When Breathwork alone doesn't cut it

Sensory Circuits

I just spent a week with a great friend of mine who is an Occupational Therapist working with children with social and emotional communication difficulties alongside other disorders such as ADHD, Sensory processing and autism.  We got into a super interesting discussion about managing the nervous system and the crossovers between what she does with her children at work and what I do with clients suffering from anxiety. (Especially around riding)


When I work with clients I take a holistic approach, working with the concious and unconcious (mind) in addition to working on trapped emotions and the nervous system.


One of the big take outs for me was when working on the nervous system element, - to move our nervous system from anxious (sympathetic) to calm/focused (parasympathetic) theres is more we can do in addition to what we already know about calming activities (such as breathwork, meditation, mindfulness and many other tools we use to regulate ourselves)


Learning that there are precursors to doing just the “calming” exercises will have not only a greater impact on the parasympathetic nervous system but also hold greater longevity.


In the most basic form there are 3 steps to acheive this. (known collectively as a sensory circuit)


  1. Alerting - This lifts energy levels and readies the brain and body for the demands of the session you are about to have (This may feel counter intuitive if you already feel on high alert due to anxiety - but stick with it!)

  2. Organising - This step involves multi-sensory processing, improving balance and timing. (SO important in working with your horse). You need to organise your body, and do more than one thing at a time in a particular order.

  3. Calming - This one will feel familiar and the one that you may already use tools/exercises from. This stage ensures you feel centred and calm. Ready to engage with your horse (or other activity) from a place of regulation.


By doing these 3 steps in this order your nervous system will regulate to a greater level and for a longer period.


This whole process would be adapted and individualised both for the rider and the context. For example a rider who is aboiut to compete in a cross-country competition will need a different sensory circuit to a rider who is anxious about mounting her horse.  However the steps would still remain in the given order with perhaps more emphasis in one area.  Eg rider going XC may do more exercises in steps 1 & 2 and just 1 calming activity.  The rider nervous about mounting may do 1 activity in step 1, then 2 exercises in steps 2 and 3.  The important thing is that all steps are completed to some degree in the given order. 


Examples of activities in each step.


1) Alerting - Easy exercises you can do at the yard.  Anything that raises your heart rate and provides heavy work to muscles and joints  that you don’t need to really think about.  For example, mucking out, carrying water buckets, sweeping the yard, Hanging haynets, sharing a carrot with your horse (eating crunchy foods) using the jaw muscles in the way you are using your arms and legs in other physical tasks is also very effective.


2) Organising - Exercises that require some concentrationand uses muliple senses/parts of the body at the same time. Eg Plaiting your horses mane or tail, Picking out hooves, organising the tack room (theres another task off the to do list!) Adding a quarter mark to your horses rump!  

If you are comfortable with groundwork then doing some online tasks with your horse would also work as you navigate all those ropes and sticks and where your body needs to be in order to communicate effectively!


If you are confident in your riding and about to go XC, doing “around the world” for example would be a great way of ticking the “step 2” off.


Riding a dressage test at home would also be a step 2 activity requiring you to using multiple senses and parts of the body!  


3) Calmimg.  These are the more familiar tasks. Doing breathwork exercises with your horse the mindfulness, Gentle stoking ,touching and connecting with your horse with no agenda. Massaging your horse. Listening to calming music.  

Of course, some of these exercises could fit into multiple steps depending on how they are used or adapted. For example Removing caked on mud from your horses body would be a step 1 activity where as gently grooming an already fairly clean horse mixed with some stroking and massage would fit into step 3.


The important thing is how do ensure you are following the steps in order, in a way that fits with things you already do at the yard without going out of sequence or backwards in the sequence. 


One way of doing this is to decide in advance what your individual sensory circuit will be , then getting everything else that needs doing at the yard done first.   If you are haphazard in your jobs and think “well I do lots of those exercises so ive got it covered” you risk jumping back and forth in the process and this won’t be effective.  Therefore be clear that the final few tasks you do are done in the correct sensory circuit order.


This will set you up for a fabulous session with your horse, mind body and spirit!