Yoga is a popular type of exercise that provides many physical, mental and spiritual benefits for its practitioners – but did you know it’s also an excellent form of exercise for equestrians? According to Cathy Woods, author of Yoga for Riders, practicing yoga can be an excellent way for equestrians to develop better balance, increase flexibility and learn body and breathing awareness. Practicing yoga can also yield a plethora of mental and spiritual benefits, such as meditation, focused breathing and mindfulness – all of which can play a role in how riders and handlers interact with their horses.
“In Western society, the concept of yoga has become heavily based around athletics and physicality, but that’s really one small aspect of true yoga,” Woods said. “Yoga is an opportunity to become more aware of ourselves: body, mind and spirit. By spending integrated time with ourselves on the yoga mat and in meditation, we develop a more heightened and integrated awareness of everything we do in life. And that spills over into our horsemanship and makes us more aware and mindful.”
An avid horsewoman and national yoga teacher, Cathy Woods created Body, Mind, Equine ™ to share yoga with equestrians everywhere through workshops and retreats as well as her new book, Yoga for Riders, which was published in 2020 by Horse and Rider Books. Woods also teaches yoga to non-riders, but she has a special fondness for working with equestrians and helping them develop their bodies, minds and spirits through yoga.
“Benefits for the equestrian include a combination of strength, flexibility and balance,” Woods said. “Yoga can also help develop body awareness, which is the concept of knowing where your body is in space and time. I think that all translates in the saddle to being not only a good rider and more mindful rider, but also a more confident rider.”
YOGA IS FOR EVERYONE
Yoga can seem intimidating, especially if you’ve only ever seen people performing the most advanced poses or if you feel lacking in the physical fitness department, but there’s no need to be intimidated. Yoga can be practiced by anyone at any time, including people who may struggle with their flexibility or balance. In fact, those are the people who might benefit the most from yoga.
“I am a believer that yoga should be accessible to anybody and everybody, regardless of your physical shape, your gender, or your spiritual or religious beliefs,” Woods said. “I’ve taught chair yoga to people who were elderly or had health conditions that prevented them from getting up and down from the floor. There are always modifications for people’s individual needs. I’ve also had people tell me they can’t come to my class because they aren’t flexible. Well, that’s exactly who the classes are for! It’s for those of us who have tension, want to become mindful or become more in tune with our bodies.”
When Woods teaches yoga for equestrians, she offers a combination of yoga mat exercises, breathing exercises and exercises that can be performed on horseback. As with all equine activities, safety is important, and many of Woods’ horseback yoga exercises focus on using simple movements to provide maximum benefit.
“People can feel really intimidated by the idea of yoga on horseback, but they aren’t big, challenging poses. These are very simple movements and many people who take a class or a session with me are surprised that they really can do them,” Woods said.
Ready to try some yoga for yourself? Try these easy beginner exercises for riders! These exercises were adapted with permission from Yoga for Riders.
EXERCISE 1: BREATHE WITH YOUR HORSE
This is a simple exercise that anyone can do, regardless of their level of physical fitness. According to Woods, taking a deep breath can act as a reset button for your emotions and help reduce stress or anxiety. Use this purposeful, focused breathing exercise to help prepare you for a ride, calm your nerves before a show or reduce your stress in the moment – and your equine partner will appreciate it!
“Begin by taking a few deep breaths, then place one hand on your horse’s chest or your horse’s side and tune into your horse’s breathing,” Woods said. “Take one or two minutes to breathe with your horse. This can help center and ground both of you and get you more in touch with your breathing. Yoga means ‘to yoke’ or ‘to unite,’ so this gives us a time to stop, pause and have some connection time with our horse.”
EXERCISE 2: STANDING GODDESS POSE
“This exercise is a great strengthening posture for the quadriceps, which are the muscles that make up the front of your thighs, and it can also help strengthen the inner thighs and our glutes,” Woods said. “As riders, we want strong legs, so this is a good pose for that.”
Begin by standing on the yoga mat with your feet wide apart and toes turned out slightly. While staying centered, bend both knees equally and slowly begin to sink your tailbone toward the floor. Keep your spine straight and keep your chin parallel to the floor. Your hands can be in a prayer position or lifted overhead. As you perform the pose, practice breathing deeply.
CATHY WOODS: AUTHOR OF YOGA FOR RIDERS AND CREATOR OF BODY, MIND, EQUINE™
Cathy Woods is a long-time yoga teacher and retreat leader, having taught yoga to equestrians and non-equestrians since 1991 at distinguished locations such as Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, Yogaville Ashram and Mount Madonna Center. An equine enthusiast and an avid rider who loves exploring the natural world from the back of a horse, Woods combined her passions to create a program called “Body, Mind, Equine,” which focuses on the use of yoga principles and postures to improve horsemanship, from ground to saddle. She offers retreats and clinics at ranches, resorts, equine centers and expos—including Equine Affaire, Southern Equine Expo and Equitana USA—as well as for private equestrian groups. Woods has written for and been featured in numerous online and print publications, such as Horse & Rider Magazine, Horse Illustrated, Equus, Western Horse & Gun Magazine, Yoga Digest, Forbes.com, Equitrekking, Flying Changes Magazine and others. Woods aims to impart an aware/mindful approach to yoga and horsemanship in order to make good horsemanship and true yoga accessible to everyone while promoting a more enriched and skillful life. She is based in the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina. Find out more at cathywoodsyoga.com.