If you’ve ever ridden a horse or received advice from a riding instructor, you’ve probably been told to relax and not be tense on the horse. However, that’s easier said than done.
The most common areas where riders hold tension are the shoulders and upper back, fingers and hands, legs, and ankles. When we get stressed or anxious, we tend to tighten across our shoulders and hunch up.
The fingers and hands become tense as riders pinch the reins with the thumb and forefinger. Some riders think that to stay on the horse, they have to grip tightly with their legs, especially the knee. This results in locking the hip and limiting the rider’s ability to move with the horse’s movement.
Riders may also be tense in their ankles and heels due to trying to push their heel down and finding a lowered heel.
What are the impacts of being tense in the saddle?
When you hold tension, it affects both you and your horse. It limits your ability to move properly and affects the horse’s movement and stride. It can also impact the horse’s body part corresponding to your tense area.
The unique thing about riding a horse is that when you’re sitting on your horse’s back, you’re communicating in the most direct way it’s possible to communicate with another living being. When you’re sitting on your horse, you’re actually communicating directly from your brain to his.
I had a hard time wrapping my head around this concept at first. But then one night, one of our cats came to lie on me as I was lying in bed. I was calm and still, falling asleep, while she was more restless. First of all, she was purring, and I could feel the motion of the vibration move through her body and into mine.
The second thing that really made me understand what it feels like to have a rider on your back, is when she heard the other cat at the other end of the house and quickly turned her head in that direction. For the next 20 minutes, she’d intermittently look towards the door, going more tense in her body, and then she’d relax as she turned back and started snoozing.
During that time, I felt every minute movement she made. And that’s when it hit me; this is how horses feel when we sit on them. Because a horse can feel even the smallest change in your body while you ride. And they respond to these cues, whether they’re intentional or not.
This means that the consequence of you not being aware of imbalances or tension in your own body, can muddy your communication to your horse. You can send signals you don’t mean to send, send signals that are too strong or that don’t release the pressure at the right moment, and confuse your horse by not clearly asking for what you want him to do.
Sometimes, if you’re the only one riding your horse, your horse can begin to compensate for the imbalances in your body. This means that his body will come out of alignment to make up for an misalignment or weakness in your body.
It’s only when you’re balanced and fully relaxed in the saddle that your horse can access his full range of motion. It’s only when you’re fully relaxed, that you don’t get in his way.
Releasing tension is not just about relaxing.
It’s about identifying where the tension is and releasing it.
Tension can be caused by mental factors such as fear, anxiety, or stress. It can also be an alignment issue, where you’re is sitting out of balance and feel you need to grip or tense up to stay stable.
Concentration on a specific task can also cause tension in your body.
One way to release tension is through breathing exercises, where you breathe deeply and exhale slowly, imagining the tension leaving your body.
You can also do stretching exercises to release tension in different parts of your body.
Another technique is to isolate the tense area and focus on it.
It may take some practice to recognise the tension and release it, but with time, it becomes easier.
- Focus on your breathing. If it’s safe, and it helps, you can close your eyes. Breathe in slowly and deeply through your nose, filling your lungs with air.
- Hold your breath for a few seconds, and then exhale slowly through your mouth, feeling the tension and stress leave your body.
- As you exhale, imagine that you are breathing out all of the negative energy and tension in your body.
- Take another deep breath in through your nose, and exhale slowly through your mouth. Repeat this several times, allowing your body to relax and release any tension.
- As you continue to breathe, scan your body for areas of tension or discomfort. Focus on these areas as you inhale, and then release the tension as you exhale.
- You can also try counting your breaths, inhaling for a count of 4, holding for a count of 4, and exhaling for a count of 4. Repeat this several times until you feel relaxed and centred.
Holding tension in your body while horse riding is a common problem, but identifying it and releasing it is crucial for both the rider’s and the horse’s comfort and performance.