Breathing: A Lesson on the 1st Step to Effective Movement

As riders we get all sorts of information about how to have correct posture, how to breathe, and how to use our abdominal muscles. All of these things affect the way we stand, sit, move, and breathe. They even affect the way we think and our emotions. As babies we knew how to breathe naturally and use our breath for power. We filled our lungs, letting our belly expand, and screamed! When we breathe naturally our lungs fill as our diaphragm lowers and flattens out, and, because our stomach, liver, and other organs have no where else to go, our tummy pushes out.

When we pull our stomach in, feel anxious or afraid, or try to hold our body still against the movement of the horse, we hold in our belly and breath into our chest. Chest breathers tend to take shallow breaths, and when they try to take a big breath they suck in their belly. Breathing in your chest is closely tied to fear, anxiety and stress. Using a natural breath, giving room for the diaphragm to rise and fall and the ribs to expand and contract is soothing to our nervous system, massages our organs, and gives us coordinated and efficient use of the large, powerful muscles of our lower torso.

If you lay one hand over your lower belly and the other on your low back and cough you'll sense movement between your hands. Try to replicate this motion as you inhale slowly. Focus on expanding the space between your hands on the in breath and fall on the out breath. Let your lower back stay long as your belly rises.
In the following lesson, you'll learn to use these muscles on both the inhale and the exhale to get natural support from your center. Depending on how much support you need for staying in the saddle, you can engage the abdominal wall and low back more or less, while allowing your diaphragm to rise and fall with full breaths.

Natural Breathing Activates the Center

Lie on your back on a firm, padded surface with your legs stretched long and arms at your sides. Bring your attention to your breathing. Put one hand on your chest and the other just below your belly button and discover whether you hold your abdomen and breathe into your chest or allow your abdomen to participate as you breathe into your lower lungs.
Now we will experiment with the breath. If it is uncomfortable to lie flat, you can bend your knees or slip your hands under your lumbar spine as you do the movements.
Do each part slowly and about 6 times. Notice what happens in your low back, ribs, and chest as you do the different movement.

Rest, breathing normally, between each movement.

1) Breath in, allowing you chest to expand. Breath out and flatten your chest. Do this several times. Notice how your chest and shoulder rise and fall and what happens in your lower abdomen.

--Rest, breathing naturally for a few breaths--

2) See-Saw Action of the Torso: Inhalation (Do 3 -4 times)
Breath in, letting your chest expand as your belly draws in, and hold your breath. Without exhaling, flatten your chest, moving the air down, and then flatten your belly, letting the air come into your chest. Move the air back and forth only as many times as is comfortable then rest and do this movement again.

--Rest for a few breaths--

3) Inhale, allowing your belly to expand. Breath out and pull in your belly. Breath slowly, at a natural pace feeling the expansion of your lower ribs.

--Rest for a few breaths--

4) See-Saw Action of the Torso: Exhalation (repeat 3 - 4 times)
Exhale, letting your chest flatten and hold your breath. Without inhaling, expand your chest, letting your belly flatten and then push your belly out, letting your chest expand. Do this only as many times as is comfortable then rest for several breaths and repeat. Notice what happens in your ribs, shoulders, low back, and neck.

--Rest for a few breaths--

5) Inhale, allowing your belly to expand and allowing your low back to expand as well. Breath out and let your belly fall. Breath slowly, at a natural pace. Sensing the way your lower torso expands as you inhale.

--Rest for a few breaths--

6) Inhale, allowing your belly and low back to softly expand and then exhale but keep your belly expanded. Breath in and out continuing to keep the lower torso full. Rest and try this again. It will seem difficult at first, especially if you usually breath in your chest.

This is the use of the center that allows dressage riders to sit the trot, western riders to control a cow, and anyone to engage in back threatening activities. The muscles of the abdomen both protect the spine and allow full breaths, providing oxygen in challenging situations. You will want to make it a habit to breath into your belly without effort and be able to strongly engage your lower torso muscles when needed.

After going through the above series try it in a more challenging position. Sit up and put the soles of your feet together. Place your hands on the floor behind you so you can use your arms for support.
Do the series of movements, allowing your whole torso to participate.

This lesson is part of a longer series of lessons on breathing and moving from your center. As you learn to use your center to support both movement and your breath you will begin to notice changes in your riding.

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Comment by Jackie Cochran on January 30, 2010 at 9:57am
This sort of reminds me of belly dancing.
I am sure this post will help a lot of people. Good work.

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