A good metaphor for the interface between practicing yoga and riding horses is "taming the horse, and riding the mind." Both are conversations that illuminate the path. For me, becoming a competent rider means being present with your horse both on the ground and in the saddle. This effort defines the art of horsemanship: creative acts supported by skill and dedication. Of course, like yoga, you need a good teacher. In both cases you listen and follow direction. Then, practice, practice, practice….
I was an accomplished equestrian when I was young and, after forty years, decided to take it up once more at the age of 60. When I started riding again I thought that I would be able to apply the principles I had learned in yoga and forgo the mat practice. Unfortunately the benefits of breath and alignment did not last in the rough and tumble of riding a horse. (Never mind the spinal curling-iron effect of the desk chair and car seat!) Eventually life and circumstances convinced me to resume my mat practice.
Right away, I saw how yoga informs and reinforces my efforts as a rider. I feel it every time I sit in the saddle and notice how my body is elongating and becoming more supple from asana practice. For example, tadasana aligns the spine and helps place my seat in the saddle with my legs evenly on both sides of the horse. Breaking at the waist in downward dog and forward bends trains me to access my bhandas in any position, apply pressure with my legs around the horse, and put my heels down. Upward dog and the backbends open my heart so the horse knows upon my approach that I am accessible to him and his needs. Good drishti informs the horse where we want to go as he responds to my visual focus and the weight and direction of the head, shoulders and waist. Noticing the breath facilitates proprioception and allows me to be aware of where I am in the saddle and in space. It also underscores the tempo of present-centered awareness and supports connection to the ongoing rhythm of the horse's movement and stride.
Over the years, my yoga practice has allowed me to cultivate a focused, non-cluttered mind and supported a certain clarity and precision in all of my efforts, both physical and mental. I am still amazed at how fresh this practice remains in my life. Now, as an equestrian in her sixties, my yoga practice will help me be free from injury and move forward as an athlete unfettered by age. Its future offerings will remain a mystery and I look forward to even more discoveries on both the mat and in the saddle.