Getting Grounded: the link between yoga and horses

This great grey owl has been hanging around the Vap Ranch this winter…our neighbor ought to be a pro wildlife photog!

Originally published April 2018

It’s been a never ending winter here in Montana, and our cozy little neck of the woods has felt like Narnia, all sparkly snow, owl sightings, and shooting stars (full disclosure: we’ve also had a frozen pipe or two, and our garage doors have frozen shut on multiple inconvenient occasions. But it’s been stunning outside!). As we await some semblance of spring, so we can get fencing and barn building started to bring our horses home…I’ve been spending a lot of time doing groundwork, with a certain horse named Skywalker.

Think about what groundwork means: it’s establishing a base, a foundation. It’s getting grounded so you can grow from there. The problem is, many people want to skip it, no matter what we’re talking about. With horses, people just want to get on and ride. With yoga, they muscle right in to advanced asana. Most of the time, you will fall on your face if you attempt crow pose without practicing some prep work. Not doing groundwork with horses can have similar results.

A few weeks ago, I came back from our first Cowgirl Yoga retreat in Argentina. I hadn’t seen Skywalker in a few weeks, my body was adjusting after travel and time zone changes, and I’d had some parenting challenges (#tweenlife). I walked into the arena without even realizing how amped up I was. Skywalker must not have recognized this emotionally discombobulated me, and his reaction was to run. And keep running. And the longe line between us reflected this tension. My lovely trainer stepped in, smooth as silk, and he slowed down, maybe even sighed in relief. He looked like he was dancing with her. Groundwork with horses 101: any emotional state you are in will be reflected in your communication with your horse. Take some deep breaths. Scan your body. Set an intention. If you can have this effect on your horse from the ground, consider what your body would tell him while on his back.

Here’s a great video of Skywalker and I, on a better day when our energies aligned:

Groundwork gives you the opportunity to recognize your energy, read your horse’s energy, and hopefully make positive adjustments to both. It creates an energetic relationship. Sometimes I ride after doing it, sometimes I don’t; but anytime I am going to ride, I’ve learned things on the ground that improve my partnership with my horse. I see things on the ground that I might not see from the saddle.

I introduced ground working sessions on our Cowgirl Yoga retreats a few years ago, not even realizing why: it’s the link between yoga and what we do on the mat, and getting on the back of the horse. It dispels any myth that one just gets on and rides a horse, with the horse doing all the “work”. It illustrates how sensitive and finely tuned these animals can be to us. We approach groundwork as an energy exchange, with the goal of becoming the horse’s leader. People cry, become overjoyed, spill all kinds of emotions they didn’t even know they had inside when they join up with a 1200 pound animal, who will follow them around like a puppy. It reminds our cowgirl yoginis to bring key elements of the yoga practice – like breath, calm and centered intention, controlled and flowing (vs. imprecise and choppy) movements – to every moment with a horse. Oh, and we do horse massage too. As you can imagine, that goes over quite well with both horse and human.

I’ll scratch your back if you open up mine…

And while you might not be able to indulge in a groundwork session with every horse you ride, there are certainly things you can take from it to use in every interaction you have a with a horse. And guess what – we work on many of those things on our yoga mat. Stay connected to your breath, and let the horse feel your deep inhales and exhales. Center yourself and create a positive intention. Check in with your physical and emotional energy. It’s not esoteric, it’s being in touch. And it’s a healthy way to live – horses agree!

Want to try groundwork with a horse? We still have a few spots left on our July B-LUXE Cowgirl Yoga retreats!

Yeehaw & Namaste.