There is a clear parallel between dressage and yoga. “Dressage is yoga for horses,” said Wanja Gerlach. The German-born Grand Prix level dressage rider and trainer picked up yoga years ago to increase his own flexibility and he quickly discovered how much it helped his horses’ performances in the arena. Perhaps more unexpectedly, he said that parallel between yoga and training a horse helped him see the journey through their eyes.
If you ask Gerlach, 38, how long he’s been practicing yoga, he'll tell you, "not long enough." For him, yoga is a lifelong journey. He has found the personal health benefits gained from his journey are plentiful. For a horse’s journey, those benefits are an essential piece to safely and successfully performing at the highest level of dressage.
Gerlach aims to practice Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga for 90 to 100 minutes a day. It’s that important to him. Even when time gets away, he ensures he gets at least 30 minutes first thing in the morning. Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga is primarily composed of holding a pose for five breaths and then moving on to the next pose in a prescribed order, transitioning between them with a refined balance and strength. Sound familiar?
"It's quite a workout," he said. Like any human or horse, he had to start somewhere. After his first yoga class, he said he felt results instantly. "Yeah, I was in pain," he said in jest. It only took a few sore mornings before he realized yoga was more about the long steady journey than forcing himself into the perfect pose. When he understood that, he started noticing real results after a couple of months. “I could bend down and zip up my boots without having to lift my legs up and could completely turn around in the saddle when somebody was talking to me from behind. More important, I could feel my body following my horse's motions much more fluently,” Gerlach stated.
The personal health and balance benefits kept paying off the more he focused on the journey rather than technical perfection. Yoga became essential not only for him, but also to his horses. "It's like stretching to prevent injuries, right?" he posed. "When my hips are more flexible, I can follow the horse’s movement better and be more in sync with him. There’s less resistance. The muscles are more capable so, overall, it creates a much more elegant and effortless experience and picture."
Investing the time to free his own movements had freed his horse's movements. As he refined his own strength and flexibility from pose to pose, he could better train his horses to do the same from movement to movement. The aesthetic of the whole picture became stronger and more balanced, and judges rewarded that picture in the ring.
Now, instead of imagining Wanja Gerlach in the downward dog pose, imagine the shape of a horse's neck when he’s moving forward on the bit. Think about the elevation in his neck and the strength and flexibility required to maintain that posture through a movement. "If you're not getting that feeling of the horse fully swinging through, it's because you have to help the horse develop that feeling. That takes time. He has to have the strength and flexibility to adjust his neck into that position and hold it there," Wanja explained. "It's the same for people with something like the downward dog position. You have to be flexible not only in your lower back and hips, but also your shoulders and legs, and even in your ankles. Those smooth transitions from one movement to another movement take the same kind of strength that correlates with yoga."
The further Gerlach ventured into his yoga journey, the more parallels and benefits he found. He leveraged a newfound command over his breathing to build tension and release it when he needed it. “Say, for a piaffe or flying change,” he suggested. “And then release that tension when it's time to relax and flow through an extended trot.” Even beyond the practical, if not ultra-specialized, benefits of controlled breathing in the ring, "It helps to be able to exhale the stress, get into the zone, and find that razor sharp focus my horse trusts me to have when I'm in the saddle. When you can close your eyes for a moment and find your balance and core strength, it puts you in a totally different place."
Perhaps the most profound benefit of Gerlach’s yoga journey is the empathy it’s fostered. "As a rider, it helps me understand a little better what I'm asking my horse to do," he said. "Almost anyone can do some type of yoga, and almost any horse can do some type of dressage, but each individual has to take his own journey, and that takes time. If you rush it, you get sore. Even with all the God-given ability in the world, you can't build elegance with force."
Wanja Gerlach is a USDF bronze, silver and gold medalist, and a USDF “L” licensed judge. Performance Sporthorses, LLC, provides breeding needs from stallion service to youngstock raising, as well as dressage training from Young Horse through Grand Prix and stallion preparation for inspection and testing. If you would like to learn more about Wanja’s program, please visit www.facebook.com/performancesporthorsesllc/. This article was edited by Josh Walker/Athletux.