by Tonya Johnston
Appeared in September ’03 issue of Ride! Magazine

Tonya explains a basic breathing control technique called Circle Breathing to improve relaxation, confidence, and focus in competition. 

“Take a deep breath!” “Relax!” “Stop holding your breath!” “Don’t worry about it!” “Just breathe!”

How many times have you heard people say these kinds of things to you when you were riding? Perhaps it was at a show while you waited for your class, on a large group trail ride, or during a frustrating moment in a lesson. The people who said these things – well meaning friends, your trainer, or a family member – were trying to be helpful, but what did these reminders really do for you? Suggestions like these often fall short of the mark, and may have even had you saying things to yourself like, “I’m trying!” or “If she tells me to ‘relax’ one more time I may scream!” or “What? Was someone talking to me? What else am I supposed to do?” The sentiments may be benevolent, but they are usually not particularly effective on their own. So, what does work? A basic breathing technique called Circle Breathing. It is a simple skill designed to put your mind and body in sync and in harmony, ideal for those challenging moments.

When we as riders get into a difficult situation or a highly competitive one, often our quality breathing is the first thing to go. We may hold our breath (making it particularly hard to concentrate and have muscle control) or start taking breaths that are short, shallow, and irregular. These patterns are greatly different from how we breathe when we are calm, confident, and in control, and our breathing is likely to be smooth, deep, and rhythmical. The good thing is that breathing techniques are the easiest and most effective way to get yourself back under control in a stressful moment. Breathing techniques such as Circle Breathing, once learned and mastered, can make a positive impact on a rider’s ability to prepare and perform effectively on their horse. In fact, effective breathing has proven to be one of the easiest and most effective ways to foster relaxation, build confidence, and direct focus.

Breathing Technique: Circle Breathing

Circle breathing is a breath control technique that is used to feel relaxed, confident, and focused. Basically, the emphasis is on breathing from the diaphragm (or belly) instead of the chest, as this produces feelings of being calm and centered.

1. Inhale deeply and slowly through your nose – feel your chest expand top to bottom. Feel your belly push outward as if you were inflating a balloon.
2. Hold for a moment before exhaling – concentrate on feeling calm and patient.
3. Exhale gently through your mouth at a steady rate – be sure to exhale for a beat longer than you inhaled. Feel your belly flatten. Feel the muscles in your arms and shoulders relax while your body melts gently towards the ground. Let your muscles enjoy this moment of relaxation.
4. Appreciate how centered and strong you feel – as you begin your next circle breath.

Using Circle Breathing

For Relaxation: Everyone from trail riders to beginning pony riders to elite competitors can utilize Circle Breathing to feel centered and relaxed. Riders, like all athletes, experience moments when they have simply too much energy for the task at hand. This may be interpreted as nerves, or anxiety, or fear – depending on the situation. Chances are you know what ‘too much energy’ feels like if you have ever experienced butterflies going wild in your stomach. It has been said that, “An anxious mind cannot exist within a relaxed body.” Circle Breathing is a quick and effective way to relax and get your body under control. It will allow you to think more clearly and focus on accomplishing your goals. (Instead of thoughts like, “Oh this is going to be bad! I am so nervous!” etc.)

With relaxation as your primary goal for your Circle Breath, try to be most mindful of the exhalation through your mouth. Gently purse your lips and imagine any tense muscles in your body letting go as you exhale the used air up from your stomach and up each level of your lungs. Pay special attention to exhaling for a beat or two longer than you inhaled. You may even visualize butterflies flying out of your mouth (a useful way to feel a sense of control and empowerment over your nerves.) In addition, think of a word associated with being calm and centered that you say to yourself as you exhale, such as “Let go”, “Easy” or “Relax”.

For Confidence: Circle breathing can be used to bolster confidence when you need to feel strong and capable. Imagine – you’re in a group lesson and it is a cold and windy day, all of the horses are fresh and full of themselves. You begin to feel anxious and tense, wondering if (or when) your horse will spook and take off. You are focused on: the wind, the other horses, other rider’s reactions to the situation, your horse’s fight or flight response – all things ultimately out of your control. By pulling into the middle of the ring for a moment and taking a couple of Circle Breaths, you encourage your mind and body to focus on something that you have complete control over: your breath and the feel of your body. You have become a proactive rider – not one who simply waits for things to happen ‘to’ you. By utilizing a breathing technique you are creating relaxation and rhythm to which your horse can willingly respond. Worry and anxiety increases when we think about things out of our control, Circle Breathing creates a focus on something in our control that helps us feel confident, prepared and equipped to meet the challenge at hand.

For Focus: Riding creates a challenge unique to other sports that have ‘team members’. (Consider yourself and your horse a ‘team’.) In riding you are responsible not only for keeping yourself, but also your horse, focused and on task. What does this mean? This means that when you are distracted or unfocused it is multiplied by two. Your horse doesn’t know the new trail, or the course, or when to halt, on his own – you are the brains of the team. Your focus must stay in the present moment and on the task or challenge at hand.

Starting off on the right foot (or feet, as the case may be) always involves having a solid plan. Once you know what the goal is, you can communicate it to your horse – er- teammate; this can best be done by having a clear mind and a specific beginning for your concentration, almost like having an internal “Start” button. A Circle Breath can effectively serve this function as it clears away the planning phase of your ride and acts as a cue to begin the performance. Taking two or three breaths before entering the ring at a horse show is a good example of this. All successful riders have a consistent pre-performance routine – a way they “Turn it on”. Circle Breathing is often a valuable part of the routine.

Regaining focus when it has been lost is also a skill that successful riders all share. Distractions can come from external factors, such as a loud tractor, or internal factors, such as your own self-talk (e.g. “I can’t believe I just blew the canter transition. How bad was that? Drat! We won’t make the top four now.”). For either type, a Circle Breath is a simple and effective way to bring your attention into the present moment and get you back on track. To recover from a distraction take a Circle Breath and then immediately focus on a cue word that relates to the performance itself. For example, if another rider in the warm-up ring just narrowly missed colliding with you and it flustered your ‘team’, walk for a minute while taking a breath. Then say a cue word to yourself like “Eyes” to keep you looking ahead and planning your track to the jump. Again, Circle Breathing is the “Start” button in re-directing your focus, keeping you positive and productive in the saddle.

Circle Breathing can be used effectively in a lesson, before going into the ring at a show, during any breaks or even during your ride. Circle Breathing helps you maintain your composure, control your anxiety, keep your focus, and aids your body in getting the oxygen it needs to operate at its highest level. If you have never tried it, why not start today? That way, the next time someone says, “Relax!” you can breathe your way to a peak performance!