Horse & Yoga

Times reporter Giles Bruce participates in a Horse & Yoga session with instructor Deauke Robbens and her horse, Luke, at Barn Santé in LaPorte.

John J. Watkins, The Times

LAPORTE — I sat, bareback, atop an 1,100-pound horse, performing a yoga pose.

I was, oddly ... relaxed.

I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, let the sun gently warm my face, listened to the breeze rustling the leaves.

I forgot for a second the precariousness of my situation. The horse was calm, and so was I.

This is so peaceful, I thought, not wanting the moment to end. 

I tried Horse & Yoga recently in LaPorte, fully intending to write a wacky article about a seemingly wacky idea. But the session actually taught me a lot about horses — and myself in the process.

"Horses mirror you," Deauke Robbens, owner of Barn Santé and Horse & Yoga instructor, told me before the class. "They feel your vibes big time. If you are calm, you will calm them down. If you are nervous, they will get a little bit nervous. It's like self-reflection of what state of mind you're in."

This had me worried. I'm normally an anxious person. And I'd been a little more stressed than usual in the weeks leading up to this day. Was the horse really going to pick that up?

He did.

Robbens led me out from the barn to meet Luke ('lùːka), a 16-year-old Friesian horse the color of dark chocolate. She told me to take off my shoes. I did, keeping an eye out for horse poop.

She had me do a tree pose with my right hand on Luke's shoulder. She said that if he was nervous, he would move in the opposite direction. Almost as soon as I touched him, he slowly backed away, like a person who walked into a room where people were fighting.

She told me to do the poses next to him until he calmed down.

"Watch your feet," Robbens said. "He will just think they are rocks." Oh, great, I thought, another thing to make me nervous.

As I did the poses, the horse started sniffing me. At one point, he nibbled on my arm, causing me to jerk back and increase the tension level.

The horse and I weren't jiving, so Robbens had me go on the other side of his stand to continue my poses.

Eventually, I relaxed, and the horse did, too. He kept his head down, eating hay, a sign he was comfortable. He started licking my hand, making me laugh.

"Being around horses is also about letting go of ego," she said. "I don't know if I heard the quote or if I invented it. I think I heard it and stole it: 'If you have no expectations, everything is a gift.'"

I had stopped worrying about the horse and trying to impress him. I got out of my head. He felt it.

I returned to the side of the stand Luke was on. I did a few warrior poses next to him. He ignored me, tending to his hay.

Eventually, it was time to mount him. Robbens and I weren't sure I was ready at first, but we both acknowledged how much he and I had calmed down.

Robbens, who emigrated to LaPorte from Belgium three years back after her husband's job was relocated here, calls the class Dances with Horses. "Because you actually dance with the horse, and the horse moves," she said. She had to travel to Florida to get certified in Horse & Yoga.

Before me, no man had tried horse yoga at Barn Santé.

"I make the joke that they're just scared," Robbens said.

As The Times' fitness-experimenter-in-chief, aka the paper's exercise guinea pig, I am decidedly not scared nor ashamed.

She said Horse & Yoga also teaches people compassion for animals. Horses, like humans, don't necessarily want you in their space.

"People have their bubbles. If you don't know me and I come talk close to you, you would feel uncomfortable and so then you would kind of step away," she explained. "Horses have a bubble as well. We as humans don't often respect the bubbles of animals. We think we own them and control them.

"If you want to respect them, tune into them and maybe see if they don't want to be touched. We always touch, touch, touch. Because we want that. They're maybe not asking for it."

Most people's experiences with horses — like mine, before this — came with horseback riding. But that was an artificial experience, Robbens said, with a horse that had likely grown immune to human touch. Luke, she said, is more along the lines of what a normal horse is like.

By the end of the session, I was doing eagle stretch and arch stretch poses atop the gentle beast of an animal. He and I really were "dancing." We were in unison. I didn't want to get off.

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Giles is the health reporter for The Times, covering the business of health care as well as consumer and public health. He previously wrote about health for the Lawrence (Kansas) Journal-World. He is a graduate of Northern Illinois University.