Relaxation is the absence of detrimental tension. To ride safely, you need to know how to turn down your anxiety meter and relax when things get exciting. Two exercises I’ve found helpful in this regard are Max/Relax and Bottom Breathing.
requires you to exaggerate your tension to a comedic level and then release it. For example, if you find that you are so tense in the saddle that your thighs squeeze together and lift you right out of the saddle and pitch your upper body forward, practice Max/Relax. While on a tolerant horse, inhale and contract your thigh muscles so intensely that they turn into hard rocks and your upper body shoots forward and your seat no longer contacts the saddle. Hold the contraction until you start shaking (or laughing uncontrollably!), then totally let the contraction go as you exhale. Let your upper body rock back and picture your legs melting onto your horse. Just really let go. Now get “normal”, that is sit with an appropriate amount of muscle tension and alertness for riding.
Do this in various situations so that you register a specific feeling and a physiological response. Your goal is to be able to recognize this feeling during times of stress and recreate the relaxation response. Instead of adding more tension to a potentially explosive situation, you can teach your body to release counterproductive tension so that you help the situation rather than hinder it. If you don’t communicate alarm to your horse, you’ll have a better chance of staying on.
uses the diaphragm as it was intended. “Fashion breathing” is a shallow, tense means of taking small bytes of air into the upper portion of the lungs while keeping your gut sucked in to flatten your stomach. Fashion breathing doesn’t work for athletics or relaxation. To become a Bottom Breather, you have to be willing to let your abdomen bulge momentarily.
Your lungs have no muscles of their own – they are expanded and squeezed by the muscles of the diaphragm (a dome-shaped muscle below the ribcage) and the muscles between the ribs. To breathe effectively, take in air through your nose so it is cleaned, warmed and humidified before it reaches your lungs. This is especially important if you ride in the cold or in a dry, dusty arena. If you inhale through your mouth, you losing the benefit of your nose’s filtration system and you are subjecting your throat and upper respiratory tract to unnecessary drying and stress.
Send the air downward as if to fill your abdomen. This allows the diaphragm to follow its natural tendency to expand your abdomen and fill your lungs indirectly and without tension. Exhale through your mouth, empty your lungs and deflate your abdomen gradually. Let the next inhalation arise spontaneously. If you establish a good breathing pattern, when you really need to center and focus, it will be there to help you.