Note: This post is from January 2013. We have since discontinued our equestrian program due to the high cost of liability insurance combined with utter lack of interest on the part of the local community.
We offer Equine Assisted Learning here at Lothlorien and people have asked, "What is that all about, and what do horses have to do with yoga?"
Our program includes basic riding lessons for children, "pony rides" for toddlers, and what we are calling "yoga with horses" which can be anything from simply interacting with the horses on the ground, to mounted exercises on lead line, to bareback dressage, depending on your level of riding experience.
What do horses have to do with yoga? In the classical sense, technically, nothing. Nor do dogs, SUPs, swimming pools, rooms heated to 105 degrees, raves, hula hoops, hanging from slings, or any number of other modern "yoga"-related activities.
Traditionally, yoga is "union," particularly union with the Divine and/or your special human partner. This is not something that can be achieved with our nonhuman friends. In the broader sense, however, yoga is about relationship - with oneself, God, the universe, the natural world, other people and other beings including animals. If we believe that Consciousness is manifesting through every one of us, what can we learn by interacting with another creature and trying to appreciate their own unique perspective on existence?
Horses are good "mirrors" in that they are very sensitive to energy and will respond to you accordingly. So, our first exercise is simply to do our yoga practice - maybe just some standing ujjayi with arms lifting - in the round pen with the horse and see how he or she responds. It has been my experience that horses are very much drawn to the energy in yoga. My mare tends to be indifferent unless you have food or drink, but whenever I do yoga in the pasture she cannot leave me alone! She will be right there in my face, nuzzling me. So you can experience how your energy affects the horses. If you walk around will they follow you? If you sit quietly in meditation and invite them only with your mind, will they come to you? That is the "energy" aspect of the practice.
The physical or asana aspect involves interacting first with the horse on the ground, such as leaning against the horse and feeling them breathe, breathing with the horse, feeling the horse's heartbeat. This is very calming and helps us become more aware of our own breathing and heartbeat. We can also explore balance by pursuading the horse to lift a hoof off of the ground and observing the shift of weight which occurs to make this possible.
The next step is mounted exercises. If you have ever watched an upper level dressage team, or a child riding a pony bareback on the beach, the horse and rider move as one! So there is that "union," in a sense, when you get to the very advanced stages (and/or, the natural unschooled affection) where the horse and rider can practically read each other's minds and their movements are coordinated in harmony with each other.
Now, my friends from PETA may object, "But isn't it cruel to make the horse carry you on its back?!" No, it is not. For one thing, the horse is about 10 times your size, which is like you carrying a 15-pound backpack. More importantly, however, you cannot "make" a horse carry you on its back. In fact it is quite difficult to "make" a 1400-pound animal do anything. If the horse does not want you on its back, trust me, you won't be up there for long. You can't "make" a horse obey you; rather, you either gain the horse's cooperation, or you don't. This requires communication and sensitivity. And courage.
If you do not have much riding experience, merely sitting on a horse bareback, standing still, can be challenging. As we walk on the leadline you will feel the horse's motion and learn to move with the horse. Then, if you are comfortable, you can experiment with balance, lifting your arms, touching your toes, turning to look around you, etc. This is not nearly as easy as it may sound.
The more advanced rider will proceed to basic dressage, where you will explore exactly how the horse responds to your most subtle movements and cues. You might be amazed to find, for example, that the horse will turn in the direction that you turn your head, or that a slight shift of your weight to one side will move the horse sideways. You will achieve a level of communication with the horse that is almost like telepathy. This is both educational and lots of fun.
Unfortunately, we won't be offering the Equestrian Program much longer due to lack of interest. We built this lovely round pen and began advertising last summer and have had no riders, and therefore cannot afford to keep paying the liability insurance, which will expire in June of 2013. The reason the liability insurance is so expensive is because, quite frankly, horseback riding is dangerous. If you participate in the bareback dressage exercises you are virtually guaranteed to fall off at least once! Of course, for those of us who are accustomed to riding, falling off is no big deal, but in our increasingly litigious society, it can be. So perhaps it is just as well, that nobody is interested. When we open our new studio in the summer, however, you will still be welcome to meet the horses and interact with them on the ground.