How many times in a lesson have you been told to breathe? Or when warming up before a test or jumping round, do you realise that you are holding your breath? It is an ‘issue’ that crops up for me before competing, especially if I’m nervous. It also gets a mention during Pilates at least once a session; the mental effort of concentrating on all the components of each exercise – multitasking again! – means that breathing gets forgotten. The physical effort can also result in breath-holding by fixing with the wrong muscles.
We all know the obvious impact of not breathing – light-headedness initially, then reduced concentration and co-ordination. Hopefully accidental breath-holding is unlikely to last long enough for the more severe consequences, but probably a good idea not to test that out! Shallow breathing can cause similar problems due to the shape of the lungs; they are basically triangles, with the narrow part at the top, so if you breathe into the top only, there is much less opportunity to take in oxygen.
When it comes to riding we are more concerned about our ability to use our body effectively. Holding the breath means fixing with the diaphragm, and as this is a large muscle that sits between the lungs and the abdomen, it can effectively block movement and smooth patterns of more functional muscle activity. Pilates and riding both require movement to flow through the body, in a connected and controlled manner. Breathing should aid this if possible, but it can take practise. Horses will also pick upon the tension that comes from poor breathing patterns, so if you can get it right then you are already starting from a better place.
Until I did my final Pilates training course we were taught how to incorporate breathing into each exercise; ‘Breathe in to prepare, breathe out to move’. By the time I finished training, breathing was no longer included because generally it was found that people became too fixed on breathing to be able to do the exercises properly. The focus now is on getting relaxed, rhythmical breathing that feels natural to the individual. It takes time and practise to combine controlled, specific movements with breathing, but is so worthwhile.
Riding or Pilates, the breathing emphasis is the same; controlled, rhythmical and relaxed. It’s one of the most natural things we do, yet can cause such problems if it goes wrong – practise getting your breathing right and you can make life so much easier for you and your horse. Add it to the list of things to work on as you hack out in the rain/snow/wind….