Breathing Exercises for Anxious Riders

Today’s post was inspired by a reader who emailed me asking for ideas about breathing exercises for anxious riders in an adaptive or therapeutic riding program. She has a writer who “has developed extreme anxiety, seemingly out of nowhere (even other service providers have noticed and can’t determine why), and we’d like to have a few exercises that we can use to help him relax and achieve calmness sooner in the lesson if we can. He’s been riding almost two years now, so it’s not like this is a new experience.” I had a few resources I sent her way, then I asked for more ideas on Facebook so I could put a post together about this. I hope you find this helpful, and please, leave more ideas in the comment section below!

Breathing Exercises for Anxious Riders

The focus of this list is breathing exercises to help an adaptive or therapeutic riding participant relax and achieve inner calmness when they get anxious. This post is not about the anxiety issues themselves, but about the breathing exercises. Here are a few considerations to think about before using breathing exercises:

  1. If you have a rider experiencing anxiety, obviously first try to discover the cause of the anxiety and address the issue it at the source. Breathing Exercises are not the end-all answer, but a one of the many tools to help.
  2. Know the different types of breathing, especially diaphragm vs. chest breathing, and how to simply explain them and coach them. Google “types of breathing,” “the three types of breathing,” or “yoga breathing.” Here are some links to start you out: Simon Lau Center article, ShaMagazine article, All You Can Yoga article.
  3. Be familiar with adaptations for teaching breathing exercises to people with disabilities in case you need them, such as simplifications and visual cues and pairing breathing with something like talking for cognitive disabilities, and physical adaptations or cues for physical disabilities. This article and this article have some good ideas.
  4. Encourage riders to practice breathing exercises daily, so they are already practiced in them.Perhaps choose one or two exercises for them to practice at home with their parents every day. Or, practice the same few during warm ups in lessons every week, with their sidewalkers helping. This way when the anxiety comes, you already have a familiar breathing practice to fall back on instead of teaching a whole new one in the anxious moment.
  5. Redirect & Refocus. Part of handling anxiety is redirecting and refocusing the participant to stop the spiral. Consider what you will do before the breathing exercise to redirect participant’s attention, how you will use the breathing to stop the anxiety spiral, then how you will refocus the participant (will you go back to the task at hand or on to something else?).

These breathing exercises are listed in no particular order, and I hope you find them helpful tools to keep in your back pocket for when you need them!

Breathing With The Horse

This unmounted activity asks the participant to lay hands on the horse’s barrel where they can feel it breathing, close their eyes, and try to match their breath. You can add a challenge to being present by telling them the leader will ask the horse to make steps forward or backward and the participant can following the horse, keeping their hands on it. This activity really brings you to the present and can be very moving, but may cause more anxiety if closing one’s eyes causes issues. More information about this activity can be found in this blog post about Equine Assisted Activities for Peace and Reflection.

Yoga On Horseback

There are lots of simple to difficult yoga-type movements a rider can do on the back of the horse while focusing on breathing and matching their breath to the movements, which may help calm anxiety, especially if they are already familiar with these movements or you have practiced similar versions on the ground before mounting. This sweet little book Essential Yoga On Horseback popped into mind, which I bought on Amazon a long time ago, because it offers a lot of movement options you can pick and choose from.

3 x 3 or 4 x 4 Breathing

Breathe in for 3, breathe out for 3 – or for 4 each. This one is mentioned a lot online, and was mentioned several times in the comments. Make sure to use diaphragmatic (belly) breathing. Riders can do this to the steps of the horse’s walk – breathe in for 3 steps, etc. This exercise can “can help stop/prevent hyperventilation and the cascade of physiological effects too much oxygen can have on the mind and body,” one commenter said.

4-4-8 Breathing

Breathe in for 4 count, hold it for 4 count, breathe out for 8 count, repeat. When I was anxious during instructor training my friend taught me the 4-4-8 breathing and it helped a lot, I think because it gave me something to focus on, and distracted me because I kept wondering how I could breathe in 4 seconds then out 8, haha! I actually think her technique was breathe in 4, hold it 4, breathe out 6, hold it 2, repeat – but I could find no mention of this online. However, here is a resource for 4-4-8 breathing.

Tense and Relax Body Parts

Go through the rider’s body parts and ask them to tense and relax each one, being very specific, such as your calves, your knees, your lower back, etc. Ask them to tense the muscle when they breathe in and hold it for a few seconds, then relax as they breathe slowly out through their mouth, taking 3-5 seconds. This helps their body relax, and brings awareness to their body and parts they are tensing that they didn’t know about. Not all riders may be able to do this, or you may adapt by making the tense and release really obvious, such as, “squeeze your hands really tight, now open them up and relax.” I think this would be helpful for people who hold their breath when they get tense, because it aligns releasing the tension with breathing in a way that they are already set up to do. For more information see the third breathing exercise on this blog post at Healing Brave.

Visual Imaging for Breathing

Sally Swift’s book Centered Riding offers some great visual images you can use with your riders for breathing exercises:

  • As you breathe in, imagine the breath is going all the way through your body, to your belt, into your hips, and down into your boots. Pull the air all the way down to fill your whole body.
  • Put your hand flat across your belly, thumb on your belly button. Feel your belly breathe under your hand. Now try breathing into your chest, so you cannot feel it in your belly. Now go back to belly breathing, using your entire body.
  • Imagine a big flexible tube going through your body, down through the center of your chest and down each leg. What color is it? Can you breathe the air into it?
  • Imagine that you are breathing to a point below your belt line. This helps the diaphragm descend down.
  • Imagine there are bellows in your lower body, easily opening and closing to let the air rush in and out. Contrast this with imagining a balloon in your chest, which takes a lot of effort to blow up.
  • In the posting trot section, she says, “Let your body melt like ice cream and dribble down into and out the bottom of your boots.” It’s not breathing imagery, but it’s pretty relaxing to imagine yourself melting!
  • In this section she speaks of a person riding with hunched shoulders and curved back, like a scared or tense rider might, and says it is like they are “working over a desk or bench or sink with our chests pulled together and tied with a double-bow knot at the front and bottom of the ribs. Undo all these knots and open the front of the body.” Imagining undoing all these knots may be helpful for tension, as well, perhaps one with each breath.

Sally Swift also reminds us that our breath affects our horse. Holding our breath creates tension and can make a horse nervous. So perhaps encouraging your rider to keep breathing in order to help his horse will help.

Blow The Horse’s Ears

Ask the rider to try to blow on their horse’s ears – it gives them a visual and they usually blow harder because the ears are far away.

Breathe Counting the Horse’s Steps

Ask the rider to count how many steps the horse can take while they inhale and while they exhale. Challenge them to breathe slowly and deeply, to increase the number of strides counted.

Talk & Laugh

Talking and laughing require breathing, and are a natural way to get your rider breathing without focusing on it. Tell jokes or say something funny. Ask them question about school, siblings, or home.

Breathe to the Ticks

One response said they hold a watch up to the kid’s ear so they can listen to the ticking, and she asks them to breathe in for three ticks, out for three ticks. This may be hard to do for a rider on horseback, but you may be able to use a metronome app on your phone, or have a volunteer count or squeeze their hand.

Breathe With Arm Circles

During warm ups have the rider focus on breathing while doing big arm circles backwards, to open the shoulders and chest. When the arms go up, take a deep breath in. When the arms come down, let the breath out. When they get used to this, ask them to focus on their rib cage opening as the arms go up, then closing as the arms go down – or do one arm at a time.

3 Part Breath

Teach the rider “3 part breath” – break the breath down into three parts: belly, ribs, and chest. The commenter says: “Start with practicing to fill the belly. Have students place hands on the body part as the learn how to isolate each area. It takes a little practice but is effective at activating the parasympathetic nervous system in three minutes. Take a breath, fill the belly, ribs then chest. Let it out chest, ribs then belly.”

Alternate Nostril Breathing

In yoga, you use the right hand to:

  1. close the right nostril with the thumb and fully inhale through the left nostril
  2. close the left nostril with the index or ring finger and fully exhale through the right nostril
  3. inhale through the right nostril
  4. repeat (inhale left, exhale inhale right, exhale inhale left, and so on) continuing to alternate nostrils after each inhalation

Note: This one may take more coordination, and both nasal passages must be clear. You may need to adapt the exercise:

  • use whichever hand they are more comfortable using, or the index finger of each hand
  • if the first time it’s too fast for them to switch nostrils after the first inhale, have them inhale/exhale/inhale then start switching – the important thing seems to be switching sides after the inhale

Flap Their Lips Like A Horse AKA Make a Horse Noise

Tell them when the horse releases tension they flutter or flap their lips, then demonstrate it yourself and have them try! It’s silly, they feel silly, and it helps them relax – the horse may do it too!

Blow Bubbles

Hand out small bottles of bubble mix and have the riders or volunteers stand beside the horse and blow bubbles. You can do this away from the horses, but it gives the horses and handlers joy and relaxtion too!

Cookie Breathing

Pretend there are cookies baking in the oven to smell, then to cool off, with your breath. The commenter says she cannot remember where she got the idea from, but uses it like this: “Imagine your favorite cookies are baking in the oven, take a deep whiff, breathe, inhale…..they are out of the oven but too hot to eat so blow on them to cool them off….exhale/blow out. three times, embellishing on the imagery in the process. ‘Oh my gosh this smells so good!, they are too hot, don’t burn your tongue, blow!'”

Take 5 Breathing

Match Your Breath To The Horse

Breathe in and out matching your breath to the horse’s – the rider can be on the ground by the horse, or on the horse with the horse’s head turned to see his nostrils moving or look to the side to see his belly moving.

Blow Out Candles

One commenter said, “I do take a deep breath and blow out your birthday candles.”

Meditation Cards

Use animal-based meditation cards to help riders learn different breathing and mindfulness practices, most of which you can use on horseback. Some cards may ask the person to close their eyes, and you will have to make the best decision you can about whether that will make ok for the rider or make them more anxious. One commenter recommends the “Little Renegades” Mindful Kids Activity Cards which are adorable. I also searched for some and found The Prana Tribe’s Meditation Cards and The Monkey Mind Cards (examples here) looked really good too.

If you want to make your own animal meditation cards, here are some examples the commenter gave:

  • Pink/Purple/Blue/etc Breath – close your eyes and take a deep breath, whenever you exhale pretend your breath is coloring the sky with *blank* color
  • Pig Belly Breaths – place both hands on your belly and inhale, and then exhale, what happens to your belly when you breathe?
  • Bear Breaths- Take a dee breath in, and when you exhale, growl and let your bear belly out
  • Antler Ears – breathe in, pretend you have huge antler ears that can hear anything, what do you hear?

Happy Place

Encourage the rider to go to their happy place and breathe in the air around them.

Sing

Get them singing! They have to breathe while refocusing their attention. It may help to play music for the rider to listen to or sing with, or have the whole volunteer team sing with them.

Do you have any breathing exercises to add? Leave them in the comments!

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Note: This is not professional advice, this is a blog. I am not liable for what you do with or how you use this information. The activities explained in this blog may not be fit for every rider, riding instructor, or riding center depending on their current condition and resources. Use your best personal judgement! If you would like to contribute an activity or article, please contact me here, I would love to hear from you!

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