Timeless Ride-Better Tips (Thank You, Sally!)

That’s yours truly in the photo, with my arm in the air. It was May of 1998, and I was on assignment for Horse&Rider at a Sally Swift clinic in Vermont. My goal was to report on the Centered Riding phenomenon, then sweeping the nation as a result of Swift’s seminal book by the same name.

Credit: Darrell Dodds This hand-over-head exercise enables you to feel how to sit erect and tall, yet deep in the saddle and flexible through your lower back and hips.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the publication of the now-classic Centered Riding. Trafalgar Square is celebrating during November with remembrances of the book’s remarkable author, who died in 2009. You can read about my own pivotal—if embarrassing—lightbulb moment at Sally’s clinic here. As you’ll see, she had a way of getting you to do things you didn’t think you could do. She knew you could, though, because she’d painstakingly figured out all the mechanics, over many years.

Born with a curved spine, Sally was able to ride only by studying how the human body works. She needed to learn the most effective, foolproof ways of achieving harmony in the saddle, then how to get her body to work in that way. Later, those techniques became the principles of Centered Riding.

I highly recommend both her books. (She produced a sequel, Centered Riding 2: Further Exploration, in 2001.) Study them and their countless detailed photos and drawings. Apply their principles, and it will make you a better rider. Guaranteed.

Here are two examples of the many wonderful exercises you’ll find in the books.

Raise your hand. This is the exercise I’m doing in the photo. As you ride at a walk, stretch one arm straight up, keeping your fingers “growing” toward the sky while the rest of your body sinks downward. Change hands whenever you get tired. (If someone can lead your horse for you, go ahead and close your eyes, as I am.) This maneuver relaxes your spine and lets you feel how to sit tall and erect, yet deep in the saddle. It also unlocks and loosens your lower back and hip joints. Try it at all three gaits. Over time, you’ll notice an increased feeling of elasticity up and down the front of your body. Ultimately, your upper body will feel taller and quieter; your lower body, softer and more supple.

Breathe into your boots. Correct breathing is foundational to good horsemanship. Sally knew it’s easier to work with mental images than to think of specific muscle groups. In this exercise, performed mounted at a walk, visualize a flexible tube running down inside your body, all the way to your toes. As you breathe in, use your imagination to “feel” each breath moving down, past your belt line and pelvis, all the way into your boots. This exercise encourages your diaphragm to descend properly with each breath, with the result that you draw air in deeply and effortlessly. Breathing this way will give both you and your horse confidence, as it fosters calmness and relaxation.

(Learn more about Centered Riding’s intrepid, innovative founder with the feature “Sally Swift Shows Us the Way.”)

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