Our unconcious core: the science of breathing

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Breathing & Horse Riding: our unconscious core – the science of breathing

How often do we stop and notice our breathing?

Think back to your recent schooling session, what were you practicing? Maybe you were working on straightness or suppleness? In your 45 minutes/ 1 hour session can you remember once noticing your breath?

Breathing happens unconsciously and is one of our most important automatic functions, filtering oxygen into our body, creating energy for our muscles to move. How often do we step back and notice our breath? And yet it is a gateway to understanding ourselves in so many ways.

So why is it so important to breathe well for better riding?

The muscles of breathing are connected to our deepest core muscles, when we activate them correctly we create stability through tension, holding us up. If the deepest layer of muscles, our foundation is ineffective, other more superficial muscles have to work harder to create our stability. More tension in our superficial muscles make it harder to move our arms and legs independently to develop those all-important subtle aids to our horse.

How do we breathe?

It is our diaphragm that is our primary breathing muscle.  A wide sheet of muscle that at rest, sits (like the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral) under the base of our lungs. When this muscle contracts it flattens out creating a negative pressure in our lungs allowing air to be drawn into the body. As it relaxes we breathe out. A gentle natural recoil of the diaphragm occurs. Lots of muscles help with breathing, tiny muscles exist between each rib called intercostal muscles and then there are accessory muscles which are muscles around your shoulders, head and neck that work to help expand your chest more when we need a larger oxygen supply.

What goes wrong?

Our breathing can be affected when we exert ourselves, our body’s increased need for oxygen. We also change our breath patterns with anxiety and stress, usually breathing shallow and fast. Our posture, lifestyle, injuries can also dictate our breathing biomechanics. Sometimes accessory muscles work harder than they should, even at rest when you are not exerting yourself. Sometimes because of injury or poor posture our good diaphragmatic breathing goes out the window and we become more reliant on our accessory muscles. Making our breathing less efficient and creating more tension in our head, neck and shoulders. We don’t even realise we are doing it! Sometimes we breath hold to “splint” out torso to create stability. This can be extremely detrimental and creates a fixed, tense posture throughout, which will never allow us to develop independent, subtle movements needed for effective horse riding.

How do I breathe?

To check you are using your diaphragm well. Place your hands on either side of your rib cage (below your bra strap of you are a woman!) Close your eyes and begin to notice the if the rib cage expands into your hands as you breathe in.

Not much happening? Do you notice your breast bone lifting up or (if you are a woman – your boobs rising)? If so, you are more likely to be breathing with your accessory muscles and perhaps your diaphragm could be working a little more effectively. As a fun exercise count your number of breaths for one minute. Don’ try to change your breathing just count your breaths. Jot down the number!

Now, practice consciously expanding your lower rib cage, pushing the rib cage wide into your hands. Practice this deeper expansion and imagine the diaphragm flattening and widening into the corners of your rib cage. Close your eyes, sit in an upright posture and recount your breaths. You may notice quite a change!

Lowering your number of breaths per minute may not only improve your core but has an effect on our fight and flight responses. Think what happens when your horse is scared of something and they get ready to bolt, they snort and they tense their entire body. We are mammals too, slowing your breathing calms our fight and flight responses, helps us feel calm and less anxious. Having a calm, focused mind is also key to good training of your horse. But more on that another day!

Happy breathing!

If you want to know more, our horse rider Pilates classes are run by a Chartered Physiotherapist. We focus on breathing in our classes helping optimise your performance on your horse. Held at Longwick Village Hall 7:50pm Mondays nights. Come a long and try it!

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Rachel Changer