PONY'TUDE Gets Grounded: Centered Riding Clinic, Part 1

Surprise, we went to a clinic!

My fantastic coach also happens to be a certified Centered Riding instructor, and when she saw this clinic advertised on Facebook, she sent me the information and encouraged me to go. It was way less expensive than the four-day intensive Centered Riding clinic I was looking at maybe doing in August, and way closer to home at a barn just 10 minutes up the road, so I signed up to do the Friday night un-mounted class and one riding session on Saturday.

But before we go any further, let me answer the question I know is burning in your minds:

What IS Centered Riding?

Centered Riding is a method and approach to riding created by Sally Swift that incorporates body awareness, finding and riding from your "center", and a focus on balance and breathing to improve the rider and therefore make our horses' jobs easier for them. It also uses some unique and creative imagery to allow riders to understand how to use their bodies in the most effective and balanced way on the horse. Centered riding pulls techniques from martial arts, horse and human biomechanics, and sports psychology. It's an approach that just about any horse and rider pair can benefit from!

Personally, I was hoping to gain a deeper understanding of how my body sometimes blocks or inhibits my pony, learn more tools for getting more out of Dino with less work on my part, and improve my overall effectiveness as a rider at this clinic.

We started the clinic with an un-mounted class. The clinician, Dorothy Crosby, gave a brief introduction of Centered Riding and herself, and the participants introduced ourselves and talked about our riding background and the issues we wanted to work on during the weekend. Then things started to get fun.

Centered Riding is based on four main principles, called The Basics, which are:

  • Soft Eyes 
  • Breathing
  • Building Blocks (or balance)
  • Centering
Since a lot of the riders in the clinic had problems with remembering to breathe while on a horse, we started with some deep breathing exercises. Many people don't breathe all the way down into their diaphragm, so with our hands on our stomach or back, we worked on breathing deeply, trying to move our hands with each breath. This was also a great relaxation tool for anxious riders! Thank you, years of voice lessons, for teaching me how to do this at a young age! 

Once we were all breathing well, we worked on finding our Center. The Center of a person's body is located inside the "bowl" of their pelvis (which is, incidentally, the Greek word for bowl!). It's your center of gravity, balance, and energy. This is where Centered Riding gets a little marital arts-esque and maybe a little weird for some people, but any open-minded person willing to roll with it can certainly get a lot out of it in my opinion. 

After taking some time to locate and become aware of our own Centers, we did a partner exercise that made a big impression on me. Our partner placed one hand on our belly, and one on our lower back, sandwiching our Center in between. Both of us were asked to stand balanced over our feet with soft knees (no locking!), breathe down into our Center, and focus on the energy in the center of the person being held. I felt almost immediately a weight in that part of my body, a sense of stability and strength, and almost a dropping down of my pelvis. My partner said she felt a warmth under her hands. Then, Dorothy asked the person with their hands on their partner to shift their focus away from their partner to another object in the room, themselves, whatever. 

I just loved this illustration of focused intent by CR Instructor Susan Harris!

As soon as my partner stopped focusing on my center my legs started wobbling and I almost fell over. 

I was amazed at what a dramatic effect the exercise had on me, and how I was able to feel my partner's mental focus make a such a huge change in how I felt physically. I thought to myself, how much MORE then do our horses feel our focus, intent, or lack thereof!? It was fascinating. 

While I recovered from the impact of the first exercise, we worked on practicing looking at the world with Soft Eyes. This is, essentially, allowing yourself to use your peripheral vision. Ever stare down hard at a jump and get tunnel vision, and then suddenly your horse starts staring at the jump, and then refuses to jump it? I do that more often that I like to admit. Thankfully, it can be solved by looking at the jump with Soft Eyes - looking at the fence, but also allowing yourself to take in what's going on in your peripheral vision and not making the object of your attention the only thing that exists in your field of vision. This wasn't the most dramatic exercise we did, but definitely a useful thing to keep in mind. 

The last exercise we did was probably the coolest one, and was called Grounding. Using the same shoulder-width stance as we did for the Center exercise, Dorothy told us to sway forward and back until we found a place of balance over our feet. We concentrated on the weight on our feet, adjusting ourselves until we were as even as possible on the soles of both feet. Still breathing deeply, she asked us to imagine that we were suspended by a string and all of the 'stuff' in our body was falling down towards our feet. I imagined that I was full of sand. 

The resulting sensation was one of the craziest things I've ever experienced! Suddenly my feet felt absolutely rooted to the ground and like they were made of lead. I felt as if taking a step would take a huge amount of effort, and that someone could walk up and shove me and I would just bounce right back to that solid, grounded stance. Everyone else in the group felt the same thing, and Dorothy suggested imagining wiggling our toes in the sand at the beach, which lent an element of movement and flexibility to our strong, grounded positions. I could very easily see how being grounded like this in the saddle would enable a rider to sit ANYTHING a horse could throw at them! 

We ended the session with some discussion, and a few points that really stood out to me included: 
  • Locking one joint causes every joint above that one to lock - if we have tight ankles, the rest of our joints will be tight.
  • The release becomes part of the aid as our horses become more educated. We can't just hold an aid "on" and expect them to respond, we need to ask and then give them the release/space to do what we are asking.
  • Our aids should be more like an invitation for the horse to work with us than a demand to perform an action.
  • If we expect a horse not to respond to our aids, he won't. 
I left the class feeling very excited to ride the next day, and absolutely thrilled with all of the lovely people I had met thus far! Stay tuned for Part 2, during which we applied all of the concepts and exercises from this session to the way our bodies worked the saddle. 


  1. very cool! I remember Centered Riding back in the day when i was a lot younger and we did a lot of clinics back then. How cool....and cant wait to hear the rest!!

  2. This is fascinating to me! My GMO is holding a Centered Riding clinic next month, I'm super excited to audit it!!

  3. Love this! My "local" instructor that I'll be working with is a CR instructor also. I'm looking forward to working more with her and CR to better Griffin and I for the world of eventing.

  4. I have loved the CR principles since I picked up Sally Swift's first book years ago. Thanks for sharing some of the exercises, they are ALWAYS good reminders!

  5. What a cool clinic so far! It reminds me of a lot of the same concepts the bio mechanics clinician I rode with used (she called hers "riding for optimal balance"). Esp that part about rocking back and forth until you felt so grounded. That seems similar to an exercise i did in the saddle once (related to posting and then sitting the canter, actually). Can't wait to read about the rest!!

  6. What a great opportunity! My Mom took a couple of clinics with Sally Swift years ago. I always wished I could. Can't wait to read the next part.

  7. I loved the CR clinic I did last year. We did a lot of the same exercises but not the partner one- that sounds cool.

  8. This sounds so cool! I'm going to imagine that I'm full of sand when I ride today!

  9. Very cool! Cob Jockey Jen recommended that book to me and I found it really interesting. I think I would be totally interested in a clinic like this.


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