Part One

Breathing - The  Key to the Half Halt by Jenny Rolfe

These fundamental words were written by  Alois Podhajsky in his book The Complete Training of the Horse and Rider.

‘The technique of breathing plays an important part in the performance of the horse, in the same way that it does with a human being. This technique will be the result of methodical training and will increase the powers of endurance. Excited horses, which do not carry the weight of their riders correctly, will be sooner out of breath and unable to produce as good a performance as well-trained horses. Regular breathing will reveal to the observer a physically and mentally well-balanced horse stepping with regularity. High blowing is a sign of well-being.’

My journey of horsemanship has taken me through a steep learning curve where I have gained some insight into the significance of Podhajsky’s words.

Whilst I was training in Lisbon, Antonio Borba Monteiro frequently used the words, ‘master the balance and you master the horse’. All gaits and movements require that both horse and rider learn to move together with a natural flow and balance. The art of balanced riding is to become aware of your own poise and equilibrium and this will allow you to feel ‘at one’ with the movement and spirit of the horse; horse and rider in perfect harmony.

How is this flow and balance accomplished? Look at the physical requirements of balance, and the harmony needed between our body, mind and spirit.  True balance will require harmony between both the physical and the spiritual: the physical body will achieve a balanced state only when the mind and spirit allow a ‘centered’ and harmonious feeling.

Create a harmonious balance of body, mind and spirit.

Let us look at some helpful lateral breathing techniques to develop more focus, balance and body awareness.

Exercises out of the saddle

Stand with your feet about 46 cm apart and  take a deep breath inwards; feel your ribcage expand and widen and your body grow taller. Let the breath flow to the sides of your ribs and into your spine, not upwards. Relax slowly on the outward breath allowing the ribcage to relax and feel the breath ripple through the upper body and lower abdomen.

Continue with your steady inhaling and exhaling.

With each breath inward expand the body slightly, growing taller with each breath. Let the inward breath lengthen and widen your body. Allow the outward breath to relax the ribcage and feel the tension release between your shoulders.

Breathe deeply, widely and fully.

Looking forward, directly in front of you, squeeze the muscles tightly around your eyes then slowly release the pressure and relax. This softens the focus of your eyes and also the facial muscles. Pull your chin backwards gently towards the back of the neck (double chins may appear) then relax. This exercise will help realign the vertebrae in the neck.

 Hold the breath inwards,  for a few seconds. Then gently exhale and feel the air ripple through your spine and abdomen. Coughing helps you to ‘feel’ the correct muscles, which can be ‘scooped’ or squeezed’ upwards, then tighten them to feel the core of stability that can be created.

Continue breathing deeply in the way described until you can really feel the breathing creating a vigorous centre in the lower abdomen. This core of strength will be well able to support the upper torso, not only with stability but also with the ability to create energy flow. This will be the key to carrying out transitions when you are riding, not the strong leg or the driving seat. You will influence your horse with your breathing and harmony.

  If the correct abdominal breathing is used when inhaling or exhaling, a core of stability can be created. This helps to locate the correct centre of gravity and balance. If a hand is placed on the stomach on the inward breath, it should feel like a balloon being blown up; on the outward breath, the balloon effect will be deflated and the stomach drawn in.

Breathing enhances balance.

Just try this further exercise whilst walking,  which highlights the use of our breathing for re-balancing.

Walk normally for several strides and then take a deep inward breath and slow down your pace.  Do you lengthen in your body and feel stronger in your spine?  Do you have a feeling of rebalancing and re-energizing?

Now practise the same exercise walking with your arms positioned as if you were riding. Take a deep inhalation and feel the stomach expand. Halt and feel the increased stability and power created in your strong abdominal centre. Then take a slow, long exhalation feeling the relaxation and fluidity run through your lower back. This energy flow is the key to absorbing forward movement.

Now repeat the breathing exercises and imagine how your hands, with closed fingers, can help to connect with the energy of the horse, contained through your lower back and strong centre. This is pivotal to the half halt; the energy is momentarily rebalanced and contained and then, on the outward breath, the energy is empowered and released into forward movement.

The relaxed lower back invites forward movement along with the allowing and opening of the fingers. The horse will then accept the invitation to take the rebalanced energy forwards into a more elevated movement.

The combination of the half-halt and the subsequent release of the lower back and the opening of the fingers is the basis of riding in lightness.

Lateral Breathing - Riding the Half Halt

Lateral breathing is the key to the half-halt which is the term used for the rebalancing of the horse and rider
The inward breath

When a deep inward breath is taken, the forward energy flow is interrupted. The rider is rebalanced and poised, which in turn gives the signal to the horse to rebalance, i.e. to steady himself and engage his hindquarters. He will then take more of his body-weight back, thus lightening and elevating the forehand. This is the essence or ‘spirit’ of the half-halt; to rebalance the rider and to ask the horse to rebalance physically and focus and steady his mind

The upper torso of the rider will lengthen and widen, allowing a holding or containing of energy. The pelvis is tipped very slightly forward and the seat bones move back. The lower back will arch, giving the indication to the horse to steady his forward movement.

The deep inhalation will influence the rider in the following ways. 

  • As air fills the lungs, it should be breathed into the back and spine. The hands placed on either side of the ribcage will feel the chest expand and widen, and the abdominal area will expand.
  • The body is recharged with vital energy.
  • The spine will strengthen and lengthen.
  • The seat will lighten.

The deep inhalation should be followed by a slow exhalation from the lower abdomen.

The outward breath

Feel the deep exhalation send a ripple of energy down through the spine. Scoop up (draw upwards and inwards) the lower muscles of the stomach and pelvic floor, releasing and mobilizing the pelvis.  When these muscles are used correctly they will help to maintain core stability. This increased stability of the rider’s back helps to maintain the quiet hand, giving fluidity and stability at the same time. The pelvis moves backwards as the seat bones move forwards and the lower back slightly flattens. The lower pelvic and transverse abdominal muscle tightens and gives a small ‘push’. The horse will feel this release which will encourage him to move forward with more fluid energy.
This does not mean that the horse is allowed to pull, but that the rider allows the horse to move forward, without restriction. Core stability is maintained.     
Maintain core stability.

The slow exhalation influences the rider in the following ways.

  • A flow of energy through the upper body relaxes the ribcage.
  • The lower spine is relaxed and softened, giving a feeling of ‘melting’ into the horse’s back
  • The ‘scoop’ of the lower muscles of the pelvic floor can be felt when the stomach is hollowed.

It is amazing how quickly a horse will tune in to a person’s breathing and we can use his extreme sensitivity to work for us. In the herd a horse is supremely sensitive to all the other herd members. There may be minor challenges of threatening behaviour within the herd, but the response is normally immediate and the friction is soon forgotten. They do not appear to seek major confrontation and seem content with their position, of whatever ranking, within the herd structure.

This type of behaviour tells us that if we seek minimal confrontation, we may succeed in gaining a positive response for much of the time to minimal aids.

The force of the wind on a blustery day can dramatically change the mood of a herd of horses from that of being totally relaxed to one of feeling apprehensive. The wind is an invisible force yet a source of great power. An awareness of breathing is our most powerful tool of communication. Breathing is of fundamental importance both to the horse and the rider.  Horses prefer to be working with us in harmony, founded upon regular and relaxed breathing patterns. If they are relaxed, breathing deeply and rhythmically, they can support themselves and carry a rider with less strain.

The horse can be both teacher and pupil and on our journey of horsemanship we can seek to learn how to bring about telepathic responses, awakening a deeper connection between man and horse.

Jenny Rolfe's new book ‘RIDE FROM THE HEART’ is available at our shop section or please visit her web site for further information.

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