In Centred Riding you often use the fact that you can retain your balance best when your centre of gravity is equal to your centre. In other words, sufficiently low and in the middle. Imagine a tumbler, you know the kind of toy with a ball shaped bottom and a little puppet on top. When you push the tumbler down and release, it always comes up and ‘back on its feet’ again. That is because it carries a relatively heavy weight in its central bottom. Consequently, its centre of gravity is in the middle and, very importantly, very low. When its centre of gravity would be higher, it would much less easy (or not at all) come back up again after you pushed it over. Conclusion: with a low centre of gravity, close to that of your horse, you have a much more stable seat than with your centre of gravity raised.
When you manage to keep your centre low and centred, you can make the decisions (turns, tempo changes) in your riding through your centre of gravity. That makes your timing perfect and allows you to follow the movement of the horse well. Even more, you decide on the movement. So your horse is following your movement too. By riding from your centre of gravity, so from your centre, you and your horse will become in balance together and you can anticipate to the movements of your horse. When you don’t do that, you in fact are always behind the movement, so not in balance. You can compensate that by leaning backwards, or stick your legs forward, or by squeezing yourself in place with your knees or thighs. But that obviously will cause tension in your horse.
That sounds logical, but how can you achieve that? How can you lower your centre of gravity? Your centre of gravity is not always in the same place. By breathing high, for example, you can raise it. How do you get it back down again? By breathing low, yes, but as soon as you stop thinking about that you will return to old habits and breath high again. You would like to change it such that it will also adjust your habits. And now it will become a bit too vague for some people I’m afraid. To teach your body how to respond, you will first have to teach your body that it is doing something wrong. It will have to learn how to feel and respond.
There are a number of exercises that you can do. An exercise that Sally Swift, the founder of Centred Riding, has written about in her books is on how to ‘ground’ yourself. Grounding is the ability to retain a firm balance, even when someone is actively trying to get you out of balance. This you can achieve by consciously bringing your centre of gravity down and by using the power of your imagination. That power of imagination you can also see as ‘energy’. Within Centred Riding the term energy is used a lot. Because of the image that it provides, and because you can imagine that you give energy a force and a direction.
To let you experience how you can ground yourself (and to teach your body how that feels), you can do the following exercise. Find yourself a partner first.
Step 1: go stand firmly and ask your partner to pull or push you out of balance until you will have to take a step. Your partner will probably manage that.
Step 2: Now imagine that, from your centre, you can send energy down through your legs and into the ground. Or, if you find that easier, imagine that you can grow roots from your centre, through your legs and feet, into the ground. Or use some other image that helps you to imagine that you are very solidly grounded. Make sure you breath low, and keep your knees ever so slightly bended.
Step 3: When you have that picture very clear in your mind, and you have control over your breathing, aks your partner to try again to pull or push you over. The intention is that it will be much more difficult now.
The purpose of this exercise is that it helps you to experience that, through a combination of a strong imagination and breathing, you can lower your centre of gravity, which makes it much more difficult to get you out of balance.
When you are on your horse, you can imagine that you send energy, of grow roots, through your legs and feet and into the soil. That, in combination with breathing low, will not only increase your balance in the saddle, but also that your legs will appear nice a long, without having to consciously push your hocks down. Without muscle tension you are balanced with nice long legs. By pushing your hocks down, you will introduce muscle tension in your legs, which makes it much more difficult to let them hang. And the tension in your legs will influence your horse. Partly that can be explained: you squeeze your legs and, consequently, he cannot use muscles in his back/belly/shoulder very well. You are literally blocking him. But horses do also mirror us. You are tense, then so is he. I have never spoken to anyone who could give me an objective explanation for that.
Something a little comparable to ‘hocks down!’ happens when you are following the command ‘shoulders back!’. By actively pushing your shoulders back, you will create tension in your body which makes that you cannot sit as well anymore, which makes that your horse is also developing tension. An alternative, which works for many people, is to imagine that you have a huge smile running from your left collarbone, past your breastbone, all the way to the end of your right collarbone. The funny fact is that by only thínking about that smile, your posture will change.
What also works is to imagine that there is a little string attached to your cap, which pulls you up gently. That helps to straighten your head and upper back, which automatically will cause your shoulders to follow. Or imagine that large arrows of energy are shooting from your centre through your breastbone and at a 45 degrees angle up in the air. Or, when you don’t like images’, try to ‘lift’ your breastbone or your upper rib. Try the difference between your normal shoulder position and the position that you will get from one of those images. Try it next to your horse, as well as on top. Push your shoulders back and release, and then try one of the alternatives, the one that fits you best, and release. What differences do you perceive? What gives you tension (or not)? Obviously, it also helps to look ahead, instead of at your horse ;).
Another consequence of ‘shoulders back!” is that you will easily draw a hollow back. An exercise that you can do on your horse when you are sitting with a hollow back is ‘the indian’. For this exercise someone on the ground should hold your horse. Let the reins go and kick off your stirrups. Let your arms hang behind your legs, with the palms facing forward. Close your eyes and lift your face as if you are enjoying the sun. Ask your guide to walk your horse. Remain in the indian position and feel the movement of the horse. Feel how your legs are being moved from left to right with each step. Feel how the movement is going through your body, back, and shoulders. When that feels comfortable, after a round through the arena or so, you can open your eyes again. Ask your guide to put your stirrups back on your feet, so that you can retain the relaxation in your legs. Try to walk around calmly and recall the feeling you had when you were ‘the indian’. Ask you guide how your posture has changed. Remember the feeling and try to recall that again and again. Your body will have to get used to it, but will start to think it normal. A ‘quick fix’ for a hollow back is to imagine that you are pulling a short skirt under your behind when you are sitting down. That movement, that you in the beginning can try to do literally, will tilt your pelvis, which will straighten your lower back. What also helps is to relax your lower back by breathing towards it and breath out ‘through’ your lower back.
When you have tried (a number of) these exercises, then keep on doing them in the coming weeks on regular basis. Your body has a memory function and often needs to get used to new posture or to no loner use muscle tension to retain balance. The good news is that your horse will reward you when you manage. He suddenly will relax, or bend, or bring his back up, where he did not want to do that before. Then you know you are on the right track. Don’t feel too bad for what you did wrong for so long, just enjoy what you suddenly can get done!
In the next blog I will explain how you can use your centre in riding. In steering, as well as in tempo control. There are also a number of nice exercises, both on the horse and in the ground.
Do you want to read more about Centred Riding? Sally Swift has written two books: Centred Riding and Centred RIding 2.
There is also a website
Have you missed the first blog? You can read it here