A great big shout out to Trafalgar Square Books who this year celebrates not only its 30th year of publishing horse books, but especially in celebration of the 30th anniversary of their very first horse book, Sally Swift’s Centered Riding. Centered Riding® teaches that a centered, balanced rider with good awareness of her body can help her horse move with balance and freedom of motion, which leads to efficiency of movement and beauty in the horse's gaits. As the founder of Centered Riding, the late great Sally Swift taught thousands of riders and certified more than 1000 Centered Riding Instructors around the world. It only took me 30 years to understand the difference Centered Riding can make to any rider — even the stubborn ones like me!
To call Centered Riding a horse book is like calling Secretariat a horse. As I discovered in researching my own new book, Riding Through Thick and Thin, when it comes to finding that sweet spot of perfect balance and connection with your horse at any gait, what Sally Swift introduced to the horse world with her “horse book” criss-crossed all the “new” hot topics in horsemanship today such as mindfulness, body awareness, as well as the role of energy and breathing in a balanced, joyful ride. Clearly, she was ahead of her time.
Intrigued by this I dug a little deeper beneath the Centered Riding story. As it turns out, Sally was a lifelong student to something called The Alexander Technique, and it was an Alexander Technique teacher and former FEI dressage rider and trainer named Constance Clare, who discovered how Swift’s personal longtime study of the Alexander Technique influenced her teaching and development of Centered Riding®.
After reading Sally Swift’s two books (Centered Riding and Centered Riding 2: Further Exploration), Clare contacted Sally at her home in Vermont to talk about her method, her study of the Alexander Technique and horsemanship. Clare explains in her resulting article,"
A Conversation with Sally Swift," how Swift made a pivotal connection between Alexander principles and riding horses, and then incorporated this understanding into her Centered Riding method. Although this infusion didn’t change any of Swift’s basic principles of horsemanship, her deep study of key Alexander ideologies led to incorporating ahead-of-her-time ideas such as self-awareness and mindfulness (which Swift termed “the use of the self”) into her teachings.
Putting “use of the self” in the specific context of riding, Centered Riding deals with how everything we do affects our horse. "Horses are extraordinary,” Swift told Clare. “They give their feedback to you instantly." According to Swift, this feedback comes in area of tension, balance and even mood: when we hold tension in our backs, the horse beneath us can’t be free in his back. When we are not balanced, our horse has to use his back muscles to try to balance himself, which hinders his own movement. As a result, his gaits are stiffer and everything we ask him to do takes more effort on his part — and therefore increases his load. “Horses are extremely sensitive to their riders,” Swift told Clare, “from weight changes to excess tension, even to the mood of the rider. When a rider learns a more fluid and balanced use of her back, the horse can move freely and becomes more fluid and balanced himself.
My own Centered Riding® experience
The first time someone told me about Sally Swift and Centered Riding®, I thought, “what a nice thing for those English riders — the dressage-y, jump-y, event-y types with the enviable balance. I wish I could have learned to ride that way from the beginning, but I'm sure it's too late for me now." With that I more or less dismissed the idea of trying to relearn balance. I ride Western. We just jump on and go, right?
My return to horses and riding after a couple of decades — and my subsequent selfishly motivated research and the resulting book, The Smart Woman’s Guide to Midlife Horses explored the nuances of midlife horse ownership, particularly for women. In this book I covered this particular facet of horsemanship — connecting with and taking care of my midlife horses, from feeding and farriers to tack and trailering. I shared what my experts and interviews advised about finding and choosing the help I needed, connecting with my horse, and making this experience the best it can be.
And yet, through it all my confidence as a rider remained shaky — and my rides were more infused with fear than fun. Somewhere along the way my innate balance and fearlessness had been replaced by something wobbly and weird and afraid of falling off.
I struggled on for a while and then, oddly, the opportunity for a new book came along. Riding Through Thick and Thin was to be a book about body image and riding — and how regardless of what we weigh, we can ride lighter by being fit and paying more attention to biomechanics of riding. As I researched, I noticed that many if not most of my expert sources — and the majority of the riders I talked to — kept mentioning Centered Riding.
It wasn’t until I became mired in trying to connect the “ dots" of all this biomechanics research — and make it more relatable with some first hand observations — that I encountered the magic of Sally and her method through her "Ground, Center, and Grow" exercise. Even though my book explored a number of ways to incorporate mindfulness, breathing, and even meditation into riding, I, quite frankly, still wasn’t feeling it.
When I did Sally’s "Ground, Center, and Grow” exercise for the first time, I’m pretty sure a giant, cartoon-styled lightbulb popped into the air right over my head, right there in that round where I rode.
Suddenly I could feel every movement of my horse. I was, for the first time, really able to count his steps. I "grew" taller, and I stretched downward, and as I breathed into my belly I felt myself settle into a new place on the back of my horse. And I felt him respond with more willingness and cooperation than he ever had before. And, like the arrow in the FedEx logo (once you see it, you can’t not see it), from that moment on, finding that place of connection with my horse is now more or less automatic. And if it happens to be one of those days when I’m struggling, repeating Sally’s Ground, Center, and Grow exercise reconnects me once again.
So it is from the bottom of my heart (and of my seat) that I personally salute the amazing work of the late great Sally Swift — and Trafalgar Square Books for bringing this vital information to all kinds of riders — all over the world for 30 years and counting!