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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Horseback yoga? Neigh-maste – ‘It brings me lots of joy and magic,’ instructor Briana Randall says

By Erica Curless For The Spokesman-Review

The epiphany hit hard and fast, an energy so strong that she sprung off her yoga mat, pulled on her cowboy boots and bounded out of the house toward the barn.

Within minutes, Briana Randall was breathing deep into a seated mountain pose while sitting astride her mare, Star. From there she began modifying other yoga poses, developing her new practice of horseback yoga – a passion Randall now teaches to others who want to meld their love of horses and yoga.

“It was literally like a lightning bolt hit me,” Randall said last month while introducing herself to a dozen women sitting on horses at her Sunhaven Arena in Cheney. “Why am I not practicing yoga on my horse? It brings me lots of joy and magic. It’s a really great workout, but the best part is the connection with my horse.”

Then Randall instructed the women, mostly first-time participants, to bring their hands to heart center and take a big inhale. In the silence, a horse near the front took a huge, loud breath. The cowgirls exhaled into giggles.

The horses are true partners in the yoga practice. As their riders breathe and relax muscles through their hips, thighs and butts, the horses start to relax and take deeper breaths. There’s an undeniable connection of trust and respect between human and equine.

Sari Levernier is a registered nurse and yoga instructor. She grew up riding, but school and life meant a 10-year horse hiatus. Recently, her thoughts turned toward horses. Then an advertisement for Sunhaven’s July Sunset Cowgirl Yoga popped up, thanks to a Facebook algorithm. She instantly felt the magic.

“It’s one of the best representations of yoga I’ve ever experienced,” she said.

Levernier said she incorporates yoga into every moment of her life. She appreciates people who make yoga fun – with paddleboards, goats or even horses – because it builds community and introduces people to the practice of yoga. So, yoga purists be damned.

“The literal meaning of yoga is union,” Levernier said. “I can’t think of a more fitting opportunity to practice on a living, breathing animal – to really unionize. It’s really about the union of breath.”

April Sanders also saw a Facebook ad for Sunhaven’s cowgirl yoga last summer. Sanders isn’t really into yoga but needed a new activity for her horse other than practicing for the Spokane Drill Team, which requires the horses to fly around rodeo arenas at high speeds while doing intricate patterns. Her horse, Chance, needed something slower and different.

This cowgirl wasn’t too comfortable with the out-there, New Age-y concept but gave it a try. She loved it. Her horse also embraced the session, relaxing and responding but not worrying about his rider lifting out of a traditional riding position and putting her hands on his neck and knees behind the saddle on his rump for a horseback cat-cow position.

Sanders returned this summer, bringing her 18-year-old daughter, Hailey, who rode her hyper barrel horse, Vegas. In fact, many of the horses have speed-event backgrounds.

When Randall isn’t teaching horseback riding lessons and horseback yoga, she’s a barrel racer who competes in several regional associations. Her horses are “hot,” and sometimes she refers to them as “fire-breathing dragons.” They need this high energy to make rocket-fast runs around barrels set up in a cloverleaf pattern.

But when they get into the yoga arena, their demeanor changes. They calm down. They breathe. Their eyes get heavy, and they often cock a hip, a sure sign of horse relaxation. Sometimes the horses move and the rider just accommodates and waits for them to settle.

Occasionally, the horse loses focus during a more difficult pose, and the rider loses balance and slips off the horse. But in true cowgirl fashion, they get back on and try again. Vegas stood still, relaxed and assured, as Hailey Sanders attempted the yoga poses.

“I thought it would be way easier,” Sanders said with a big laugh, recounting a position where she tried to lift herself out of her saddle with just her arms. She put her hands on the pommel – one hand on either side of the saddle horn – then shot each leg straight out to the side. “I got charley horses in both my cheeks,” she said.

Randall said, just as in traditional yoga, it takes practice to gain strength and master advanced moves. Randall herself is working on her standing positions, where she stands in the saddle, like a trick rider, and does movements such as the standing dancer and standing tree poses.

Randall began practicing yoga while on the Washington State University track team competing in high jumping. She’s practiced ever since, although more intensely after a severe neck injury from college track reappeared.

She graduated with an education degree from WSU and taught special education for a decade before transitioning her passion for teaching into giving horseback riding lessons to people of all ages. She focuses on Western riding and speed events such as barrel racing.

“My main goal at Sunhaven is to connect people and horses,” she said. “The majority of my riders don’t own horses.”

Randall has a herd of horses that she lets people use for lessons and yoga. Some of the participants at the recent event don’t ride and don’t do yoga. Randall encourages everyone to give horseback yoga a try if they have an interest.

After Randall’s horseback yoga epiphany a few years ago, she googled and learned there are a few other people across the country who had the same idea.

Randall said her relationship with her horses is more connected after sharing yoga, and their trust has greatly increased. That connection is crucial in horseback riding no matter the discipline.

On this particular evening, all the women seemed connected to their horses even if it was their first time with that particular animal. As the sun started to set, Randall instructed everyone back into their saddles.

“Take a final deep breath,” she said. “Say a silent thanks to your horse and gratitude to yourself.”

With that, the riders left the arena and headed toward an open hillside to view the sunset, then share a glass of wine. It was true “neighmaste.”