What Horses can teach us about Mindful Breathing

During my Connect with Horses mindfulness meditation retreats, as an introduction to mindfulness, I show participants how to breathe more mindfully.

A lot has been discovered about how horses use breathing to connect and communicate with each other. Horses tend to breathe slower and deeper when they need to either calm themselves or another herd member. The question arose: “Could we, as humans, connect and communicate with our horses by regulating our breathing?”

In my opinion, the answer is a resounding “Yes!” Not only can we calm a distressed horse by breathing slowly and deeply, but we can also be calmed ourselves by paying attention to a horse’s breathing pattern and speed when the horse is at ease and at rest.

Before we can benefit from such an experience, we must first become aware of our own breathing, an automatic process most of us pay very little attention to on a day-to-day basis. Take a minute or two now and observe how quickly or slowly you are breathing. Is your breathing shallow or deep? Is there a pause between your in-breath and your out-breath? Do you breathe through your mouth or through your nose? Become aware of your breathing in a non-judgemental way – there is no right or wrong way to do this exercise, it is merely about observing what is happening naturally.

This is probably one of the best mindfulness exercises I know, while doing it you are 100% present in the current moment.

This is how my retreat guests start each mindfully breathing exercise with our horses. I first ask them to become aware of their own breathing, without trying to influence it in any way. They may be breathing slightly faster than normal – if they have never been in the presence of a herd, it is perfectly normal to feel apprehensive.

When we are anxious, we change the way we breathe. Instead of taking deep breaths, into our lower lungs, we start to breathe superficially. We take quick, shallow breaths, into our upper lungs only. It feels as if we cannot get enough air into our lungs. Actually, we manage perfectly well to breathe in, even if only in short, sharp breaths. The problem is that we do not breathe out properly, we also breathe out in short gasps. This can lead to a condition called hyperventilation.

When we breathe, we breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide. Fast, shallow breathing can cause the carbon dioxide levels in your bloodstream to drop too low. This, in turn, can cause quite a few uncomfortable and alarming symptoms. You may

  • Have palpitations – your heart feels as if it is racing – and tightness in your chest or even chest pain. This is why panic attacks are often confused with heart attacks.
  • Feel lightheaded, weak, faint, dizzy
  • Have tingling or numbness in your fingertips or around your mouth
  • Experience a sense of impending doom
  • Have a dry mouth and feel hot and bothered, or you may have chills
  • Feel nauseous and have abdominal pain or bloating

If this should happen, you can avoid a full-blown panic attack by mindfully doing breathing exercises. Below is a breathing exercise which will help you avoid hyperventilation. It is important that you breathe in and out at a steady rate.

Exercise: Take a deep, full breath. Exhale slowly, fully and completely. Inhale again and count from 1 to 4 (or for as long as feels comfortable). Hold your breath for 4 seconds. Exhale slowly while counting from 1 to 4 (or for as long as feels comfortable). Hold your breath for 4 seconds. Repeat the exercise three or four times. This is also called square breathing.

Once my retreat guests are fully conscious of their own breathing rhythm and depth, I ask them to pay attention to the horses’ breathing speeds and patterns. This accomplished, I encourage them again to notice their own breathing, to find out if there has been a change. They often report that their own breathing slows and becomes deeper as they concentrate on the horses’ breathing. They also say that they gradually start to feel more and more relaxed. Many report a profound feeling of connection, with the horses and with each other. For a more in-depth discussion, see my book Mindfulness and Meditation Options.

Whenever you feel anxious, you can do the breathing exercises above. It can help you to relax instantly. It can also help you fall asleep. If you would like to experience the profoundly calming effect breathing with horses can have, join us for a Connect with Horses Mindfulness Meditation retreat here in the south of France!

Article originally published on my blog SemperEquus. Click here to subscribe and escape on a virtual visit to the south of France!

“Breathe deeply, until sweet air extinguishes the burn of fear in your lungs and every breath is a beautiful refusal to become anything less than infinite.” Antoinette Foy

Dr Margaretha Montagu MBChB MRCGP EAGALA Cert MedHyp Dip Master NLP Coach Transformative Life Coach Dip