Develop a following seat with Centered Riding
Sally Swift, the founder of Centered Riding, taught us that mindfulness and body awareness play a big role in our ability to improve as a rider. She designed many exercises to help her students understand and experiment with these ideas. A traditional Centered Riding clinic begins with an educational, fun, interactive workshop that never ceases to enlighten the student. One of the most important lessons learned is how the mind affects the body, and how both affect the horse.
The Centered Riding Basics
Clinic participants first learn and experiment with the CR basics during the un-mounted portion of the clinic. The basics are: Soft Eyes, Breathing, Centering, and Building Blocks (Balance), along with Grounding and Clear Intent. Using imagery and exercises, riders gain a more clear understanding of how their mind and bodies influence their horses’ movements and behaviors. The participants also work with human “horse” partners, thus giving the horse a voice. The “horses” are able to verbalize exactly what they are feeling from their riders. Our habitual patterns can only be changed once we are aware that they exist. These workshops and application of the CR basics help riders to develop better communication and a more soft, supple following seat.
Let’s Begin With This Seated Exercise:
• Sit up tall and then scan your body for tension.
• Does your neck feel stiff?
• Are your shoulders tense and raised?
• Is your lower back arched or tight?
• Can you feel both your seat bones beneath you? Are you raised up and sitting on their points?
Did you answer “yes” to any of these common postural positions? If so, you would be unable to ride with a following seat. When tightness and tension exist within your body, they restrict your body’s ability to follow your horse’s movement.
Try Improving Your Posture With This Exercise:
Locate your center by placing your thumb on your navel and your open hand below it. Your hand will be resting on your abdomen. In the palm of your hand, deep in your pelvis, lies your center.
Take a deep breath in through your nose and draw it down into your center. Imagine that it is like pouring a glass of water which fills from the bottom up.
Allow your stomach to expand into your hand on the inhale. (For all you ladies who hold your stomachs in, I hereby give you permission to “let it go.” Holding the stomach in creates tension, which we are trying to avoid.)
Exhale through your mouth and imagine the glass of water emptying from the top down. Allow the tension to drain from your shoulders first. Feel them open, release and drop away from your ears.
Let the breath continue down through your upper body and finally into your center. At the end of your breath you will feel your belly soften and drop back, causing your hand to collapse in towards your body.
Take another breath and upon exhaling become aware of your lower back. You will feel it soften, allowing your pelvis to tilt back slightly and level out. (I call this a “neutral pelvis”. Your pelvis must be balanced and neutral in order to freely follow the movement of the horse’s back.)
Lastly, allow your body to melt down around your seat bones while still keeping your upper body tall and long.
This breathing technique is known as diaphragmatic breathing. It will help clear your mind and bring awareness to your body, allowing you to rebalance it as necessary.
How Tension Restricts Your Riding
In order to move in rhythm with your horse you must be relaxed and not holding tension anywhere in your body. Your new way of breathing will help you achieve this. Try this exercise to gain a better understanding of how tension inhibits your ability to access your breath:
• Arch your back and take a big, deep breath.
• Tighten and raise your shoulders, then take a big, deep breath.
• Clench your hands out in front of you, as if you were holding the reins tightly, and take a big, deep breath.
You will have just discovered that it can’t be done. If there is tension anywhere in your body you will be unable to breathe correctly. This will prevent your body from being able to softly follow the horse’s movement and to ride in rhythm with him. I consider our breath to be our most important tool with horses, both on the ground and under saddle. Remember to use it before your ride, throughout your warm-up and any time you need to calm or rebalance yourself or your horse.
Your homework is to be mindful of your breathing and evaluate your posture all the hours of the day you are not on your horse. Scan your body when you are sitting in the car, at your desk, in a classroom, or when standing in line at the checkout. How do your shoulders feel? Are they tense and up around your ears, or open and relaxed? Is your ribcage lifted or collapsed? Is your lower back stiff or soft? Is your pelvis tipped or in neutral? Are your seat bones equally weighted?
Discovering tension in your body simply means that you are normal. Just take a big, deep, cleansing breath down deep into your center, exhale, release and let it go. This breathing technique will relax and restore you, bringing peace to your mind, your body and your spirit. Enjoy the journey!
Here’s An Exercise You Can Do While Mounted:
Start by taking a deep, cleansing breath before you mount and again when you are in the saddle.
1. Use your breathing to clear your mind, relax your shoulders and allow your body to melt around your seat bones.
2. Feel your lower back soften and your pelvis fall into neutral upon exhaling, being sure to keep your torso lifted and spine lengthened.
3. Prick your ears like a horse to rebalance your head, being sure not to stiffen or arch your back in the process.
4.Quietly ask your horse to walk off, becoming instantly aware of his movement beneath you. Closing your eyes and/or dropping your stirrups will enhance your ability to feel. If it is safe to do so try this with a leader or in an enclosed area.
5. Feel the motion of the muscles in your horse’s back as he walks. Allow them to move freely beneath your following seat.
6. Bring awareness to your hips and seat bones. Allow them to follow the motion of the horse’s hind legs as he lifts, slides and drops one side at a time.
7. Imagine your legs growing down long and heavy, melting around your horse’s barrel to the ground. With each step he takes, allow your thighs to drop down, like you are walking on your knees. This will allow your lower leg to fall back into its proper place beneath you.
8. Grow tall from your center up and receive the horse’s motion through your relaxed upper body. Allow your head to “float” as if suspended by a string on the back of your helmet.
9. Lastly, become aware of the motion of your horse’s shoulders. Feel each shoulder fill out and then slide away from your inner thigh as he walks. Once again, receive and allow your body to follow it.
You will be successfully riding with a following seat when you can receive and follow the movement of all four footfalls. Move on to the higher gaits once you have found success at the walk. The
same principles will apply, even though the rhythm and footfalls are different. Sally Swift would say, “If you don’t have it at the walk, it won’t be there at the trot.” So take your time. Remember that your goal is to remain relaxed, balanced, supple and centered, so you can ride in harmony with your horse.
Once you are successfully riding with a following seat, you can easily influence your horse’s movement by primarily using imagery, feel, and the redirection of energy. Be sure not to push or force the changes; just suggest them and wait. Your horse needs time to feel your request, process it in his mind and then send the message down to his feet. Be patient!
Begin your ride (and every ride) by taking that big, deep, relaxing breath into your center. This will allow you to release tensions and clear your mind for this time with your horse.
1. Imagine that there is a railroad track in the shape of an infinity symbol (like a number “8” lying on its side) drawn upon the flat of your horse’s back.
2. You are riding on this track, sending your energy up and around from his right ear, to his left ear, back through his center, to his right hip and then over to the left hip.
3. It then travels back through your center and continues its journey. (Trying this with a leader will enhance your ability to feel.)
4. Think about connecting your center to your horse’s center. Relax, receive and follow the movement of your horse’s body. Imagine that the movement is taking your center around the infinity track. This is just a feeling of energy flow in your center. You are not actually moving your hips to follow this pattern. It is just an image.
5. Up until now you have been receiving and following your horse’s motion in this pattern. You are now going to suggest that he receive and follow yours.
6. Imagine yourself riding a larger pattern and send your energy out a little further on the track. You are trying to influence and extend your horse’s stride. If you have a leader, ask him/her to follow the horse’s movement and not alter or influence it in any way.
7. You should feel your horse begin to walk out with a longer stride. He feels and connects with your energy as it flows out beyond the original track and therefore lengthens his stride to match it.
8. Once you feel these larger strides, begin to imagine a smaller track. The trip around the pattern gets shorter and shorter. The horse will feel this change in your energy flow and begin to shorten his stride. He may even come to a complete halt. No worries! Praise him for listening so well.
Developing this level of communication will truly enhance your ability to connect with your horse, in the most gentle of ways. He will love this new language you are speaking!
Heidi Potter is a HAAT (Horse Agility Accredited Trainer) and the owner of the New England Center for Horsemanship (NECH), located in Southern Vermont. She is a Certified Centered Riding Clinician and CHA (Certified Horsemanship Association) Master Instructor/Clinician. As a Natural Style trainer, her mission is to help improve the relationship between horses and humans in a safe, compassionate manner by combining education with patience, praise, clarity and a sense of humor. For information on hosting a horse agility event at your facility or attending one scheduled at NECH visit heidipotter.com.