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Like a Tree

Like a Tree

By Betsy Kelleher

     Sally Swift would approve my breakfast ritual. Back in the 80’s, I heard her say that her Centered Riding basics should be applied to all of life. I apply them to my posture as I stand at my kitchen window, eating breakfast while watching finches fighting over a sack of Nyjer seed.

     If you don’t know about Sally Swift and her basic principles, you need to read her books, Centered Riding and Centered Riding 2, or watch the videos. It doesn’t matter whether you ride English or Western. These principles work for any situation!

     While eating breakfast and watching the finches, I remember how she said a tree doesn’t work at being straight and tall; it just grows naturally. So I practice her advice on standing tall. I pull my shoulders up and back and let them drop naturally, I take a deep breath and I feel my body “growing” tall and straight. I feel my head balancing on my neck instead of holding it stiffly. I practice breathing deeply and looking with “soft eyes.” I imagine sitting on a horse with a relaxed, supple and straight body, using imagery instead of muscle force.

     I didn’t have good posture when I was young. I slumped. When I got interested in Centered Riding principles while taking lessons on my first mare, I had to really work on my posture. As Ms. Swift said, the wrong way of standing or riding can feel right, because of habit. To change, one must learn to FEEL the correct way then practice that until it becomes the new habit. That’s what riding instructors are for—to help us feel the right way and practice it.

     My body works better when it stays flexible and maintains correct alignment and balance. If you pay a chiropractor to come work on your horse, you know it helps. So what about your own body? That’s why, as I stand at my kitchen window each morning, I FEEL for that position of relaxed straightness that I hope to carry into the saddle when I ride my Lady.

     I was introduced to Sally Swift’s basic principles while riding Dude, a young appaloosa gelding that was the only son of my mare, Fanny. The whole story is in my book, Sometimes a Woman Needs a Horse. For now, I’ll give you a short version.

     I was riding at a friend’s place. Dude was jittery, and after coming off of him not too long before, I was watching his ears intently for signs of impending danger. A young woman named Charlotte rode over and told me I needed Sally Swift’s basic principles. She told me to take a deep breath, sit up straight in the saddle with my weight down into it, and to look up at the horizon with relaxed “soft eyes.” Suddenly Dude was walking calmly along with his head lowered. Was it really that simple? Charlotte and I rode around a field for awhile, and every time Dude started jigging, she reminded me to breathe, sit relaxed and look up. YES, it was that simple! I suddenly wanted to learn more about this Centered Riding magic.

     Fortunately, Ms. Swift gave a three day riding clinic in my area, which I audited. I later rode in a clinic at Judy Tippett’s Red Barn near Millstadt and included that inspiring experience in my book. Sally Swift passed away in 2009 at the age of 95. She was an unusually effective riding instructor, and a remarkable woman that I feel greatly blessed to have met in person. Her influence continues through trained Centered Riding instructors, with more information at

     Centered Riding concentrates on body awareness and control. The goal is “a supple, free body that can move and balance with your horse.” Ms. Swift’s books and videos give exercises to help you feel your body from head to toe, to become more aware of its parts and to relax your body for the best influence on your horse.

     She emphasizes the importance of freedom and balance in the head, neck and shoulder. Your head weighs ten to fifteen pounds. Holding your head forward or looking down puts weight on the front of your horse. If he can feel a fly, he can feel the weight of your head! Look forward not down, and imagine the tug of a strand of hair pulled up from the top of your head. Take time to imagine and feel the new sensations she describes, and let things happen naturally instead of making them happen.  

     A supple, relaxed body shows confidence. A rigid, tense body appears fearful or defensive. With practice, you can learn about a person’s attitude and personality from his posture; a horse senses those things immediately. Tension in any part of your body will result in similar tension in your horse, which inhibits his movement. If you practice Centered Riding basics to help you relax, your horse will relax. Good riding posture with a relaxed body helps you become a more effective rider, which helps your horse give his best performance.

     I was interested in Ms. Swift’s belief that a balanced body also leads to a balanced state of mind. She wrote that “increased body awareness gives you a greater awareness of your inner self as well as your surroundings.” That is something to think about! It’s also something to work on—this awareness of our surroundings and our inner self. While we’re at it, let’s also work on our awareness of a Sovereign God, the Creator of our wonderfully-made bodies!

     The world around us is full of messages that tell us to stand up for ourselves with pride in doing things our own way. Yet Scripture says that pride can hinder our relationship to God. Two Scripture references warn us about not being humble. I Peter 5:6 (NIV) says to “Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that He may lift you up in due time.” James 4:10 says simply to “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and He will lift you up.”

     As I was working on this column, I happened to read a quote by Rev. Charles Stanley on humility: “God is far more interested in the spirit of humility than in great works. The truth is, all great works are of little value in His eyes unless they come from a spirit of humility that recognizes it is God in us who does His work.” I realized some time ago the secret of Christian living is not to try harder to do it myself, but to allow the indwelling Spirit to do it—to work in me and through me. He enables me to do far more than I could ever do on my own. I admit I must often remind myself of that.

     To me, this belief fits with Sally Swift’s image of a tree that doesn’t work to make itself grow. It just grows as God created it to. And a relaxed confident attitude that enables us to do our best—a healthy self-image—grows naturally from a right relationship with our Creator. When we struggle to do things our own way, we often run into frustration and failure. But the more we learn to trust God for everything, and the more we allow Him to do His will, the easier it is to relax—to experience the peace beyond understanding and the serenity and contentment we all long for.

(Originally published in the August 2013 issue of the Illinois Horse Network)

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