and go – return to repeating “one”* with each exhalation.
- Practice the technique once or twice daily, on an empty stomach. (Digestion interferes with the process.) Soon, the response will come with little effort and you won’t feel quite so sleepy!
*Choose any soothing, mellifluous sounding word, preferably with no meaning or association, in order to avoid stimulation of unnecessary thoughts.
** If you use a phone alarm, choose a soothing sound to ‘wake up’ to.
Copyright: Hannah Lovegrove, Saddle Street Farm, Thorncombe, Dorset TA20 4PY