Doing yoga on a horse may seem a bit silly at first, but equestrian yogis swear by the trend, saying the connection with both themselves and the horse is profoundly therapeutic. We bet there might be a few city slickers who wouldn’t mind trading in a rubber mat for asanas on bareback in the mountain air. – Global Animal
DailyCamera.com, Aimee Heckel
Hollie Hirst stretches back, arching below the razor edge of the mountain wind. The Boulder woman fills her lungs, one rich breath, and then rests onto the strangest yoga mat she’s ever used. It’s warm and muscular and covered in bristling needles of short white and brown hair.
And its name is Dusty.
Dusty is a horse boarded at the Star Peak Stables in Golden, one of the area locations where instructor Kerry Borcherding regularly holds Yoga with Horses workshops.
If you’ve never sat on the back of one of these colossal mammals and saluted the sun, the horse-yoga combo might sound mismatched — even dangerous. Note: Participants do wear helmets.
But, Borcherding explains, after a few minutes with their equine partners, even people who are scared of horses quickly realize: Yoga must have been created by a horse
At the core of these classes is the more widely practiced therapeutic horseback riding. Horses can teach people with disabilities or cognitive, relational or emotional challenges about companionship, leadership, discipline and responsibility, advocates say.
“Because they’re prairie animals, horses are extremely aware and intuitive of their environment,” says Borcherding, of Lyons. “So very quickly, people who are around them need to be authentic. If you aren’t, they tell on you.”
The horses might walk away or refuse to interact, she says. Borcherding is also an equine-assisted psychotherapist, and she studied wilderness therapy at Naropa University in Boulder.
“Horses have an amazing ability to detect energy. Their fields are much larger than ours,” she says. “Horses allow people to feel good in their true nature, instead of having to be someone else.”
In equine therapy, participants groom the horses, ride them and work through different tasks. One woman who was struggling with an unruly teenage son practiced boundaries and loving discipline by learning how to back up a horse. Another woman who was in desperate need of self-care walked into the field and five horses immediately surrounded her, nuzzling her and showing her affection, Borcherding says. The woman burst into tears.
“It almost seems like magic at times. They hold up a mirror and reflect back to us ourselves,” Borcherding says.
After teaching equine therapy for two years, she says she realized that yoga was a natural progression. Borcherding, 35, started her Anusara yoga training and began teaching two years ago. She has been practicing yoga since she was a child, because her mom was a yoga teacher.
Not only are her horse-yoga classes designed to help riders (and newbies) become more flexible and balanced on the horse, but her sessions also include the therapeutic aspect.
“Yoga literally means union: Union of the body, mind and spirit,” she says. “When you’re doing yoga with a horse, it adds another dimension of also having to unify with another being.”
She likens it to partner yoga, but with a different kind of partner — a 1,000-plus-pound partner who is incapable of lying or judging. Because of this, it can be easier for some people to connect with a horse than with another human, Borcherding says.
“They constantly keep people in relationship,” she says. “If you lose attention, they notice. They’ll stop or not do what you’re asking. They’ll go and eat grass. They disconnect when you disconnect.”
At the Star Peak Stables class earlier this month, the students practice standing postures, using the horses’ bodies in place of a wall or balancing block. They move, in pairs, to stretching on top of the horses, with one participant holding the horse in place while the other moves through quad stretches, twists, arches, Child’s Pose and ending with a Shavasana, lying back onto the horse’s bareback rump.
There are no circus-style handstands or complex plow poses on the backs while the beasts gallop across the field. Borcherding selects the calmest, best-trained horses at the stables to stand still throughout the workshops, which can last from three hours to several days. Classes are capped at six horses and 12 participants.
And the horses love yoga, Borcherding says. As one horse feels the relaxing energy of the rider, her mouth flops open and her lower lip hangs relaxed. Some horses look like they’re falling asleep standing up.
Certain horses in the herd always show up when Borcherding introduces a new therapy client, she says.
“Some, it feels like they want to help. They’re the therapist of the horses,” she says.
At the end of the session, some horses yawn or walk to the edge of the field and shake. Borcherding says she thinks they’re releasing the energy they’ve taken from their rider.
“Animals have the ability to release trauma,” Borcherding says. “You will see a rabbit being chased by a coyote. This might happen five times a day, but he’s not traumatized by it. They have the ability to shake and release the toxic energy and then be fine again.”
Benna Shelanski, from Pennsylvania, decided to take the Yoga With Horses class while visiting Colorado. Shelanski considers herself a beginner yogi, had never done yoga outside before and had only ridden a horse once.
“It was such a strange and amazing sensation,” she says. “You just sit there and you feel your butt on the horse’s back, balancing and aligning yourself with the breathing, and his own posture, too. If you can sink into that, you can just click in. It made the yoga experience a lot more potent, and the horses were a huge guide.”
Hollie Hirst enrolled in the Yoga With Horses class to help her process her cousin’s recent death, as well as to experience the fusion of two of her passions. Hirst enjoys riding horses at her mom’s in Indiana, and she is a yoga instructor who specializes in yoga for trauma survivors.
By relaxing and paying attention to the subtle muscle cues of the horse, Hirst says she learned to predict the animal’s movement and flow. Leaning forward in Child’s Pose, she says she felt the horse’s muscles tense before he shifted. In the past, this might have scared her, she says. But this time, she relaxed into the motion, rather than trying to fight it, and ended up giggling.
The key: She trusted her intuition, she says.
Borcherding encourages the participants to let the horses support them. Hirst says the idea of being supported by such a massive being is amazing.
“I haven’t known a lot of support in my life, and one of the beautiful things about working with horses is the reciprocal relationship that is formed, based on support and trust,” Hirst says. “People and horses have been evolving together for over 5,000 years. So there is a very deep historical connection between horses and humans.”