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At the start of a recent yoga class, some were restless, their hooves trying to take them somewhere else, but near the end of class, heads were dropping low and some seemed to be sleeping.
This even though there was thunder — a storm building not far from the outdoor arena in southeast Douglas County.
That’s typical, says Daniela “Danny” Chapparo, 43, an equestrian and yoga teacher and owner of Ashva Yoga studio in Castle Rock, who in addition to other classes offers equestrian yoga workshops.
She said the classes are mainly for the horses’ riders, who exercise on the horses and sometimes off, attempting yoga positions while near or leaning against the horse. The yoga and breathing exercises help a rider become more flexible and balanced on the horse, and also noticeably calm the horses.
Chapparo said the horse is a great teacher.
“Horses live in an emotional environment. It wants to flee if it senses danger,” she said.
The horses mirror the emotion sensed from the riders and help the riders become aware of their emotional state — something they wouldn’t get by sitting on a mat. “It’s a whole different awareness,” Chapparo said.
The riders also work with the horses, doing such things as picking up the front hooves and pulling the horses’ front legs out in a lateral stretch.
“Horses like it when we try to understand and connect with them. It’s a gift to them,” Chapparo said.
Chapparo, who gives talks to various groups, such as at the February National Convention of Competitive Trail Riders, said “breathing is a subtle energy movement in the body” that horses can sense. She said when a rider tries breathing techniques – such as exhaling twice as long as inhaling, it often calms a horse so quickly, it’s like “you’ve flipped a switch.”
Riders learn subtleties of their horses’ movements and behaviors — big and little things. For example, Chapparo told students that when a horse is licking its lips, it’s processing what’s happening, or what’s being asked of it. When the horse finishes processing, it predictably will give a little sigh, as if to say “I know what you want me to do,” she said.
Often people with no yoga experience or horse experience and no horse — school horses are available — take the class.
Workshop participant Jo Knize, a physical therapist and longtime yoga practitioner, says the horse and saddle is a great stabilizer of the pelvis for yoga movements.
“Yoga has made a huge difference in my life,” Knize said at the workshop. “I’m not a horsewoman … haven’t been on a horse in 20 years.”
She said recently “the equestrian yoga event was a surprisingly exhilarating occurrence for me.”
Chapparo, 43, grew up in Germany, where her parents had an appliance store, and spent time on her grandparents’ farm. She was an equestrian, studying jumping and dressage. But she dreamed of coming to America, enamored by the Western close-to-nature lifestyle, the freedom, the open prairie.
When she was 14, she remembers going to a bank and exchanging marks to get one “cool” U.S. dollar to carry in her wallet.
After college, she had bachelor’s degrees in math and computer science and in 1995 was able to participate in an exchange program and get a software-engineering position with a Highlands Ranch company.
She would later buy a horse, Abraham, who would change her career. In 2003, he bucked her off onto hard ground, and she sustained a lower-back fracture.
During months of rehabilitation, she took yoga for pain relief and to avoid surgery.
She said yoga completely changed her body and she spent about six years studying yoga and getting certified to teach.
Eventually, she realized how the techniques helped her horsemanship and her horse. She would notice a shift in the horse’s energy when she did breathing techniques. “He was calmer, more in sync with me,” she said. She had friends riding with her try it, and it worked for them, and because of that and other benefits, she started developing the equine program.
She thinks she owes so much to Abraham, for teaching her patience and much more.
Without the fall, she wouldn’t have found yoga, she said.
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