Yoga makes you want to do to your horse what yoga is doing to your life – feeling more centered, walking around in a better posture and, while exercising, moving with more grace, enjoying oneself in the biggest challenges of each posture. Yoga makes you crave for a more classical feel with your equine partner – read harmonious. As dressage trainer, one of the first advices I give to my students is to practice yoga at least two days a week and see what it does to their riding. It is such a pleasure for me to notice the improvements in posture, relaxation and focus that follow. Yoga is a very unique tool to make the modern rider reconnect with our classical tradition. And since it is so widely available nowadays, it would be a shame not to give it a try. Why is that?
When done seriously, yoga is the ultimate workout for a better position: all-‐in-‐one core toner, hip opener, and balance builder. Yoga works on deep muscles that are hard to be aware of and use effectively – each muscle of the thigh, calf, back, or the much-‐talked-‐about psoas. Yoga will help you remain straight, one vertebrae on top of another, and open your hips to be able to sit deeply onto the thighs, using legs for impulsion and not for position. By engaging your abs, you become more in control of your center of gravity and can keep close to the center of gravity of your horse. And this is only when your core is keeping you balanced, that you can use your aids independently and precisely. Yoga helps use the body more classically – read correctly. It develops a rider seat by bringing extra strength wherever needed (just the right amount of strength for holding a posture) and by improving a rider’s overall elasticity. Yoga will lubricates your joints as much as you want your horse’s joints to be while sitting in collection.
And here comes the second benefit of yoga for the dressage rider – the empathy it brings to your practice with your equine partner. It does to your body what dressage should be doing to your horse body (deep-‐and-‐low fans, look the other way). The essence of bending both sides evenly appears in all its challenges as you struggle in your first (years of) half moon poses. You are able to understand how demanding a half pass or pirouette can be, as you aim for the perfect triangle or full locust. That empathy roots your practice into measure, patience and respect – all of which being a rider’s cardinal virtues. It makes us experiment how bad and good days translate to a body. It corrects too high expectations and make us double check if our horses are ready for a movement, or if we need to go back to preparing for this movement. And running into a too quick and unsupported back bend will make you scream ouch next time you see a horse piaffing on a hollow back.
My personal favorite is the benefit yoga brings to your mind – the increased focus and body awareness. Having to stay connected to your breathing while twisting yourself in five different directions simultaneously without falling on the ground is only possible with acute concentration; in that case – a mental ability to make your body multitask, along with the ability to stay organized when things start to (literally) slip out of hand. Exactly what you want as a dressage rider when you need to control, at the same time, your
body, your horse body, the impulsion, the rhythm and an accurate geometry. Even more at a
competition, with the added stress, and the crowded warm-‐up rings. Yoga helps work on equanimity, and targets it better than anything else I have encountered. It makes you realize that you can work on your mindfulness and self-‐control in the same way you work on building a muscle (even more Bikram yoga, that is practiced in a challenging 104° heat).
While doing yoga and while riding, one has to enter a deep state of active meditation and turn into the observer of our body and of the horse body to move and influence them classically – read calmly and precisely. Yoga unifies body and mind to turn
into one coherent entity for our horses – to take the struggle out of the equation. Dressage, when getting close to perfection, has to look as easy as that. The answer to our riding and life problems can only be found by staying centered, not by reacting with emotions or tensing against the bumps in the roads.
To be more pragmatic, a better mindfulness will make you a better observer of your horse body and thus being able to quickly spot where the tension lies, where the resistance comes from, and understanding how to fix a problem or make a movement happen when stuck – or ideally, before getting stuck.
As our body is not quite ready to demonstrate a perfect standing bow, it is not by struggling that we will able to stretch on one foot, but rather by meditating, breathing, and using our core strength: understanding and organizing the body, in order to keep it straight and balanced. It may require years of preparing and positioning yourself correctly. Every time getting closer to the full expression of the posture, until the day you feel that everything clicks together and that your body is ready for the movement to arise. It comes to a point where it actually feels easy. Like that year(s) long recipe of exercises to reveal a beautiful collected canter on that horse with a challenging conformation – you are amazed and wonder where this uphill, slow and elastic canter just came from. Our horses should not be rushing out of their movements, and if they are, we have to return to what we have mastered with them and prepare again: find out how to engage the right muscles, keep them aligned and move them within the right timing and in the correct tempo. Find the ease in the effort. As a yogi, we want our horses to breathe (and calmly salivate) through their movements.
Et voilà! Dressage is the patient art of understanding intricate moves, feelings, flows of energy, in order to gymnasticize and dance with a happy body. Riding with your mind is the only pathway to a discipline that, to be classical, has to be an art, as much as a sport. And what is an art if not the deepest expression of one’s mind? Namasté!
Originally from France, Madeleine Debure has been living in the USA since 2006. She teaches classical riding in the New York city area. With her mentor, the Colonel Christian Carde, former head of the Cadre Noir, the French National riding school, she published Le Dressage et La Compétition (Belin, Paris, 2014)– where the Colonel Carde discusses with her the relations between modern competitive Dressage and its classical tradition. Madeleine also has been collaborating for many French equestrian magazine like L’Eperon or Cheval Magazine. She has also been an avid Bikram yoga practitioner since 2009.