Centered Riding…A Trip Back in Time

When I was a kid, all I read were horse books. Fiction, non-fiction, it didn’t matter- if it had a horse on the cover it was in my hands. I of course read the fictional series like Thoroughbred and The Saddle Club, but I also loved books like, The Complete Horse Riding Manual by William Micklem and another that, sadly, has been lost and I can’t recall the name. It was all western stuff, but the techniques could be applied anywhere.

Then I came upon a book called Centered Riding by Sally Swift and it was a game changer. I had just started back riding after a 6 year hiatus and riding wasn’t going so well for me, despite my saintly-if-unbroken new horse, Jester.


Saintly horse is a saint



In these pictures, to me it felt like I was ram-rod straight, but obviously I’m not. I was also so tense everywhere, you can practically see the anxiety radiating off of me.

When I found the CR book, it was amazing. At that time I didn’t have access to quality instruction (military towns have chain food restaurants, strip clubs and tattoo parlors- DQs and UL eventers tend NOT to flock to Jacksonville, NC), so what I did was drag my husband out to video me riding endless 20m circles, diagonals, w/t/c, jumps, and then compare my videos to videos of real riders on YouTube, make notes, and repeat ad nauseam. It’s a slow way to learn, and by the time you’ve figured out you’re wrong, you’ve already done it for like an hour. But it was all I had at the time. That and then this book. CR gives you exercises to do out of the saddle as well as in, and has wonderful imagery and metaphors that are easy to remember. I’m a visual person- talk at me all you want, but I will understand better and faster if I’m shown. So the metaphors used by Sally Swift really made an impression on me and I carried those with me when I rode.

And I got better.


Don’t be like me. Always wear a helmet. What an idiot.



Definitely not perfect- but I became much more stable in the saddle. I would run through the images in my head- like the string attached to the top of your head pulling you upright, or the long arms holding onto the just the sides of the bit rather than the reins. And I would think about the 4 building blocks like a checklist- Centering Yourself, Breathing, Soft Eyes, and Building Blocks. It became a habit for me to run through these many times during the course of a ride , so that I could reset myself and notice quickly if I became tense or was off-balance.

Then the unthinkable happened and I lost Jester. Someday I’ll do a post about him. And then Noah was born and it was time to think about getting back in the saddle.

Enter P.


Omg that face


I had lent my CR book to a friend before we moved to the Charlotte area, and never got it back, and at this point hadn’t ridden in almost a year. So when I re-started P, I went back to old habits- leaning, clutching, gripping, etc. While I’ve worked really hard to improve those, in times when I get anxious, the bad habits sometimes rear their ugly head.


Like when you do this….




This happens


Last year I also broke my left ankle. My left side is already my weaker side, as I have an acetabular fracture in my hip, which means that there’s a piece of the socket broken off. The only “cure” for it is surgery, but since it doesn’t really impede with every day life, I’ve opted so far not to get the surgery. Maybe someday it will become necessary, but for now, no thank you.

My ankle thankfully did not require surgery or having any hardware installed, but even over a year later is not nearly as flexible as my right. I can do pistol squats on my right side all day long, but my left is hit or miss, and even when I can do them successfully, it’s a lot less pretty than my right side.

This is an old video from when I first was able to start doing them, but there’s a clear difference in the right and left.

Because I’m so stiff on my left side, it’s really gotten in the way of riding and exacerbated my already-present bad habits such as leaning. I get out of balance, my stirrups fly everywhere, P leans, I lean harder. It’s been such a struggle.

In dressage, I lose my left stirrup constantly and then waste precious seconds that could be better spent on riding correctly trying to get it back to the right spot. In jumping, with my shorter stirrups, I don’t lose them as much, but I do stand in my left one, which tips me to the right. It also explains why when I fell this past weekend, I fell over his right shoulder. Everytime I’ve fallen off of him, I’ve fallen over his right shoulder. Seeing his right shoulder when he spooks is not a new view for me. My right leg over fences tends to stay where I need it to, my left leg goes WAY back. And I’m sick of it.


I love P’s face when he’s locked onto a fence





I feel like I’ve tried everything. I’ve tried swinging (yes, swinging) my leg forward over fences. I’ve tried putting the stirrups on different parts of my feet. I’ve changed stirrups. I’ve changed saddles.

But really it all comes down to balance. And my balance is clearly off. Then yesterday at work (my organization rents offices inside the library), I wandered past a shelf of books and something caught my eye.


Hello, old friend. Well really new friend, because I’ve never read CR2.

I’ve gone back through the basic exercises that you can do just sitting at a desk-like I do pretty much ALL DAY- and can’t wait to take them into the saddle this evening.

So now I’m curious- does anyone else do any exercises before or after they get in the saddle? If you do, what do you do and how has it helped?




5 thoughts on “Centered Riding…A Trip Back in Time”

  1. every time i’ve fallen since breaking my left leg, i’ve come off the right side too (except for that one pony who bucked me off – but that was a slightly different situation lol). the weakness is so real. so so so real. omg. i still feel it every day, even the way i stand to brush my teeth.

    love this post tho – good luck with revisiting the old exercises and getting that feel back! i don’t really do much at this point to counteract my imbalances (aside from tacit denial, which like, 0/10, do not recommend)…. but i did take a dressage clinic with BNT who fairly heartily picked me apart for the issue and worked me through a series of exercises. it’s summarized here if you’re interested:


  2. I don’t do any exercises but I probably should. We used to do a lot of stretches as part of warm up when I played polo. I have a busted left ankle as well and mine needs surgery that I refuse to get so it’s probably not going to get better anytime soon. I don’t notice it much in eventing, but I have found slightly uneven sweat patterns when I do endurance because I favor that ankle over time. I’m sure it contributes to unevenness in the eventing as well.


  3. I don’t stretch but I should. I will do some yoga poses when my left hip gets tight from dressage. I tend to brace with my right leg for some reason but have no injury to blame it on. Just plumb bad habits.


  4. I used to have to walk for 10-15 minutes to warm up on an older horse and i took that time to stretch my hip flexors in the saddle. then my leg could drop straighter and more around her.

    buuuut really i dont do nearly enough stretching.


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