A Case for Yoga on Horseback

Ok, I’ll admit it. I have rolled my eyes at a few of the iterations of yoga out there today. Goat Yoga. SUP Yoga. Beer Yoga. Dog Yoga. Acro Yoga. Hip Hop Yoga. Bong Yoga. Snow Yoga. Nude Yoga. Rage Yoga. Stiletto Yoga? Some are cool and fun, some have purpose, some are gimmicky, while some are downright silly. I’m not a purist, and I’m not here to judge any of them. Honestly, it has always been my opinion that, anything goes: if someone enjoys it and it brings them peace, then more power to them as long as it’s safe and not offensive to others. We all need more yoga in our lives, and if it takes a goat pooping on you to make you want to move, breathe and connect then, by all means! 

Enter Yoga on Horseback. It’s not a gimmick. It is quite safe (when taught properly with well-trained horses). It has a real purpose. And, there’s nothing else quite like it. 

My friend and associate in retreats, Shannon Jamail, owner of and lead badass mama at Retreat Ranch was the first person I ever saw experimenting with this idea. I was immediately intrigued. Much like SUP (stand up paddleboard) Yoga, I can see the purpose: it levels up the physical practice because you’re not on stable ground. But, more than that, you are required to work with a partner, which is similar to Acro Yoga. But unlike both of these more common variations, you are connecting with and trusting a 1200+lb animal as your partner and base. It requires focus, respect, trust, communication, and connection, both with yourself and with your partner. In my case, his name is Bud, an older male who seems like he was made for this. 

We began by simply introducing ourselves to our horse partner using an essential oil blend that Retreat Ranch makes just for this purpose. It calms the horse, but also signals that practice is about to begin. As an added bonus, it deters the flys! After applying the oil to our hands and necks, we approached our horses. The teacher, Callie, guided us through how to introduce ourselves and different ways we could connect with our horse, while still on solid ground. Growing up as a junior barrel racer, then a Care Flight Nurse, and now a Nectar Flow Yoga teacher, Callie has an ideal background for this work. Her voice was confident and calming–she too, was connecting with her partner, Pax. Throughout the process, Callie reminded us to breathe calmly, trust our instincts, and only do what we felt comfortable doing. Much like yoga on the mat, we are the experts in our own bodies and experience and must listen to that inner knowledge. 

Once on horseback, shoeless and just on a saddle pad, Callie gave us time to get settled. There was no rush to accomplish anything. She cued multiple easy arm movements that allowed us to experience the shift of our weight on horseback, while also offering a good stretch and a way to link movement with our breath. Basic yoga stuff, right? There was always an invitation to linger longer in any given movement or posture, or to move on to something that called to us. She taught transitions and poses in layers, giving the simplest options first, then offering more challenging experiences. None of these were too crazy, and all felt quite safe and stable. Even with the occasional shake or stomp from Bud trying to shoo away a fly, I never felt like I was at risk of injury. I really surprised myself as I made my way into “bird dog” on horseback (picture below) a simple enough posture on land, but fairly challenging on the back of a horse, to say the least. I’m not quite ready for headstand yet, but I won’t rule it out as a “one day” possibility!

As we began to wind down, we were guided into one of two variations of savasana (final rest, aka “corpse pose”). We could choose to lie back or fold forward, then relax and simply breathe. If you’ve ever been to a regular yoga class, you have probably heard the teacher say “savasana is the most important/advanced part of the whole practice.” And, while this may sound trite, it’s true. It brings one into a state of pratayahara, the fifth limb on the eight-limbed yogic path. Pratayahara is a bridge from the physical and energetic self into the mental and spiritual self. It is roughly translated as “withdrawal of the senses” and basically invites us to tune in and get closer to our bliss state. Well, let me tell you, savasana on horseback did exactly that: brought me into a state of bliss. I couldn’t help but smile while lying against Bud’s back, continuing to connect with him and myself, while at the same time feeling a buzzing sensation as if I was hovering outside of my body. I didn’t want it to end, and I can’t wait to feel it again. 

If you’re interested in learning more and experiencing it for yourself, you can join us October 12-15 on our upcoming Fall Eclipse Retreat, or at one of Retreat Ranch’s offerings. Additionally, Shannon and I have something in the works for offering Horseback Yoga Teacher Training. Stay tuned for more details!