Of Interest

Proper Breathing Creates the Foundation for Riding From the Inside Out: Tai Chi for Equestrians™ with James Shaw
By Cynthia McFarland

James Shaw's Tai Chi for Equestrians helps riders "ride from the inside out".

Photo by Merrily Veatch

"Head up!" "Heels down!" "Shoulders back!" "Drop your hands!" "Don't look down!" "Relax!" Your trainer's words ring in your head as you strive to perfect your form. Yet somehow the harder you try, the more tense you feel. Make no mistake, your horse feels the tension, too, and it hinders his freedom of movement.

If this is how you typically feel when riding, particularly when working towards a specific training goal, you are not alone. Many riders "ride from the outside in," trying to force their body into a form without regard to what's going on from the inside.

James Shaw, the Lakewood, California-based Tai Chi instructor behind Tai Chi for Equestrians™ takes the principles of this remarkable 4000-year-old healing and martial art, and applies them to riding. The result is a gentler, softer, more relaxed and effective way of riding, whatever your discipline.

Through Tai Chi for Equestrians™, instructor James Shaw is teaching riders how to "ride from the inside out." Proper breathing, and understanding how to breathe properly, is the foundation for riding from the inside out. Shaw explains that mastering this simple technique can begin to totally change the way you ride...and the way your horse responds.

A dedicated student of Kung Fu and Tai Chi, Shaw trained six days a week for 15 years at a temple in Long Beach, California. Despite the wealth of knowledge he gained during these years, Shaw also suffered from a series of injuries, including knee trouble and chronic lower back pain for nearly eight of those years. "You can be strong and in good shape but use your body outside the laws of biomechanics," he explains. "Many riders and other professional athletes do this, so few of them come out of a career without disabling injuries as a result."

Shaw's understanding of Tai Chi changed completely after he met Wen-Mei Yu, a Tai Chi master. In a sparring situation, this petite woman in her late 60s could put Shaw (5'11'' and 190 pounds) on the floor and there was nothing he could do to stop her. "She could redirect my force so that my momentum trapped me," recalls Shaw. "She taught me that physical strength without something on the inside is empty."

At the time of this revelation, Shaw's only connection with horses was through his sister, Becky Stanczyk, a dressage instructor in the state of Washington. Becky's neighbors were Ceil and Tony Noble, owners of Charlie Horse Acres, a Lipizzan breeding farm. The Nobles were intrigued with using Tai Chi as a healing art for chronic pain and injuries, so Shaw began working with Ceil in this area.

As fate would have it, Betsy Steiner, a world class dressage competitor, coach and trainer of top riders, was holding a clinic at the Noble's farm. When Steiner expressed an interest in Tai Chi, Shaw saw an exciting opportunity begin to unfold. He realized that riding at the highest level is achieved by connecting to and redirecting a greater force (the horse) than yourself. This is the same principle used in the martial aspect of Tai Chi.

Shaw developed a class for riders in Malibu where Steiner trained, and the system of Tai Chi for Equestrians was born in 1996. Shaw himself began riding regularly to better explain and understand what he was teaching.

Tai Chi brings a new awareness to the rider about his or her own body and how it is used while riding. For example, you may be telling the horse one thing with your legs, but sending conflicting information with your seat and balance. "It doesn't matter if it's dressage, reining, hunter/jumper, or western pleasure, the common denominator is the balance of the rider," Shaw points out. "It's usually always the rider inhibiting the horse, not vice versa."

Shaw's program focuses strictly on the rider, not the horse. "In the context of Tai Chi, the horse is the epitome of Tai Chi. He's already close to nature," Shaw notes. "There is no wasted motion or effort. By changing the rider, it allows the horse to do what he does naturally." Put to proper use, Tai Chi for the Equestrian literally gets the rider out of the horse's way.

Mind, Breath, Body

The underlying path to all of Shaw's work revolves around three things: mind, breath and body.
#1 Mind (thought) - Every motion is first directed by the mind. The problem is while most people can accept this, they don't know how to stay connected throughout that motion.
#2 Breath - Think of breathing as the vehicle to connect your mind with your body.
#3 Body - Every physical motion of the body comes from your center. In Tai Chi, the center is referred to as "dain tein."

"You want to work from the inside out," says Shaw. "All motion comes from the center and is directed by your waist, which translates perfectly to riding because everything you should do in riding should come from your center (your seat). If you apply a rein aid just by moving your fingers, that subtle motion should start in your seat. This is where the Tai Chi techniques and training come in. The key to sensitivity through the rein to the bit has less to do with the fingers than it does with the arm and the elbow, which connects ultimately to your seat. In real Tai Chi, there is no gray - only black and white. It's all related to physics."

As a rider, you should be aware of the huge distinction between the "thinking" and "feeling" areas of the mind. Tai Chi holds that the "Yi" mind has to do with the actions of the cerebral cortex, such as cognitive thinking. This is the "thinking" brain. The "Shen" mind is that part of the brain that combines spirit with body, the part that engages all of the senses. This "feeling" brain is the one you should ride with.

Breathe Correctly

Proper breathing actively connects mind and body.

Photo by Merrily Veatch

"Proper breathing is the first true foundation of relaxing the body, so you don't create more tension by trying to relax," says Shaw. "Becoming aware of how you're breathing is the first step to changing how you breathe and when you change this, physiologically, many things happen. When you breathe correctly (from the abdomen), you increase your lung capacity and your lungs pull more oxygen out of air. Proper breathing actively connects mind and body."

Picture a rider and horse going through the spins in a reining pattern. Without thinking about it, many riders hold their breath through the spins. But holding your breath actually tightens your body and inhibits your horse's movement.

"Prior to your cue to spin, you should be inhaling into your abdomen," says Shaw, "and as you give that cue you should already be exhaling. Exhale throughout the spin to center your body from the inside. (This will actually help you settle deeper into the saddle.) Exhaling makes your center lower, making it easier for the horse who has to compensate for every imbalance you have, whether you're aware of it or not."

Shaw explains that before you can move to one side you first have to be aware of the other side. "As the horse comes back to the stop, you should already be inhaling in preparation for the spin to the opposite direction," he adds.

Think of the relaxation your body has when you sigh deeply. This comes from breathing from your abdomen and is the same physiological feeling you want to achieve.

But how do you know if you're getting your breath into your abdomen? Try this simple test. Sitting in a chair, bring your hands together in front of you with your thumbs and forefingers touching to form a "V". Rest your thumbs at your belly button, palms towards your stomach. If you are breathing from your abdomen, not high up in your chest, your stomach should actually move forward into the "V" formed by your hands.

The goal is to move your breath into your "dain tein" (your center). "The dain tein is the area about 1-1/2 inches below your navel," Shaw explains. "As you move your breath into this area and those muscles relax, the more breath you can get into your belly. As this happens, your spine begins to relax. When there's motion in your spine there will be less motion in your extremities. When your spine is soft and supple, then your seat is soft and your limbs are released and you can give truly independent aids. This is what is meant by 'stillness in motion.' "

Imagine a line through the middle of your body from your dain tein to your back. The "ming meng" is this lower back area, just opposite of your dain tein. Put your hand on the curve of your lower back (thumb up, palm out) and practice breathing with the idea of expanding your lower back into your hand, just as you made your belly expand into your hand.

When your breath is lower, your center is lower, which is where it should be when you are riding. Photo by Merrily Veatch

"Once the dain tein expands and the ming meng begins to open up, a rhythm develops between the two and the spine begins to move," notes Shaw. "In this motion comes relaxation and a lack of tension. When these areas are held tight, (often because of an unconscious fear of losing your balance), you are actually resisting the bigger motion of the horse. This repetitive resistance can lead to lower back problems."

This is one of the first exercises Shaw requests of any student. While riding at a walk in a round pen or arena, count how many times you breathe in and out during one complete rotation (lap) of that area. Focus totally on your breathing for 5 laps. Now take the focus off yourself and immediately notice how your horse is going. Shaw promises you will notice a change. The horse is usually more collected and balanced, his neck lower and more relaxed. You weren't focused on the horse because you were so focused on yourself, but the horse changes for the better because of it.


When mounted, have someone stand and hold your horse's bridle so you can safely focus on the exercise. This also works well if your horse is on a longe line. Take the hand you usually hold reins with and place this hand on your abdomen with the thumb on your belly button and the palm below belly button (dain tein). Try to recreate the abdominal breathing you practiced off the horse. Become aware of how your body relaxes. Through relaxation you should feel more secure with a deeper seat. Do this exercise first with the horse standing still. Once you have captured the feel of breathing properly, walk the horse, keeping one hand on the dain tein to continue feeling the breathing technique. If you can get your breath to drop once you're in the saddle, then place that hand on your lower back and try to move your breath between the dain tein and the ming meng.

Consider the following whenever you saddle up:

#1. "Always smile when you're riding because it changes your intent," explains Shaw. "It's hard to have a closed, negative mind when you're smiling. It also changes your face and relaxes some 100 muscles. If your muscles are tight because you're concentrating, your face becomes tight and scowling. Your horse feels this tension and picks up on it. Horses pick up on fear, anger, resentment, etc., even though they can't differentiate between them."

#2. "Ask yourself, 'Where is my breath?' If your breath is up high in your chest, this raises your center, which means physiologically you must force your center (seat) down with the muscles of your upper body. You have to hold your center over the moving center of the horse. Your breath should be in your belly. (Think of how your breath is when you laugh.) When you breathe in, your abdomen should expand. When your breath is lower, your center is lower and this is where it should be when you're riding. Proper breathing engages your thought and your Shen mind."

About James Shaw:

During the month of May, James Shaw will be presenting several clinics on "Tai Chi for Equestrians" in New York, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island. He will offer clinics in Colorado and Texas during June, and then he returns to the East Coast in August. For clinic information and locations, please contact James Shaw at taishawchi@aol.com or call (562) 634-4855. For information on purchasing James' video, "Tai Chi for the Equestrian," please visit his website at www.shawtaichi.com
Coming in 2002: respected equine book publisher, Trafalgar Square, will release James Shaw's book on Tai Chi for Equestrians.

About the author:
Cynthia McFarland is a full-time freelance writer/photographer near Ocala, Florida. She writes regularly on equine topics for a variety of national publications and enjoys riding the trails on her Appendix QH gelding, Sierra.