Are you breathing with your diaphragm or your intercostal muscles? Do you suffer from chest pain or back aches? You may not be breathing properly. Find out just how that will impact your riding career in this blog by a Doctor of Physical Therapy.
Has your trainer ever had you sing the ABC’s when you were nervous? Singing impacts your breathing rate, often slowing it down and encouraging you to take deeper breaths. The quality of your breath can have a huge impact on your riding performance. Ask any physical therapy professional– the muscles that you use to breathe need to be taken care of just as you would any other part of your body.
What is Proper Breathing?
While you’re lying or sitting down, place one hand on your rib cage and one on your abdomen. Take a deep breath in and slowly let it out. Did both of your hands rise and fall? Did one rise more than the other? Did your shoulders lift up when you inhaled?
As you inhale, your diaphragm tightens, allowing your lungs to expand. The intercostal muscles pull your rib cage up and outward. Just like any other muscle, the muscles that you use to breathe can develop asymmetrically or become weak with improper use. Poor breathing techniques can lead to chest and back pain. Taking the time to practice breathing properly can transform your riding performance.
To breathe properly, you should be taking a nice full deep breath where both your abdomen and rib cage expand and contract. Shoulders may lift slightly, but not in a large capacity. Before inhaling, the previous breath should be expelled in its entirety.
How Proper Breathing Transforms Your Riding Performance
Smoothe your Transitions
Your horse can feel you breathe even through the layers of saddle pads, and the leather and wood that make up your saddle. For some horses, the speed of your breathing directly correlates to their rhythm and pace. If you haven’t tried it before, next time you ask your horse for a downward transition, breathe out as you sit deep in the saddle. A purposeful exhale encourages your horse to relax into the transition. This is because your muscles soften when you exhale, releasing tension and “melting” into the saddle.
Improve Your Stamina
When you’re stressed, your breathing speeds up and becomes less efficient. Not only does this disturb the horse, but it also prevents oxygen and nutrients from getting to your muscles efficiently, greatly reducing your stamina. Maintaining control of your breathing even in the face of a tough dressage judge or high-speed stadium round increases your energy-level and strength.
A few deep breaths can hit the reset button when you feel your breathing speeding up. Afterwards, your body will start replenishing oxygen-starved muscles. Any lingering shakiness will recede and your confidence will increase as your brain will also receive a better flow of nutrients.
Deepen Your Stretch
Yogis are excellent breathers. In even the most intense moves, they focus on maintaining an energizing and relaxing flow of oxygen moving through their body. If you’ve ever taken a yoga class, you may have heard the phrase “breathe into the pose.” This encourages you to take a deeper breath and relax muscles which may be straining with effort. The result: a deeper stretch that doesn’t feel half so hard.
The same technique can apply to your pre-riding stretching routine. You do have a warm-up routine before you get on your horse, right? When a stretch becomes difficult, humans have a tendency to hold their breath. This tenses your muscles, particularly in your diaphragm, and makes the exercise even harder. It’s better to exhale during exertion, or breathe out when you’re working the hardest.
For example, if you’re trying to touch your toes, exhale as you fold at the hips and stretch towards the floor. Inhale, on the way back up. You might be surprised at how much closer you get to your toes when you breathe properly.
Communicate Clearly with Your Horse
When you become anxious, your breathing speeds up. For some equestrians, this change can be almost imperceptible, while other riders experience it as hyperventilation. Either way, as breathing efficiency decreases so does the flow of oxygen to the brain. As your anxiety increases, you focus more on perceived threats around you at the expense of crucial tasks.
For example, if you’re faced with a large cross country jump for the first time, you could become so wrapped up with the possibility of a rotational fall, that you forget to sit up and release over the fence, or create a high quality canter. As your anxiety and breathing increases, you become more frenzied. Your horse, being a prey animal, feels your worry over the perceived threat of a rotational fall and becomes frantic themselves. After all, they don’t understand that you’re scared of a possibility. To them, there must be a real, live mountain lion hiding in that fence for you to react in such a way.
Deep breathing in stressful situations lowers your heart rate, increases oxygen flow to your brain, and helps you focus on what’s important. As you recenter yourself, you’re better able to communicate with your horse now that he can feel beyond your anxiety and fear.
Reduce Muscle Tension
Wherever you are right now, try taking a series of short shallow breaths. What do you notice happening in your body? You might feel light-headed (stop immediately if you do!), but you’ll also notice areas of tension throughout your body, particularly in your core and shoulders. The longer you continue hyperventilating, the worse the tension becomes and the more it spreads.
Now, try the opposite. Take long deep breaths that come from your diaphragm. You should see your belly move up and down, not just your rib cage. What do you notice now? You should feel a sense of relaxation spread through your core, your shoulders may drop down, and tension will drain out of your neck. With proper breathing techniques, you can reduce the impact of clenched muscles on your riding performance. Suppleness is, after all, one of the founding pillars of the dressage pyramid.
However you approach proper breathing, it’s important to have the guidance of a qualified physical therapy professional. A Doctor of Physical Therapy can help you discover if you’re struggling with a weak diaphragm or tight intercostal muscle and prescribe exercises to resolve the issue.