The Montana summer air is thick and smells of freshly mowed hay. The handsome colt beneath me ambles along at a steady pace as he's led around an outdoor ring. I inhale and reach my arms overhead into Virabhadrasana I (Warrior Pose I).
Fingertips pointing straight up, I relax my shoulders and imagine my arms extending skyward. Following the riding instructor's direction, I close my eyes. The horse's haunches gently roll my hips from side to side and rhythmically propel us forward. All is silent except for the even thud of hooves hitting dirt, an occasional jingle from a bridle, and the creak of leather saddles. "I see a lot of happy faces out there," the instructor calls out, and I feel a smile spread across my own face.
I arrived in Bozeman earlier in the week to attend Cowgirl Yoga, a five-day yoga and natural horsemanship retreat. I rode a bit as a girl and had been on horseback only a handful of times since, but I've always been in awe of horses and the people who commune with them so comfortably. This retreat pairing sounded like an ideal way to revisit my childhood interest. Little did I know that in just five days—my body and mind more relaxed than I can remember—I'd be climbing into the saddle with the ease and confidence of a true cowgirl.
Back in the Saddle
Each day of the retreat begins at our Western-style inn with a two-hour vinyasa class to prepare us for work with the horses in the afternoon. On the first morning, retreat founder and yoga instructor Margaret Burns Vap leads our group of 10 women through a vigorous flow sequence rich with hip openers and Chaturanga Dandasana (Four-Limbed Staff Pose). After class we trade our yoga clothes for our "cowgirl" outfits of jeans, boots, and hats, and head for the barn. On the first day, we learn about horses and observe how they interact. I never gave much thought to what horses are doing when they seem to be just standing around. It turns out that they're constantly communicating, using vocal and physical signals to "talk" to each other, and engaging in complex social customs to maintain the herd pecking order. Domesticated horses also retain the survival skills of their wild ancestors, with excellent hearing and sight and the ability to discern even subtle energetic shifts in the environment that might signal danger.
Understanding these elemental characteristics about horses and adopting behaviors that they can easily understand are the primary tenets of natural horsemanship. And, Burns Vap tells us, yoga is an easy complement to this process. In addition to its focus on core strength, which is necessary for riding, yoga's themes of grounding and centering, and of breathing into and moving from your center, can help a rider direct energy and intention to the horse. "Like with yoga, with riding you have to be in the present," says Burns Vap. "And when you're done, you have that same sense of clarity."
On the second day, after another morning of vigorous yoga, this time full of heart-opening poses and a nice guided meditation, we go for a ride. All of us are eager to get up in the saddle. (Despite our expectations, the riding portion of the retreat turns out to be more of a tutorial on natural horsemanship within the safe confines of the ring. The retreats have been restructured to include a lot more horse time at a working ranch and plenty of trail rides.) I'm relieved that I'm paired with the steady gelding Smokey. As the elder of the herd, he exudes a quiet equine strength and wisdom. In the saddle we practice Cat-Cow, rounding and arching our spines while pushing against the saddle horn with our hands. We also do a Virabhadrasana series from the waist up, focusing on our core while consciously sitting with greater ease. We lift our arms skyward and then rotate our torsos to the side, arms lowering into a T. I send weight through my sitting bones and breathe deeply into my belly. With each flow, my body relaxes, and I feel more at home in the saddle.
The riding instructor asks us to close our eyes and try to connect energetically with our horses. After a few minutes, it feels as if Smokey and I are moving and breathing in sync; a warm flow of energy between us blurs the line of where I end and he begins. We're then instructed to hold our breath and note any changes. When I hold mine, Smokey immediately stops in his tracks, and the connection between us is broken. It's a powerful demonstration of the confluence of breath, intention, and energy.
By the third day, I'm ready for the restorative practice that Burns Vap has planned for the morning. A slight stiffness in my low back and tightness in my inner thighs are reminders that I've been using my body in new ways. I'm aware of other changes as well. The past few nights I've woken from wild dreams strewn with images from my childhood, symbolism, and powerful emotions. During the practice, I have a spontaneous emotional release that leaves me feeling unnerved. I don't know if it's the yoga, the horses, or a combination of both, but I feel something shifting inside.
Most of the group go to a rodeo in town that afternoon. I hang back to write in my journal about my experience. It's clear to me that yoga complements riding, particularly on a physical level. But I'm even more interested in the energetic connections we're exploring with the horses. I feel as if I've been taught a new language, one that communicates more clearly than words or actions. It's easy to practice in this environment, but I wonder whether I'll be able to align my thoughts, intention, and energy in the same way at home.
Later on that evening, I have a private restorative session with Burns Vap. My body drinks in every restful, well-supported pose, and that night, I sleep like a baby.
Home on the Range
By our last day, the barn feels familiar, with its scents and sounds deeply soothing to my soul. I move among the horses now with ease. When it's my turn to ride, this time bareback, I hoist myself up onto the horse with confidence. Five days of yoga have left my body loose and relaxed, and sitting on horseback feels as natural as sitting on my mat. As we slowly walk around the ring, I melt into the rhythm. Clop...clop...clop. Closing my eyes, I inhale deeply, savoring the sweet smell of hay in the warm sun. It's been an eventful week, and I'm ready to head home. But at this moment, there's nowhere else I'd rather be.
Get Out There
Why go? Whether you're an experienced rider or you admire horses from afar, yoga and horse retreats are a fun, safe way to explore riding in some truly inspiring scenery. You'll recognize the skill set shared by horsemanship and yoga—strengthening the core, opening the hips, maintaining focus and intention, using ease instead of force, directing the breath, and noticing subtle energetic cues.
Before signing up: Make sure that you understand what level of riding is offered and that it meets your criteria. If you are an advanced rider, a retreat that caters to other levels may not be satisfying. Also, inquire about who will be doing the riding instruction and who will be teaching the yoga. You want to know that you're working with qualified instructors for each activity and that there is a good balance of both during the trip.
Trip rundown: Cowgirl Yoga Ranch Camp offers three-, four-, and five-day retreats, ranging from $900 to $1,400, which includes accommodation, meals, riding and yoga instruction, and other activities. This year's trips include scenic trail rides and hiking.
Yoga and Riding Weekend Retreat at the Highland Ranch
The Home Ranch Women's Yoga Retreat
The Women's Quest Horse Camp Adventure Retreat
Kelle Walsh is Yoga Journal's Executive Online Editor.