Centered Riding

By Suzanne Riegel

Nobody likes a tattletale. On rare occasions when I accidentally ride correctly, my Welsh pony is a fantastic tattletale by magically morphing from her usual hollow-backed, choppy, quick-striding self into a forward-reaching, under-stepping, schwung-producing super mover. The difference is embarrassingly obvious and tends to occur in front of witnesses. It has happened twice now because of the principles of centered riding. 

The first tattle
The first tattle occurred last fall when I  started taking lessons at Schocharie Ridge  Farm. Sandy Kantor told me to close my eyes and trot around the indoor on a  loose rein. It had been a very frustrating lesson because the pony and I were at odds and neither one of us was willing to yield an inch. Sandy’s suggestion was met with disbelief, but after she assured me the pony would not bump into the wall when left to herself, I closed my eyes (the extreme version of “soft eyes”) and the little so-n-so promptly relaxed, put her head down, stretched her neck out, and trotted around the arena like a perfect
pleasure pony with rhythm and metronomic tempo. Hmmm….

The Second Tattle
The second tattle occurred at Jamie Wallace’s centered riding clinic on November 17th. Once again, my little so-n-so opened her stride, moved like a horse (NOT an easy task for the short-legged to accomplish) and was soft, round and fluffy simply because I mentally “allowed the up” to happen and I slowed my abdominal breathing down to the speed of molasses. Weird but true, horses will match their breathing to the rider. If you’re breathing shallowly, or not breathing at all, as we seem to do when concentrating, then your horse will breathe shallowly, too. Shallow breathing automatically triggers the horse’s highly developed flight instinct and pretty much kisses the first two steps of the training scale goodbye. However, if you slow your breathing, they slow theirs, resulting in an automatic slower stride without the rider touching the reins. You now have a slower moving horse (i.e. better balanced) with no interruption in the action of the hind leg, as is caused by rein contact.

If the rider gets out of the way of the hind legs faster by “allowing the up” to occur (i.e. riding the horse’s energy wave as it comes up and over the back on its way to the poll instead of blocking the energy with body tension or a tight muscle somewhere) then your horse naturally steps farther under themselves and uses their backs. SCHWUNG! Every one of the horses in the group moved better when the rider just relaxed.

Peter Bagenstose and Suzanne Riegel (author) practice one of the ground exercises in the centered riding clinic in November.

So, how do you “allow the up” that magically makes your horse move better? The answer is exercise balls! During the unmounted segment, Jamie had us sit on an exercise ball while she provided the downward push on our shoulders to start the bounce. She then told us to mentally “allow the up” feeling so that you can bounce higher on the ball without her pushing any harder on your shoulders. Jamie told us not to try to help the bounce with our legs or maintain a pretty equitation posture because we’ll only block the energy. “Just allow yourselves to bounce, “prick your pony ears” (open the joint axis at the base of you skull) and let the ball’s energy push you up”, she said. Every one of us bounced noticeably higher. 

Now, translate that exercise into riding. We should be “allowing” the horse’s energy to push us up as it travels from the hind legs up and over the back; however, almost all of us were taught to sit the trot by absorbing it with our backs (gasp!) and to post by using the stirrups. (As proof, try posting without stirrups. What muscles are sorest the next day — your legs or your abs? It should be the core muscles of your abs that were trying to balance you during the bounce that are sore, but it will probably be your thighs that are sorest.) When you post, your weight will be even in the saddle for one beat — evenly flowing down the back of your legs and out of your heels for that one beat. Hence the importance of flexible ankles, a point I’ve been completely missing when riding. It’s the weirdest feeling in the world to feel your ankles bobbing up and down, but it gets you off the horse’s back faster because now you’re rising from the horse’s energy as opposed to blocking the energy by only rising at the speed of your leg muscles.

Jamie says riders work too hard and do too much. Quit that! Just sit there and ride the horse’s energy on two, evenly balanced seat bones. You can even do lateral movements on evenly balanced seat bones… but that was taught on the second day, which is why I’ve already signed up for the next clinic!