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This Is What An Equestrian Looks Like, and What Change Looks like

The late Sally Swift, author of CENTERED RIDING, adjusts a rider's leg.

Sally Swift was diagnosed with scoliosis, a curvature of the spine, when she was seven. Possibly the result of polio, it caused weakness in her back and bodily tension that manifested in temper tantrums. Her mentor, the pioneering Mabel Ellsworth Todd, recommended that her mother ignore them, as the energetic trapped in the little girl's body needed to find release. Her mother agreed, and matter-of-factly engaged therapists and exercise programs without ever giving Sally the sense that her handicap constituted a grievance. This was just the way her life was, and did not stop her from walking two miles to school and back, just like her sister.


Horses had been Sally's passion ever since she could remember, and Miss Todd encouraged her to ride, as riding used both sides of the body equally. She needed a steel and leather corset brace to support her back, but with that she was able to ride safely and even come through a few falls with no damage. Riding strengthened her lower body and balanced her uneven muscle tone. Todd worked extensively with thought and imagery; she believed some muscles could be influenced by the mind even though they were beyond concious control, very similar to the tenets of the Alexander technique. In her twenties Swift discovered that using Mabel Todd's imagery and riding from the center of her body made her better balanced, and that horses appreciated the approach.

When Sally's back deteriorated in the late 60s, she found a therapist who did similar work. Jean Gibson emphasized that each part of the body must balance correctly on the parts below, and that proper breathing was crucial. Swift had already experienced that as a teenager, when just by breathing slowly and deeply she was able to walk around the indoor arena on the horse who NEVER walked. She wrote in CENTERED RIDING that, "I began to realize that there was a great gap in most people's riding knowledge. Even the best riders and instructors, with their innate coordination, were not teaching people how to handle their bodies. They were teaching them only what to do. We who have struggled with physical disabilities can often teach and explain coordination more easily." 


After a 30-year career with the Holstein-Friesian Association in Brattleboro, Vt., Swift returned to her first love, horses. She began to spread her new ideas through riding lessons, $10/lesson or $50/day, at first locally, then up and down the East Coast, and eventually internationally. Students were continually urging her to "write it down, organize it, create a book!", as USET event champion Denny Emerson wrote, and in 1985 that book came out. CENTERED RIDING was the first title from Trafalgar Square Farm Books, and has been a perennial best-seller for the publisher ever since, with an international Centered Riding Association continuing Swift's work. 


CENTERED RIDING was the first introduction many equestrians had to martial arts like tai chi, the use of visualization in sports, breath control, chi or ki, and energy work. It also familiarized the Alexander Technique of allowing freedom and balance in the body, something Sally Swift discovered when again, her back fell apart and she needed additional help. The four basics, Soft Eyes, Building Blocks, Breathing, and Centering, all have deep roots in the therapy Swift received to keep herself pain-free and functioning well into her 90s.


WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS: Sally Swift was my first riding teacher, years before CENTERED RIDING. It was in a neighbor's hay field. We tied our ponies to a fence while watching other kids' lessons, and the draft horses used to come over and intimidate them. I love how Sally's handicap, addressed directly, with intelligence, imagination, and openness to new ideas, yielded knowledge that has helped many thousands of riders and their horses. Like Lis Hartel, Sally could not muscle her way through riding. These women needed to learn a subtler form of the art. Lucky for us, they both went on to teach what they'd learned, so many more riders could develope the powers we all possess. Family: Sally's mother persisting in finding her fragile girl the help she needed to become someone who didn't have the word can't in her vocabulary. Honestly, I don't remember a thing about my lessons with Sally Swift, but her basics remain with me, and that makes me feel lucky.



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