Published in 1985, Centered Riding quickly became one of the best-selling equestrian books of all time. Sally Swift developed her instructional approach from personal experience as a rider, instructor and beneficiary of several body-awareness methods used to counteract the lateral curvature of the spine (scoliosis) that first affected her in 1921 when she was 8 years old. Although Centered Riding enthusiasts regret that Swift waited until retirement age to develop and publish her insights, Swift herself suspects that the equestrian world wasn’t ready for her concepts before the 1980s, when she happened to return to instruction. Nearly 20 years in the making, Centered Riding 2: Further Exploration complements the original work by incorporating new ideas based on Swift’s subsequent years of hands-on experience in helping riders gain better control over their bodies and improve communications with their horses. This excerpt addresses the Four Basics and “grounding.” These foundation concepts of Centered Riding apply to all riding disciplines and all levels of accomplishment–and, Swift has observed, to life outside the riding ring, as well.
All of Centered Riding work stems from the concepts of its Four Basics–centering, breathing, soft eyes and building blocks–plus grounding. Living in our hurried, hectic, pressured society exacerbates the tendency to interfere. The lack of any one of these Four Basics and grounding can cause interference. If you lose one of these basics you may find yourself tense, with hard eyes and rigid joints, or you may be breathless and out of balance. Though trying to decide which basic comes first can produce a bad case of “the chicken and the egg,” it is usually best to find your center and understand the concept of centering before establishing the other basics.
Basic #1: Centering
The Four Basics provide an armament of awareness through which you can more easily find your center. They work together in a way that allows the center to perform freely, and, in turn, your center can bring the other basics into line and allow your body to operate in a natural and fluid way.
You can find your center easily by placing your thumb over your navel and spreading your hand below it so your little finger rests on your pubic arch. Your center will lie behind the palm of your hand. Put your other hand over the top of your sacrum (the part of the vertebral column that is directly connected with the pelvis) where the fifth lumbar vertebra rests on it. Your center lies between your hands in an area containing a large nerve center, which controls the entire body. When you perform an activity, your brain controls your intent and gives the larger directions, but the details of how you do it–the coordination that is needed to perform the movement of your intent–comes from your center. If the desired movement is to be performed efficiently you must allow your center to direct the coordination with what I call Clear Intent, a precise, positive understanding and a picture of what you want. All too often, the way in which we use our bodies and brains interferes with this coordination.
As you find your center between your hands, let yourself simply be aware of the area of your center. I usually sense the center as a ball floating in a liquid of any consistency. Sometimes it is small but heavy like a tai chi ball. Other times I imagine the ball as large as a softball. Any size, texture or density that fits your fancy will do. Other people are not as comfortable with the concept of the center as a ball and conceive of it, instead, as a mass of energy in the upper pelvis or even a sun with rays. Any of these images will serve the purpose of helping to find your center. I call this “finding the ball in your center” and, in Centered Riding vocabulary, refer to it quickly as “the ball.” This is how you center yourself.
Not long ago, Saundra, a friend, student and now a Centered Riding instructor, told me about an incident that high-lighted how centering can coordinate our efforts. After a long day of teaching Centered Riding, Saundra was pressed by friends to go bowling with them. She really wanted to go home, did not know how to bowl and had absolutely no interest in learning to bowl. Yet, there she was in the bowling alley, sucked in by her jovial friends. One friend insisted that Saundra try her hand at the sport and showed her how to hold the ball and swing her arm. Each time Saundra took her turn, the ball shot out of her hand and sputtered down the gutter, a total loss. Finally, the friend suggested, “Use your center, Saundra.”
In her displeasure, she hadn’t thought of using her center for bowling. Now the idea intrigued her. She took time to go deep within her low, quiet center and discovered that her body was no longer upright and awkward, but easily dropped low to the floor, one knee well ahead, the other back, balanced, with hip, knee and ankle joints deeply closed and her back, neck and head long and free. From this position, she quietly swung her hand and arm to let go of the ball. Then came the follow-through with open, pointing fingers sending her energy sliding slowly down the alley with the ball. The motion was one of beauty and control, and instead of crashing down the gutter, this ball went in an unhurried roll down the center of the alley exactly to where it was directed by that totally extended hand, body and center. Saundra had executed a perfect strike!
The incredulous applause was instant. Saundra continued to bowl, centering herself with each turn. Time and again, she made a perfect strike. Everyone–her friends, the other bowlers in the alley and Saundra herself–were dumbfounded at such success by a total novice. How had she done it? She explained to her astonished friends and the seasoned bowlers as well as she could, and although they improved their performances, none of them had results quite as dramatic as Saundra’s. Although she is still amazed at the magnitude of the difference in the way her body managed itself between her first awkward tries and the ensuing successes, Saundra suspects that her long practice of meditation, which involves much use of the center, combined with her Centered Riding training, made her efforts particularly effective. She knew what she wanted to do, but she was able to relinquish to her center the control of how to do it. It can be a difficult task, but when we let our minds give the directives and allow our centers to take over the job of coordinating without interference, the results can be extraordinary.
I have always been aware of the importance of my center. When in my upper teens, I knew that if I wanted to do something special with my horse–to get him balanced or approach a jump–I needed to take the ball from my upper body and drop it down into my pelvis, where it landed with a “plop” as if into mud. With it there, I could do anything. I did not think of it as centering at that time. It was just my special feeling of the ball. Years later, when I was developing Centered Riding as a technique, I realized how fundamental the ball was to effective riding.
So, how do you find your center? And, how do you center yourself? You just think about it. Your mind alerts your center.
Basic #2: Breathing
Effective breathing involves the use of the whole torso. The diaphragm stretches across the torso at the bottom of the rib cage, moving well up within the rib cavity with exhalation and down again with inhalation. It has a powerful root extending down into the area of the center. If you find yourself breathing shallowly only in the top of your rib cage, you will note a feeling of restricted body use.
Any time you hold your breath, you create stiffness and rigidity. If, on the other hand, you allow your breath to feel as if it is filling up the whole area down through the back of your lower body, as if you could breathe into the back of your pelvis or even into your feet, you help release multiple tensions. This is not a case of taking big, deep breaths, but rather of allowing each normal breath to travel softly throughout your body and to integrate the rhythms of your body and of your horse.
This quality of breathing has many positive results. Sit quietly on your horse (or on a straight, hard-backed chair) and breathe into your lower back. Notice that your pelvis rocks gently on your seat bones (ischia) front-to-back. With each breath, your sacrum drops slightly down, then goes back to balance again. Each time this happens, it softens your lower back across the top of the buttocks, expands the lower back, lengthens the spine and releases tension in the hip joints. Under many circumstances in Centered Riding, you will hear me asking you to drop your sacrum, breathe into your lower back and let your spine lengthen.
Basic #3: Soft Eyes
Soft eyes allow you to expand your awareness. While looking toward an object, let your eyes relax. Let the object be the general center of your gaze, but look at it with your peripheral vision taking in the largest possible expanse around it. You will become simultaneously aware of your surroundings and your inner body, the relationship of its parts to each other and to your horse. The use of soft eyes opens the way for proprioception and awareness. Proprioception is the ability to sense where all your body parts are in relation to one another. Identity, one’s sense of self, is organically anchored in proprioception.
When you are using soft eyes, you will find it much easier to feel how the horse is moving your body. By allowing you distinct awareness of what is going on around you, beneath you and inside of you, the practice of soft eyes becomes almost a philosophy rather than just a visual capability.
With hard, intently focused eyes, you tend to hold your breath, lose your center and be less aware of the relationship of your body to your surroundings, including your horse. One interesting outcome of this basic is that a number of people working in a small area can ride complicated movements independently without bumping into each other if they use soft eyes. If they use hard eyes, probably focusing intently on their horses’ ears, they will collide and crash.
Basic #4: Building Blocks
Finally, you can focus on the balancing effect of building blocks. When you are “built” correctly, your body is aligned for harmonious movement. If you don’t have balance, your entire ride will become involved either in trying to find it or in using extra muscular effort to avoid falling off your horse.
As I wrote in Centered Riding 17 years ago, “Your bottom building blocks are your legs and feet. The next block is your pelvis, then rib cage, shoulders and, last, your head and neck. For flatwork, the correct lineup of the blocks (viewing the body sideways) will allow you to drop a plumb line from the ear through the tip of the shoulder, hip joint and ankle. Just before it passes through your hip joint, you will find it going straight through your center.” As is the case with each of the basics, without balance you lose efficiency. Without the other basics, you lose balance. You need them all.
There is a story in my family of my looking up at my father and saying, “I may not go up as far as you do, but I go down just as far.” That sense of connection with the ground allows you to find your center, to breathe more easily, to use soft eyes, to be balanced and to feel tall. I am constantly impressed by the importance of being grounded in everything we do. Grounding is not a separate basic but the foundation on which the Four Basics depend. Grounding gives everything else security. It is a feeling that your well-established center is dropping energy down through your legs and feet into the ground, while the energy in the ground comes up to your feet. An image (or feeling) of grounding has your legs and feet sucked gently down and down, from your open hip joints into the ground where the soles of your feet are secured as if by magnets. The magical part is that the ground, even as it holds you, can move with your feet anywhere you wish, giving you total stability at all times. You know that nothing and no one can knock you over. (This sensation happens just as easily when you are on your horse and your feet are not actually touching the ground.)
Grounding is not a matter of being heavy. I’ll explain. Have you ever had to deal with a small child who does not want to go to bed and somehow makes herself inseparable from the floor? Similarly, George Leonard, author of The Ultimate Athlete, tells of his daughter, who weighed just 110 pounds, making herself so heavy that a weightlifter could not pick her up! One way to experience being grounded is to try the exercise I call “feet in the sand” described in another chapter. You can also ground different parts of your body: your feet, your knees and your seat. This sensation of being connected to the earth is a powerful tool.
The Basics in Action
Recently, I have become even more acutely aware of the power of the center through working with disabled riders. One was Pam, who had lost a significant degree of control of her body and limbs in a car accident. I made no effort to teach her how to ride; I simply worked with her as she sat on the horse. I put my hands on her lower body, front and back, to locate her center as you did when you found your own center. I also paid a lot of attention to myself, to my own centering, grounding and balance, to my breathing and soft eyes. I talked quietly about her, allowing her to be aware of the area between my hands, especially toward the hand on the sacrum, and discover peace and quiet there. I persisted, being careful to keep 75 percent of my attention on my own center and grounding and only 25 percent on Pam. More attention on her than that appeared to cause her to overload and block her body, but the 25 percent seemed to quiet her frantically active center. As I concentrated on our centers in that way, her body began to find more normal patterns. Her buttocks relaxed, her hamstrings and the muscles down the fronts of her legs released. This in turn released her hip joints so her legs dropped down under her, and her torso stopped tipping forward, backward or sideways and came into balance. Her seat settled all over the saddle. When she was led off at the walk, her back rippled; she moved with the horse with a following seat.
Each rider I worked with responded the same way. It seemed like a miracle. My hypothesis is that the senses of the disabled and of all of us in varying lesser degrees are more peripheral than centered. There tends to be a lot of extraneous activity and disorientation in the periphery. When we can bring awareness and quiet into the center, the extraneous activity can be brought in, reorganized and sent back out again in better order. The way in which centering is helpful to disabled riders indicates not only that the center can be a powerful area of reorganization, but that the body seeks normality. If we can remove or reduce interferences, the body will return to as close to normal as possible.
I was curious to discover if the same effect occurred with able-bodied riders. In some of my clinics, I tried doing the unmounted, hands-on work first so that less would have to be done on the horse. The riders worked in pairs, with one putting her hands on the front and back of the other’s lower torso. The first partner paid careful attention to her own grounding, centering, breathing, soft eyes and building blocks. The second partner felt a nice warmth and stability as a result. This stable feeling dissolved into overload and discomfort if the first partner focused all her attention on the second partner.
When they returned to mounted work, the able- bodied riders melted into lovely deep seats with tall, balanced bodies. I then had them move into slow work on the horses, with a lot of walking at first, but later with the full quota of activity. The one criterion, especially at first, was if the rider lost any of the Four Basics or if there was any resistance in the horse, they would return to a walk or sometimes a halt. Then the rider could center and reorganize, affecting the horse as well, before moving off again. By the end of the two- or three-day clinics, the riders were wonderfully balanced and fluid, and the horses were balanced, forward and straight at all gaits. This experience was strong proof of how valuable groundwork is in learning Centered Riding. First, you can concentrate on yourself alone without the distractions of a horse beneath you. Second, the horse does not have to put up with and, in some cases, endure the seemingly endless mistakes you make, which are inevitable when you are learning.
Pamela, a local veterinarian, has a very determined Morgan named Buster, whom she brought to one of my first clinics after my discovery with the disabled. Pamela tends to be crooked from an old injury. She complained that Buster had been leaning heavily on her outside rein on one side all summer, and she was fed up with it. We did some intensive centering work both on the ground and mounted, with no mention of inside or outside reins or of corrective work for horses or riders. (By the way, when I refer to the inside rein or leg, I mean the hand or leg on the inside of the circle or turn you are riding.) At the end of the class, I asked each rider, as I always do, what had been special during the lesson. Pamela burst into a big smile and said, “I’m straight [which she was], and Buster didn’t once lean on the outside rein. He’s straight, too!”
Another student was Alexandra, a 14-year-old hunt-seat rider working into the Medal/Maclay classes. Ambitious and talented, she had a good foundation in the techniques needed in major equitation classes. But she was full of tension, which was interfering with her further progress. In her first lesson with me, we spent a long time on the ground working through the Four Basics, learning to move from her center and exploring the correct use of her joints. Once she was on the horse, we spent a long time at the walk sorting out how to stay centered, how she could avoid holding her breath under stress and how to maintain the use of the Four Basics and grounding. We took the same objectives into the trot and canter. She became nicely fluid and balanced. She came back two weeks later having competed in a Medal/Maclay class. She had won the blue ribbon despite stiff competition against experienced, competent equitation riders. When her mother asked what she had done differently, Alexandra replied, “I didn’t think at all about my equitation. All I did was think about centering the whole time, and my horse went like silk.”
This begins to sound as if all we have to do to learn how to ride is to learn how to be centered, which, of course, is not true. Pam, Alexandra and the clinic participants were already riders. During the clinic sessions, I inserted many directives for specific situations, but the emphasis was on doing it all from the center. The result of this approach indicates that riders can learn and apply the myriad details of riding more easily and efficiently through centering and achieve beautiful results.
Often I have people tell me, “You have not only helped my riding; you have changed my whole life.” Usually, this is simply because they have been able to increase their awareness or because of the relief of being able to allow things–their bodies and their lives–to function on their own after years of struggling to be in control of everything. You will discover in your own way what centering can accomplish when you open up to awareness and quiet.
This article originally appeared in the May 2001 issue of EQUUS magazine.