Yoga on Horseback – riding the trend

So it seems that “Yoga on Horseback” is über trendy right now, after the folks at Wanderlust busted out with it this summer. Since then, Cowgirl Yoga has been mentioned on Well & Good NYC and – get ready for it – Cosmo, who subtitled their photo piece “Because this is a Thing now”. We were just contacted by a large international pub that was only interested in yoga on horseback images, because they are “so much more striking”. Which compelled me to share my not-so-humble opinion with them on this matter.

Don’t get me wrong, I am grateful for the mentions. And I’ve worked in trendy before – in fact, in the cosmetics industry my entire job was structured around figuring out the next hot thing. But a media message that hopping on horseback helmet-less and busting out an arm balance is a dangerous thing that I just can’t condone. I’ll be the first to admit that over the years we’ve tried a lot of interesting and not-so-safe things on horseback for a photo op – but they were all very carefully planned, with spotters, and with only my ass on the line if I fell off. Over the years we’ve also had lots of insurance challenges, with companies running for the hills any time they heard the words “yoga” and “horses” in the same sentence. (Reminder: we live in a country where people sue for spilling their own too hot coffee on themselves.) So my conclusion, Wanderlust et al…is that the yoga on horseback trend is irresponsible. I say this after over six years of successful, and safe, Cowgirl Yoga.

Because you see, we have never exactly offered yoga on horseback. That is not what Cowgirl Yoga is about, believe it or not. Nor is it just offering yoga on a trip where you also horseback ride. All along, we have emphasized the horse-human connection that is fostered through yoga, as well as the connection between what we practice on the mat and how we interact with the horses. I quote myself, from an Athleta article called Breathe. Feel. Trust. Giddy Up. that I wrote in 2009:
There are many similarities between practicing yoga and riding a horse, which is how Cowgirl Yoga, a merging of horses and yoga, came about. Despite the similarities, there is one very, very big difference between yoga and riding: when you practice yoga you are on your mat, an inanimate object; when you ride a horse, you are on a living being that possesses its own feelings, intuition and instinct. Most of the time you can be pretty sure your mat is not going to fly out from under you — this doesn’t necessarily hold true for the horse. You are the only player on your yoga mat; riding a horse requires the creation of a synergy between two beings, an interactive partnership. Yoga encourages being in the present moment; riding demands it. It’s interesting to compare and contrast the components of both practices that we can take off the mat and out of the saddle into our daily life, the elements that teach us the most about living in the present moment at its fullest expression.

And because, it’s not just about the yoga poser. It’s also about the horse. When I first started guest teaching Cowgirl Yoga at a dude ranch a few years ago and asked them about some of the very simple breath work we do on horseback – for example, taking your arms overhead while inhaling – I thought they might faint. They were worried about how the horses would react to that. I asked Janice, our head CY wrangler, to further elaborate on the position of the horses: 

The horse’s safety/comfort level should be considered. Doing yoga poses bareback on a horse can dig into sensitive areas of their body. While you are trying to find your balance for the pose, the horse is enduring your weight shifts. For such a sensitive animal and one that is trying to stay balanced at all times, it may be very uncomfortable. Using a saddle is, most often, a more comfortable situation for the horse and a more secure base for the “poser”. It’s not just all about the “poser”. It’s also about the horse. Using good (horse) sense and being mindful of the horse and the “poser” will increase the safety factor. Being aware and considerate is a good start. There’s an old saying – “It’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt.”   

Cowgirl Yoga is about connecting your yoga practice to your horse time. On the yoga mat, we work on hip opening (the obvious, physical opening that helps facilitate riding) and heart opening (the more esoteric, optimal state to be in around horses). To transition from the mat to the saddle, we practice breath work on horseback and some very simple vinyasa to connect the breath with movements. The goal is fostering a calm connection and tapping into the benefits of our yoga practice through our relationship with the horse. It produces a much more meaningful experience than just hopping on a horse and attempting to do a downward dog (and not to mention is a lot safer). 

Yup, yoga on horseback is trendy, and so is yoga. But it’s my feeling that you have to dig deeper for the stuff that transcends the trend, and that will last (for example, this recent NYT article on horses and connection intrigues me more than what yoga pose can I try next on the back of my horse). That is the part that has interested me about both practices, that I anticipate will keep me interested the rest of my days. Yeehaw & Namaste.

Bareback bound pigeon pose, by Larry Stanley. Me on RC with spotters and lead rope Photoshopped out.