Soft hands, steady seat: a Yoga Sutra for horseback riding

Java and me with a Cowgirl Yogini last weekend,
screen grab from an upcoming segment on CNN International 

The last month has been a wonderful whirlwind of horses and yoga: getting ready for our annual Cowgirls vs. Cancer retreat, sharpening my horse and yoga teaching, and here’s the big one – learning to trailer my boys by myself. You know that saying, do something that scares you every day? I think I’m covered for the rest of the year. But now I feel empowered, and ready to roll with Dude and Java.

Speaking of fear, I’ve also spent a lot of time with my “challenge” horse, Java. He’s a sweet boy, but like me, he gets anxious and we feed off each other’s angst. So we’ve been working on breaking that cycle, and creating a partnership. There is so much horse training vocabulary and instruction that is esoteric to me. Or maybe it’s just that I can’t pull it off. One of these is “soften your hands”. As in, hardly move them. When you have a bit in your horse’s mouth and are holding the reins, you basically have your hands in his mouth. He can feel every little move they make. So think about that when you get scared and you yank with your hands. When the horse picks up speed because you’re actually cueing him to do so, but something in your brain screams “SCARY” and your hands pull back to stop the horse. And so on and so forth, almost every mistake involves an overreaction of the hands. It’s really, really hard to have soft hands.

Suddenly, it seems my hands have softened. This has been years in the making. And I think what did it was when the Yoga Sutra sthira sukham asanam came to mind: ‘the yoga posture must have the two qualities of firmness and ease’. ‘The connection to the earth should be steady and joyful’. In order to practice a yoga pose optimally, you have to be steady, yet joyful. The pose possesses firmness, but also an element of ease. You cannot just muscle into it, you have to exhibit grace as well. The connection to the horse should be steady and joyful. In other words, don’t yank with your hands.

The biggest epiphany for me has been to understand – in my body vs. my brain – that softening your hands also creates a steady seat. And that’s when you are grounded and balanced on horseback. It’s not your hands that will save you should something go awry – it’s your seat. Here’s my new translation of sthira sukham asanam, as it applies to riding: soft hands, steady seat.

Not surprisingly, one of my favorite things about yoga also applies to horses: you are never done learning. So you might as well enjoy the ride! Yeehaw & Namaste.