Classical Dressage, Centered Riding and the Alexander Technique
by Constance Clare-Newman
Sally Swift is the founder of Centered Riding®, an innovative and respected method for teaching riding that combines the classical principles of horsemanship with ideas derived from her work in experiential anatomy. As a dedicated long-term student of the Alexander Technique, Sally has developed her Centered Riding method even further with the influence of Alexander Technique principles. 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, Sally is the author of two books, Centered Riding and Centered Riding 2: Further Exploration, has taught thousands of riders and has certified over 1000 Centered Riding Instructors who bring her work to riders around the world.
As a former competitive dressage rider and trainer, I was at one time deeply involved with learning and teaching effective horsemanship. As an Alexander Technique teacher, when I learned that Sally Swift was a long-time Alexander Technique student, I was naturally interested in finding out how her personal study in the Alexander Technique has influenced her teaching and development of Centered Riding. After reading her two books, I contacted Sally at her home in Vermont to talk about her method, her study of the Alexander Technique and horsemanship.
When Sally began Alexander Technique lessons in 1980, she was living full-time in a brace for scoliosis. Her Alexander lessons got her out of that brace and have since influenced her work with horses and riders. The Technique has not changed any of the basic principles1 that she developed as a horsewoman with a specialized understanding of anatomy (which she learned during her study with Mabel Todd, author of The Thinking Body). Rather, as Sally entered more deeply into Alexander work, she added some key Alexander ideas (for instance, the use of the self) to aid in her teachings.
I spoke with Sally about the connection between some of the major themes in her latest book and Sally’s own study of the Alexander Technique. We began with her use of the term use of the self. “Yes, straight from Alexander,” explained Sally. In Alexander lessons, a student learns to bring about better use of herself in all her activities, through a set of principles that apply to movement and habits. Centered Riding deals with the use of the self in the specific context of riding.
One of the key concepts in the Alexander Technique is that use informs function, that is, how you do something affects the result. This idea is made even more apparent when you put a rider on a horse. Every little thing a rider does (all the ways she uses her self) affects the horse.
As Sally says, ”Horses are extraordinary. They give their feedback to you instantly.” For example, when a rider holds her own back tensely, the horse underneath her cannot be free in his back. Although horses move freely in their natural state, as soon as the weight of a rider is added, they must re-balance themselves. When a rider is not balanced, this re-balancing of the horse is hampered since he must use more muscular effort through his back in his attempt to balance, which hinders his most effective movement. When a horse’s back is tense, his gaits are stiff and he must try harder at everything he is asked to do. Horses are extremely sensitive to their riders, 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.
How does a rider come to better use? In Sally’s second book, the phrase “Ground, Center and Grow” appears often. Grounding is a sensation of connection with the ground and with the horse. By building a sensory awareness of the body and its relationship in space, the rider can better find her balance. Sally’s book has a great chapter on anatomy that includes many experiential exercises to develop this awareness.
Centering is finding a neutral balance, with the center of the pelvic bowl balanced easily between the legs and spine. Releasing tension allows for the body’s expansion and balance. Sally asks riders to imagine a rotating ball in the center of their pelvis bowl, which has the possibility of spinning and floating, encouraging an easy following of the horse rather than a rigid seat.
Growing is allowing the torso to grow up, while the legs grow down. Sally asks riders to think of a tree, roots extending down, branches up and out. The tree doesn’t force its own growth, it can only allow itself to grow.
It seems to me that “Ground, Center and Grow” are similar in meaning to the Alexander Technique concepts of Awareness, Inhibition and Direction. With the sensory awareness focus in the term ground, one can see the relation to Awareness. While Sally’s center focuses on the pelvic bowl and her idea that energy begins there, she also pays quite a lot of attention to undoing habits of tension and over-effort. Grow is very similar to Direction in that one allows innate postural reflexes to occur, with intention rather than with a muscular push. Sally told me that she used to say “lengthen” but then students did all sorts of funny things. She finds “grow” to be more precise. When I asked Sally about the similarity, she replied, “Oh yes, just the same. It’s the basics. That’s what Ground, Center, Grow come from. If you’re grounded, and centered, you can lengthen. And the Grow is lengthen. Then GroundCenterGrow becomes like one word.” Like the Alexander Directions, as Alexander students say, one after the other, all at once.
When Sally and I spoke about the Centered Riding principle of centering and grounding, she made it clear that her concept of centering is a starting place for work with riders on horseback. While in Alexander Technique lessons, we often start with the student’s head-neck-back relationship, she begins with the pelvis as the center. Sally pointed out that Alexander himself had his problem at the top (with his voice during acting) so he started there. But riders are in immediate contact with the horse through their seat, legs, and pelvis, so it makes sense to Sally to start there. We agreed that a teacher can start to deal with problems of misuse anywhere, because what we’re working with is the rider’s whole organism–and with the horse’s whole organism.
Years ago, when I started my Alexander Technique training, I often thought about my dressage training and about how I knew then exactly how I wanted a horse to move through the back–but I never thought about how I wanted myself to move through the back! When I see riding students struggling to ride in balance and ease, and be clear and precise in their requests to the horse, I think, “If only they could apply some of principles of balance and movement (that they already know so well for their horses) to themselves!” As horsewomen, we learn all about the horse’s anatomy, the horse’s structure, the horse’s movement, but understanding of our own structure and movement is lacking. A dressage rider has a clear understanding of how a horse must be balanced with not too much weight on his front legs or too much curve of his spine to one direction. She also understands that when the horse can let the muscles of his back be free of holding, he will move with freer joints. She knows that when her horse can respond to her aids with an easy alertness devoid of tense reaction, she is creating a more harmonious and pleasurable relationship with him. While a rider may understand this deeply, her own use may get in the way of these ideals. If she herself is not easily balanced, but tipping forward or leaning back, it will affect the horse’s ability to balance. If her own back is being held in place rather than allowing the elastic suppleness of the muscles, her horse cannot free his back. If her own reactions or communication convey frustration or annoyance, the horse cannot respond with ease. A rider cannot blame her horse for his lack of freedom, balance and joy in movement if she herself is not applying these principles to her own self, step by step.
One chapter in Centered Riding 2 describes human anatomy and how it relates to the moving horse. This chapter focuses on our skeletal anatomy both on and off the horse. When a rider can envision the way that the skeleton works, she will have more access to correct use. Sally brings a lot of attention to the atlanto-occipital joint and the importance of allowing space in this “slippery spot” as she names it. Sally feels that students need a correct understanding of anatomy: “You need to know that what happens with the atlas and the occiput affects the center and all the rest. Be aware of the top of the head, be aware of the seat bones, the soles of your feet–go back and forth through the center. You see students will come into balance without you saying anything more, just by being aware. It’s fascinating.”
Classical Dressage, Centered Riding and the Alexander Technique all aim for ease, expansiveness and engagement–the ease of movement, the expansiveness of attention and expression of movement, and the engagement of a dynamic aliveness. All three methods agree that these results are best brought about by incorporating those same principles in the process of “training” whether we are speaking of the training of the horse, the training of the rider, or the “re-education” of the self. We cannot force the horse to go easily, nor can we force our head into the correct position. Rather, we use the principle of working with ease as a way to achieve our aims. We cannot push a horse into his greatest expansiveness–he must soften and lengthen his muscles to reach that extension of his limbs. We do not try to push our back into width and lengthen as this actually causes narrowing. Rather, we allow muscles to soften and joints to open as we direct ourselves into a fuller expansive sense of self. In a dressage horse, engagement (a lively activity of the hind legs and back) is important before we ask for difficult movements such as a pirouette. If the horse is not engaged, he will struggle physically with the movement. For an Alexander student, engagement of the primary control activates those lively postural responses that enable us to move with more grace and efficiency. Incorporating ease, expansiveness and engagement is the means whereby we reach the goal of beautiful and effective movement, both in humans and in horses.
I asked Sally, “In this result-oriented world, how do you keep your students focused on the process of working with ease and expansiveness, instead of working with tension and contraction and force?” Sally told me that the way to keep students focused on the process is by continually returning to basics. “When the basics are solid, I teach them to see how doing very little can be so much more effective. If you lose some of the basics, you lose softness. You have to go back to some of the basics all the time.”
Sally continues to take Alexander lessons every week and to develop her method through the teachers she has trained as Centered Riding Instructors. Three of her Centered Riding instructors are also Alexander Technique teachers. Sally likes to incorporate Alexander Technique instruction in her clinics. The Alexander Technique teacher gives the student a new sensory experience in a private lesson on the ground, then the student applies it directly on the horse. Sally reports that it is much easier to teach students after they have their Alexander lessons. “Then we can all use the same terminology–and the poor horse doesn’t have to suffer through the person discovering better use of her self. Taking Alexander lessons hastens the process enormously. I very often recommend that people take Alexander lessons. It helps them to understand what I am teaching them about how their own use affects that of the horse.”
For riders wishing to improve their body awareness and the use of themselves, particularly beginning and intermediate riders, the Centered Riding Method can be a great help. Even without taking a Centered Riding course, reading Sally’s books, will help a rider by giving her new ways to think about and experiment with the use of herself as it relates to riding. Centered Riding 2: Further Explorations is particularly user-friendly for those with no prior knowledge of anatomy. It is full of simple imagery and visualization exercises that make anatomy clear and help instill basic principles of good use in the saddle.
For more advanced riders, straightforward Alexander Technique lessons could be more beneficial since the Centered Riding method and books are geared toward beginning and intermediate riders and Alexander Technique lessons are geared toward each individual and the use of herself. In my experience, teaching the classic principles of Inhibition and Direction refines the rider at whatever level she rides, including the most advanced levels of dressage. Even with an excellent seat and skills, refinement of a rider’s use refines a horse’s movement so that more suppleness and extra brilliance can come forth.
For Alexander Technique teachers who work with riders, I heartily recommend Sally’s books. Both books, but especially Centered Riding 2, are full of suggestions for practical exercises, and give a clear description of what riders are working toward achieving. This information can provide inspiration for Alexander Technique teachers with no riding experience. The clear explanations and practical suggestions will help Alexander Technique teachers understand and work with the problems that riders need to solve in order to communicate effectively with the horse through the medium of their own use.
________________1Centered Riding’s foundation is built on four basic principles: 1- Soft Eyes allow a greater field of vision, increased awareness of your own and your horse’s body, less tension and easier, freer forward movement. 2 – Proper Breathing reduces tension in your body, helps to lower your center of gravity and allows the horse to become quieter and more responsive while reducing your fatigue. 3 – Centering takes you to your center of control and energy deep in the lower body, allowing your seat to be stable and secure. Centering releases tensions that block the flow of energy through your body and leaves you ready for the next movement or exercise. 4 – Building Blocks aligns your body for true and consistent balance over your horse’s center of gravity which encourages the fluid and comfortable movement of your horse.
Constance Clare-Newman is an Alexander Technique teacher and a former dressage trainer and rider, who studied in Europe for 4 years and rode at FEI levels. Constance teaches private lessons in the San Francisco Bay Area and gives workshops around the country.