Over the past thirty plus years of riding, I have never experienced something so wonderful, so thrilling and so exciting has I did in the saddle last night;it’s Equi Yoga! A fascinating, new technique developed by the owner of Top CatFarm in Killingworth, Marty Whittle.
By combining the benefits of yoga, breath and movement, in unison with the horse’s movements, Marty has married her two great loves in life together and created this enthralling new exercise that is beneficial to riders, yoga lovers and those just looking for a unique, exciting way to stay in shape.
About ten years ago, Marty wanted to break out of the equine arena and expand her horizons. A friend convinced her to try a yoga class and she hasn’t stopped yet.
In conjunction with fellow rider and friend Nicole Cuomo, Marty has co-authored
the book, “Yoga on Horseback: A Guide to Mounted Yoga Exercises for Riders,”
put out an Equi Yoga DVD and is currently working on more. In 2007, she was
awarded the Aria Circle of Honor Instructor of the Year Award for developing
the Equi Yoga program.
Marty, who by the way, has been teaching riding for over 30 years and is a level III Hunt Seat and level II Dressage ARIA instructor as well as a Registered Yoga Therapist with the Yoga Alliance, has given Equi Yoga lessons to teenage riders as well as 80 year-old marines who hadn’t been on a horse in 70 years and have never done yoga. She teaches yoga three times a week in Old Lyme, Essex and on Tuesday nights at her in home studio.
“I always knew I wanted to work with horses, but I never thought I would be teaching yoga. I love it though, it keeps my mind steady, it exercises my body and it trains my brain to breathe,” shares Marty with a smile.
Although this self proclaimed forever seven year-old horse crazed girl is extremely busy, with vigor and verve to share Equi Yoga with everyone, Marty invited me to the barn for a lesson. In all honesty, without hesitation, I can say that it was the most exhilarating experience I have ever had, that involved absolutely no fear.
Not being a yoga junkie myself, (in fact I have never even taken a yoga class before) I was intrigued when I first heard about Equi Yoga. Willing to do and try just about anything that will make me a better rider, I was up for a sampling of this innovative experience. Keep in mind however, that you don’t have to be a rider to do Equi Yoga and you don’t have to be a yoga person either, one or the other might help, but neither is a prerequisite. This exercise, using the warm, healing properties of the horse is for anyone and everyone, young or old.
With the assistance of Molly, an 18 year-old Halflinger, Belgian cross pony, who does her own yoga stretches with the aid of Marty and a carrot before each lesson, I embarked on this new journey. Skeptical, yet open, I happily wrapped my stubby legs around Molly’s fat middle, put my feet in my irons and began to work on some diaphragmatic breathing to stimulate the parasympathetic system; from that point on I lost track of time, temperature and basically the outside world all together. I was focused on the movement, the stretches, the release and the breathing and it was wonderful. I listened intently to Marty’s uplifting, positive instruction and drank in her obvious passion for this exercise. I learned how to disassemble my body through different movements, to loosen up my thoracic region and become soft in my joints. As Molly trotted forward, I stretched to the sky then down her long wooly neck into a forward fold at the hips, which felt fantastic. As I became more relaxed I could feel that Molly was doing the same. I focused on engaging her hind legs and aligning my body properly with hers in the saddle, I realized the asymmetry of my own personal frame, which is exactly what Marty was teaching me. Honestly, it was an extremely energizing experience. I can’t wait to do it all over again!
By the end of the lesson, I felt as though I had known Marty for years and Molly and I were best buds. Given a hypothetical gold star, for my efforts, I went home an excited new rider.
Because Yoga and riding are both about balance, strength and flexibility, as well as focus and an acute awareness of the here and now, pairing them together seems only natural. This juxtaposition of exercises is extremely beneficial to the mind and body by aiding in improving balance, body awareness, strength and flexibility. It frees movement allowing correct breathing at all gaits, opening the hips, chest and heart; aligning your body with your horse’s energy in unity.
“My hope is that these exercises help my students release and relax and communicate more harmoniously with their horses,” says Marty. “Equi Yoga helps nervous students gain confidence through correct posture, breath and balance. It is also fantastic as physical and mental therapy for students who may have fallen or suffered some other injury.”
She adds, “Advanced students gain an appreciation for the power of breath and motion as they flow through yoga movements called Asanas.”
Marty encourages everyone to try this new experience, for those who have done yoga, but have never ridden, Marty says, “Just think of it as practicing yoga on a mat with a heart.” And to those who ride and haven’t tried yoga on horseback, Marty says, “Try this yoga, it is a humbling experience and horses like humble riders. Your horses will love you for the ability to be more balanced.”
For more information about Equi Yoga, go to www.topcatfarms.net or call 860-663-2810. Marty’s book and DVD’s are available on the website, at her barn and will soon be on Amazon.com. She teaches individual, private and semi-private lessons, summer camp, clinics and workshops.