The definition of relaxation includes “the lengthening of inactive muscles or muscle fibers” and “the return or adjustment of a system of equilibrium following  displacement or abrupt change.” Relaxation should exist on three levels: Physical (suppleness), mental (clarity of mind and emotion) and spiritual (freedom from fear, anger, resentment, jealousy and other negative attitudes). The three are related in both humans and horses. Physical relaxation can be destroyed by confusion or fear, thus it is not a simple matter of controlling the length of muscle fibers. In most cases when the mind is the cause of tension, stress, fear or confusion we must try to relax our mind. Even if the cause requires a solution, the starting point is a relaxed mind that can focus. If we hope to achieve physical relaxation, we need to address the methods of promoting mental and spiritual relaxation since they are so closely connected.

Relaxation has many benefits in terms of both performance and soundness. Communication is more straightforward when we are relaxed. Both observer and horse feel the rider is lighter and more graceful. Our body will move in harmony with the horse’s movements. Our legs will breathe with the horse’s sides. Our hands will be quiet receivers and directors of the forward energy we are sharing. Our body as a whole will be prepared to respond to the horse quickly, quietly, and effectively. This harmony will enable both horse and rider to move forward with power and elasticity, creating a picture of total unity and majesty.  A  relaxed horse is an amazingly elastic creature, and therefore our goal should be to maintain this elasticity. It involves careful management of his physical body, slowly building up muscle tone.  Most horses have an advantage over man, in that they begin with a calm mind. If communications are clear and demands are realistic, they should remain mentally calm. This mental calmness, combined with the proper training of horse and rider, should maintain the horse’s elasticity, thus minimizing the wear and tear that cause unsoundness in our equine partners.

No doubt it is easier for a rider to relax on a horse who is relaxed, but the rider must learn to become supple and relaxed himself so that the horse can stay elastic and relaxed. It is the rider’s responsibility to maintain the relaxation of the horse.

It is more difficult for the rider to maintain a relaxed state, because the rider continues to have situations develop that make it difficult to maintain a relaxed, supple body. It is up to the rider to find an effective method to maintain a well functioning body.

Emotional turmoil produces disequilibrium in our bodies, leading to physical stiffness. Returning the body to equilibrium is a matter of relaxation. When we feel upset, or experience an uneasy feeling, an upset stomach, a headache, a backache, or another physical symptom, it may be our mental or spiritual self crying out. Physical exercises are designed to relax and supple the muscles, while meditative therapies provide methods to relax and free the body, mind and spirit.

“Mediation is any activity that keeps attention pleasantly anchored in the present moment” -Joan Borysenko

The more of our self we can access consciously, the more control we have over our lives and our goals. The more unresolved experiences we have, the more we will need to create freedom that brings about the useful inner self.  By having control over our thoughts and experience we come more relaxed in who we are, our goals and our dreams. This is key in our relationships, even our relationship with our horse.  Relaxation is necessary for the rider to attain inner harmony and for the horse to display his natural beauty.

Equestrian vaulting was on the top of my list of riding disciplines that I wanted to learn, while traveling  the United States in search for the ultimate riding experience. I had no idea what I was in for when I contacted Sara Nicolson of the Poway Valley Vaulters, at the Rolling Hills Stable in Poway, CA…

I was welcomed with open arms by the students and coaches, Bonnie Bruce and Sara Nicholson, when I arrived for my first vaulting lesson. Quickly realizing, their philosophy is about having fun while developing coordination, balance and strength as you work in harmony with your equine partner. The Poway Valley Vaulters offers an atmosphere that is very laid back and community focused. Everyone participating in the lesson is responsible for setting up and breaking down all equipment involved in that day’s lesson as well as grooming and caring for the horse that will be their vaulting partner that day.

Once the two barrels and mats are set up, Sara Nicholson, led the group with stretching exercises to warm up everyone muscles before tackling the gymnastic moves on top of the barrels. I watched as each student mounted the barrel. I quickly realized that this was completely foreign to me, as I stood there in tights and sneakers (not riding pants and boots) and my transitional leg up.

Although, there are many ways to mount in equestrian vaulting, we practiced the simple leg up mount, where the rider is facing the horse’s head with their body parallel to the horse’s back while your partner counts to three lifting your bend left leg,  guiding you on top of your mount. In this particular mounting style the rider focuses on their right leg going straight up to the sky, perpendicular to the horse’s back, then gently sitting up straight in perfect posture on top of you mount (horse or barrel). This is no easy task and requires a lot of upper body strength, coordination and balance.

As the rest of the students practiced their individual and partner routines on the barrel, Sara, took me aside and explained the origins of vaulting, benefits and the different styles and movements required in vaulting competitions. In individual competitions there are six compulsory exercises that must be performed without dismounting: basic seat, flag, mill, click or scissors, stand and flank.  The compulsories are performed in succession without pause or dismounts.

Sara explained each compulsory movement starting with the basic seat moving through all six exercises. As I practiced each movement I became more and more comfortable and was eventually able to move to some freestyle movements that included hand stands, kneeling, standing and aerial moves such as flips. As this begin my first lesson,  I chose to stick with the easier movements such as kneeling and standing.  I was very comfortable with each compulsory movement, as well as standing and kneeling. I got the courage to  do a front roll, however I was on a non-moving barrel.

After about 90 minutes of practicing on the barrel, I was ready to mount an actual moving horse. I am not one to get nervous especially around horses, but right before mounting the horse my palms began sweating and butterflies filled my stomach with anxiety. Once, I was mounted (leg up while the horse is moving) all my fears went away and I got comfort in knowing that I was on the back of a beautiful horse that has done this for years.

I practiced each compulsory movement at the walk and eventually working my way into the trot, holding each movement for 4 seconds, in succession without pausing. I started with the basic seat, which I sat astride with my arms held to the side raised to ear level. My legs were wrapped around the horse’s barrel, soles facing rearward, with toes down and feet arched. Totally different from the heels down approach that I am so costumed to.

After the basic seat I quickly hopped to my knees and extended my right leg straight out behind me, holding it slightly above my head,  parallel to the horse’s spine. My other leg was had equal pressure distributed through my shin and foot. I learned that to avoid digging your knee into the horse’s back your weight should be on the back on your ankle. Once, my legs were in the correct position I raised my left arm stretching it forward, also parallel to the horse’s spine.

After the flag, I moved into the basic seat to begin the mill movement. The mill starts from the astride position, bringing my right leg over the horse’s neck, while my hand grips were released and retaken as I brought my leg over. I brought my left leg in a full arc over the croup of the horse, again with a change of grips, before my right leg followed it, and the left leg moves over the neck to complete the full turn.  The mill brought flashbacks of me on my pony as a young rider completing “around the world” at the walk, trot and canter during my lounge line lessons. Who knew many years later I would be doing the same thing.

The click was the most difficult for me out of all six compulsory movements. From the basic seat position, I swung on my left leg over the horse’s neck, seating sideways, and then swinging my right leg over the horse’s croup so I was sitting backwards on the horse. While grasping the surcingle handles I quietly swung my leg forward giving me momentum to left my entire body off the horse’s back while my leg swing together, clicking my heals like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. This movement requires an immense amount of upper body strength that by the time the lesson was over my arms were shaking from fatigue.

The stand was next in succession and I wanted to complete this at the walk, but to be safe Sara and Bonnie provided me with a spotter, since I had never stood on a horse before. From the basic seat position I moved to my shins and immediately onto both feet, I released my hand grips and held the hands of my spotter. Once I felt comfortable I began to straighten up with both my knees bent, with my tail bone tucked for balance. After a couple of strides at the walk I was able to let go of my spotter’s hands and held my hands straight out as in the basic seat.  I was amazed that I was able to hold my standing position for 4 seconds at the walk.

The final movement the flank, is also the dismount in vaulting. From the basic seat, I swung my legs forward to create momentum, then swinging my legs backward, and rolling onto my stomach in an arch of the surcingle, with a full extension of my legs raise up behind me,  the goal to nearly reach a handstand. When coming down,  I brought my legs to the right side of the horse, pushing off the surcingle, landing on my feet on the outside of the lounging horse with a huge smile.

My experience at Poway Valley Vaulters was fun and educational. I appreciate the staff and students for making me feel as though I was part of the team for the day and allowing me to drop in on their class.  This experience created a passion for learning more about vaulting and about all the benefits vaulting has to offer to equestrian, non-equestrian and therapeutic riders.

A big thank you to Wil Fernandez for the wonderful photography.

Nestled in downtown Orlando FL, you will find a team of loyal horses, staff and volunteers that are dedicated to enriching the lives and experiences of children and adults with mental and physical disabilities by engaging them in various equestrian activities designed to promote and improve physical, mental and social well-being. Freedom Ride is built on the conviction that we are not defined by our limitations.

It all began with two riders, a borrowed horse, the support of a handful of dedicated volunteers and a rented space at a local barn. In 2001 the organization was awarded a lease on 10 acres from the City of Orlando, and after two years of hard work, sweat and dedication the facility relocated to its new home in February 2003. Since the relocation,  Freedom Ride has increased to serve over 150 individuals annually through their therapeutic and hippotherapy programs.

The therapeutic riding lessons are taught by a NARHA certified therapeutic riding instructor with a team of 1-3 volunteers. Riders participate in tasks and games that encourage physical strengthening and cognitive improvement, while learning basic riding skills. The emphasis is on developing riding skills in a safe environment that is both therapeutic and fun. Specific goals are set for each rider at the beginning of a session based upon input from the rider’s parents, physician, and therapists.

Each equestrian activity offers a wide variety of therapeutic benefits to participants recovering from injury or living with mental or physical disability. These benefits may be categorized as physical, psychological, educational and social in nature.

Therapeutic horseback riding improves the strength, tone, flexibility, and reflexes of postural muscles and leg muscles, thereby increasing stability of gait and balance in people with mild to moderate mobility disabilities.  Those with more severe disabilities benefit from improved balance, coordination, and postural control essential to healthy respiratory and digestive function. The aim of any program is to improve self-confidence and mental relaxation, along with the physical benefits.  In addition, one would hope for significant carry over of improvements from the therapy sessions to activities of daily living.

Like recreational riding, therapeutic riding is an excellent form of exercise therapy that is fun, safe, challenging and socially rewarding. The goals of therapeutic and recreational riding revolve around learning horsemanship, improving basic riding skills and many times learning a specific riding discipline such as dressage or western pleasure. In therapeutic riding, special attention is paid to facilitating improvements in musical strength, coordination, balance, stamina, self-confidence and social interaction. Lesson plans may be tailored individually to address clients’ special needs. The therapeutic riding instructors are specially trained and certified to instruct students with a wide variety of physical and mental disabilities, as well as students who are not disabled.  Therapeutic and recreational sessions are conducted according to each rider’s interests, needs, abilities and rate of progress.

Freedom Ride also offers hippotherapy to the community. Hippotherapy literally refers to therapy aided by a horse. Unlike therapeutic riding, where specific riding skills are taught, hippotherapy is a physical, occupational, speech or language therapy treatment that utilizes the horse’s movement as part of an integrated program to achieve beneficial outcomes for students.
Specially trained physical and occupational therapists use this treatment for students with movement dysfunction. In a Hippotherapy session, the horse provides multidimensional movement, which is variable, rhythmic and repetitive and influences the student rather than the student controlling the horse. The student is positioned on the horse and actively responds to the horse’s movement. The therapist directs the movement of the horse; analyzes the students responses; and adjusts the treatment accordingly. The horse’s movement has a great effect on postural control, sensory systems, and motor planning that can be used to facilitate coordination and timing, grading of responses, respiratory control, sensory integration skills and attentional skills.

A Licensed Physical or Occupational Therapist, certified with the American Hippotherapy Association, conducts the sessions providing a treatment strategy that utilizes equine movement. Hippotherapy naturally provides an integrated, multi-sensory experience and can also be modified to enhance or decrease certain types of sensory stimulation.
For those who are recovering from injury or who live with mental or physical disability, the human-horse relationship can open the door to an entirely new realm of possibilities. Horse and human become partners in a therapeutic relationship which offers a multitude of opportunities to focus on and explore abilities and not disabilities.  Students learn to be at ease, rather than dis-eased. I am honored to have been part of the Freedom Ride team and working with amazing staff, students and horses. Freedom Ride truly exemplifies the meaning of Horsepower for the Spirit.