Use Breathing Halts to Settle Nerves

Dealing with a nervous or distracted horse is a common dilemma at clinics or on group rides. Restore your horse's composure by learning this calming technique from Susan Harris.

If anyone knows how to calm a nervous horse or rider, it’s Susan Harris. She teaches Centered Riding, a series of techniques that use body awareness, centering, and imagery to improve a rider’s balance and communication with the horse. Susan tells us how she handles nervous horses and riders when they come into a clinic situation. She starts by teaching a technique she calls “breathing halts”-a critical element in keeping the peace.

What’s the Big Deal?

Normally, when a rider is nervous, her breathing becomes rapid and shallow. She takes in only enough air to fill the top of her ribcage. That causes her body to become somewhat stiff, just as yours would if you were holding your breath. The alternative is to breathe more deeply using the diaphragm, which releases body tension and also tells the horse that he can relax.

Breathing from the diaphragm isn’t hard. In fact, it’s what we do when we sleep. If you watch someone sleeping, you’ll see her stomach rise as she inhales and fall as she exhales. Her diaphragm is doing that work.

Try it as you sit in your chair. Breathe in through your nose, allowing your stomach to expand forward. Then relax your mouth and breathe out through it, allowing your stomach to drop down or back. It’s not the size of the breath that matters, but the quality of it. It should be big enough that you feel it and feel how it can dispel tension. You’ll feel yourself begin to relax.

Relaxing Rhythm

  • When you ride, consciously breathe the way you do while sleeping; use your tummy.
  • Inhale through your nose; exhale through your mouth.
  • Release tension as you breathe out.
  • For a breathing halt: exhale, pause for a heartbeat, say “whoa,” and then pick up a rein.
  • Repeat simple words or songs to keep from holding your breath when you’re nervous.

Susan tells her riders, “As you breathe out, imagine your breath filling your lower torso and maybe even dropping down through your seat and legs. The result is that you’ll sit with a deeper seat.”

Tense riders often hold their breath. Consciously breathing in and out can calm a confused or flustered rider and help a horse to settle down. “One of the ways that we help riders to remember to breathe is to have them sing or talk out loud.” Susan laughs as she says, “If you’re talking, you’re breathing.” She likes to have riders use a “breathing rhythm,” which involves repeating a song or series of words, such as “Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday….”

Susan says that breathing from the diaphragm is like a safety valve. “Using a breathing halt is like hitting the reset button on a computer. It allows the rider’s body to relax from stiffness, and it gives the horse a moment to calm down, come back to earth, and stop and think.”

Once you’ve become aware of your breathing, the next thing is to coordinate it with a cue to your horse to stop. You’ll be amazed at how quickly he will catch on. It’s a win for both you and him.

Ready for a Clinic?

A clinic situation is often exciting for both horse and rider. Susan recommends that riders ask themselves whether the horse is ready for a big experience away from home. She says that one of the best things you can do to make your horse more comfortable is to give him a limited experience away from home prior to the clinic weekend.

“It doesn’t have to be the same arena where the clinic will be held. You can go to a nearby arena or meet friends on the trail. That will give both you and your horse some experience being excited and then calm again. It will also give you an opportunity to put the breathing exercise into practice before clinic day.”

Sometimes riders have a choice of horses to ride. The temptation is to take the least experienced horse to the clinic, thinking that the education will do him good. Susan has found that most riders do better when they take a steady, quiet horse. She says that riding Mr. Steady Eddy will make it easier to learn. Then the rider can teach what she’s learned to her less experienced horse at home.

Susan says that it’s important to understand what kind of a clinic you’ll be going to, and something about the clinician’s experience and style. She has heard about and seen plenty of situations in which the rider didn’t have any idea what was going to happen at the clinic. Some clinics involve a series of private lessons; others have you riding in a group, often with inexperienced riders and green horses. Some clinicians specialize in young, green horses, while others are focused on the rider or different levels of training. Some give you lots of personal attention, while others work with riders as a class. If your horse isn’t at the same level as the other horses, you may be in for a frustrating experience.

Aside from the safety factor, which itself is huge, you want to evaluate whether this is a trainer under whom you and your horse will progress. Will you get along well with the clinician’s teaching style? As a veteran instructor at numerous clinics every year, Susan can tell you that no one wants to be put in an awkward position. It can be really difficult to say, “I don’t want to do that” in a group ride. She suggests that when in doubt, auditing (watching) to get an idea of the clinician’s teaching style would be a good idea. Then you can go to the next clinic with that clinician, confident that you’ll be a good fit.

Coordinated Efforts
To perform a breathing halt, you’ll have to consciously coordinate a few activities. Have your horse move forward at the walk. Breathe in through your nose. Breathe out through your mouth. As you exhale, imagine that you can direct that air down into your seat, making your seat feel heavy. One heartbeat later, say “whoa,” pick up the reins, and ask your horse to stop.

The instant all four of the horse’s legs are stopped, release your reins and say, “good.” Pat your horse. But don’t expect your horse to stand still. Let him walk on. You want to ease tension, not bottle it up.

You can also teach this from the ground. Walk beside your horse, consciously breathing in and then out. As you exhale, stop your own feet-imagine yourself becoming a fencepost-and pick up the lead rope. The horse will pause for a split second. Tell him, “good,” and walk on. With repetition, your horse will recognize that when you breathe out in that way, he can relax and begin stopping. Your horse is getting it if he begins to halt before you use your reins or lead rope.

“People are always surprised that they get such a good response from the horse,” Susan says. “It’s the sensitive horses, the ones most likely to get nervous, who are most obvious in their responses.”

Fresh Air
After you’ve practiced breathing halts enough at home, you can then use them as a tool in an exciting situation. Say you’ve just arrived at the clinic grounds. Your horse comes off the trailer all excited-eyes big, nostrils flaring. He looks like a kid about to have hysterics. Here’s where your training pays off, both in keeping yourself calm and in helping your horse to settle in.

“You have to be the grown-up,” Susan reminds riders. “You have to be calm, quiet, aware of your surroundings, and tell your horse that you’re going to get through this together. If you allow him to get you nervous and upset, his nervousness will then feed off yours, and you’ll get into a bad spiral. Instead, you have to tell yourself that you’re here to help your horse, who is like a child having a meltdown at the park.”

Focus on asking him to do simple, familiar tasks, such as leading exercises or longeing. Remember, though, that the purpose of longeing isn’t to let your horse blow off steam or to tire him. It’s to give him a chance to settle into the situation by doing a job that he’s comfortable with, that helps him feel more secure.

If you’re allowed to go into the arena before the clinic begins, that’s an advantage, especially if no one is in there.

“You want your horse to have a good experience, so keep it positive and stay away from other excited horses,” she advises. “After a few minutes, he’ll discover that no one at the clinic eats horsemeat, so he’s safe.”

Let’s say that you’ve done all that, and it went well. But now you’re riding in the clinic and you sense your horse is building up steam. That’s where your breathing will really make a big difference. Combine breathing with whatever calm-down cues you’ve taught and practiced at home, such as dropping the horse’s head or moving his hips.

“If your horse is antsy or moving too quickly and you want to stop him, use your breathing halts,” Susan instructs. “It’s fine to use this with a one-rein stop, or any stop that you’re used to doing with your horse. But don’t just pull on the reins and expect him to stay stopped. Breathe, pause, let him move. Breathe, halt, let him move, and so forth.

“As you breathe, he’ll feel your body deepen and relax,” Harris explains. “He’ll learn to pay more attention to your body, and he’ll be more responsive to the rein signal that follows. This is especially true if one of the horses in the group gets upset or spooks. Keep your calm and focus on breathing and controlling your horse.”

Your calm approach to familiar work will help him to remember the signals that you and he worked out at home. Breathing is really the key that makes it all work and allows your time at the clinic to be fun and productive.

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