“But of course the instant I try to make myself relax, true relaxation vanishes, and in its place is a strange phenomenon called “trying to relax.” Relaxation happens only when allowed, not as a result of ‘trying’ or ‘making.'” ― Timothy Gallwey, The Inner Game of Tennis.
Over the years of competing, coaching, clinics and lessons running barrels and roping, I’ve learned a lot about energy and breathing instead of “relaxing”. I used to tell myself and my students to relax and breath before competing, but it never seemed to really work. Temporarily, the shoulders would come down and they’d shake things out, but their bodies, especially the lower half of the body that is directly touching the horses body were still really tense. Usually when we hear the word relax we take a deep breath into the top of our belly, the shoulders come up and we force them down only “relaxing” a little energy, if any.
It wasn’t until I started doing yoga that I started to learn about releasing “energy” in different parts of my body. The exercises and instructors taught me how to breathe into the different muscles throughout the body to release the tension, increase oxygen to the muscles, allow the blood to flow and the muscle to stretch even more. Just when I would think I was completely loosened up, the instructor would point out another place that people tend to hold tension and there I was, right along with everyone else in their living room taking an extra 30 seconds, trying not to fall over, realizing that I still had work to do. In the beginning it wasn’t easy, but learning to identify and release energy has translated directly to my colts and finished horses as well as my students and their horses.
Now, rather than saying, “just relax” or “try to relax”, I ask the question “where do you feel energy in your body?” I usually get a “what the heck are you talking about lady” look to start. I ask my students to start in their toes and work their way up from the calves to the knees, thighs, hips, abs, etc. As they go through the different part of their body to identify where the energy is and release it, their horses instantly start to react. Often, within 30 seconds a horse that typically won’t stand still is resting a leg and licking their lips.
You can apply this same technique in your competition runs. In my drills and my practice runs I tend to get tense and almost panic going into a barrel or right before I’m in position to throw my rope. My energy skyrockets as the anticipation builds right before each “action point”. For me, it’s specifically my ribs when I run barrels. I get stiff, which locks up my hips up and stiffens my shoulder which prevents my hips from getting underneath me (like a horse needs to turn correct) and my hand to come forward and over the barrel to get the right amount of bend and finish the barrel. This makes my cues totally different in a run than at home and throws my horses off, keeping them from performing at their best. Unless a horse is in pain, it’s always made a positive difference from colts to finished horses.
It’s constantly a work in progress and you don’t have to do yoga to apply this “energy releasing technique”, but I still recommend it! Feel your horse, watch your videos and pay attention to what your body is doing where mistakes are happening. When you find those troublesome areas, go back to the practice pen and take the time to see if you can work through tense energy glitches mentally and physically. Start at your toes and work your way up and out. Even the energy in your elbows and fingers will send energy straight to their bit. It won’t be easy at first, but you’ll start to realize how much you are holding in and anxiety you are causing yourself and your horse. It still takes lots of practice, patience and hard work to be at the top, but little techniques like this can help you and your horses get there and stay calm, collected and consistent.