Centered Driving is an adaptation of the principles and techniques devised by Sally Swift in her best-selling book and videos, Centered Riding, published in 1985. Centered Riding is not a special style of riding (or driving) but rather a new way of utilizing and expressing classical principles of riding and working with horses. Centered Riding and Centered Driving not only address the "whats" of horsemanship but also the "hows and whys" of effective communication with the horse.
Centered Riding is founded on four components Sally terms the "Four Basics", which include: Soft Eyes, Breathing, Centering, and Balance. In recent years Sally has added a fifth Basic which she terms "Grounding." Awareness of these five basics will have a profound effect on your ability to communicate clearly and effectively with your horse in riding, driving, or work in hand. When you become more aware of your own body, inner balance, and clear control, your horse will respond with increased freedom, forward motion and suppleness. A horse who is balanced and in clear communication with his handler moves with a unique freedom and joy that cannot be duplicated artificially.
Soft Eyes refers to awareness of what you are doing with your eyes. How many times have you caught yourself staring at your horse's neck or ears as you drive? Worse yet is the Whip (for those new to driving, the driver is traditionally termed the "Whip") who leans sideways to keep an eye on his horse's leg action. "Hard eyes" that stare or over- focus unconsciously create tension and block feeling on the part of the driver. Soft eyes allow you to have a much larger field of vision as you drive. This open vision allows you to be more clearly aware of your surroundings, of other vehicles in the ring, or your anticipated route in a dressage test or an obstacle class. Even more significant is the increased sensitivity and awareness you experience in your hands and body as your eyes cease to be locked and become soft and opened.
Soft eyes are extremely important while working with horses. Take a moment and squint or stare at an object or at a point in the distance. Stare at it really hard. How do you feel when you are staring? Do you feel tension in your face, chest, back, or shoulders? How much do you really see when you are so intently focused and staring at an object? The horse, being the incredibly sensitive creature that he is, is well aware when his handler's eyes are "hard" and staring. The tension travels like electricity right through the reins to the bit.
Now relax, take a couple deep abdominal breaths, and look at that same point or object again. This time, allow your eyes to look at the object, but also take in everything else you can see around it: the sky or ceiling, the ground, objects on each side. Notice that your eyes can still be directed toward that object but your peripheral vision is much wider, and you are seeing in a more open, relaxed way. Do you feel any different when you look out at the world with soft eyes? Do you think your horse will feel that difference too?
Breathing plays a significant role in equine communication and behavior. In the wild, horses communicate frequently through their breathing, and breathing patterns. Aside from the obvious snorting and blowing, a horse that tenses up and holds its breath, perhaps sensing danger, gives other herd members the instant message that something is wrong - get ready to run! How often, when you work with horses, do you unconsciously tighten up your breathing or hold your breath? Watch yourself the next few days and you may find that you hold your breath while doing many simple things. Perhaps bending down to pick up a foot, leading a horse through a doorway, switching on a light, trying to stop a spooky colt in the round pen. All day long you'll undoubtedly find many examples both in the bam and in everyday life. What message do you send your horse when his handler, his perceived herdmate, is holding his breath? Proper breathing reduces tension in both the horse and handler. When tension is reduced the communication between horse and human becomes open and clear.
As humans we need to also consider how we breathe. As we age we tend to take shallower breaths from high in our chests, which raises our center of gravity, affecting our balance by actually making us top heavy. We need to make a conscious effort to breathe from our diaphragm, that great muscle that acts as a bellows at the bottom of the rib cage. Remember your fourth grade music teacher imploring you to sing and project your voice with your diaphragm? Consider this as you breathe. Deep breaths that come from your whole body will lower your center of gravity, improving your balance and stability, again reducing tension and allowing clear communication with your horse. Effective breathing also oxygenates your body, reduces fatigue and keeps you energized and clear-headed.
Balance Awareness refers to our sense of balance and also our skeletal alignment. When we sit, stand, and move we often do not consider how we are using our bodies, we just do it. Unfortunately, over the years we develop unconscious patterns or habits of movement that, while they may not be good for our bodies, feel right to us because we've done it that way for so long. As we age we often develop stooped shoulders, or back pain. We may carry our head out of alignment with our body, or perhaps we carry one hip or shoulder higher than the other. Take time to watch people both old and young and notice the posture patterns they fall into. Poor body alignment is not usually the result of weakness but rather of habits we have developed over the years that feel normal to us. It may help to think of the sections of your body (head, shoulders, trunk, pelvis, legs, and feet) as a tower of blocks, like a child's set of building blocks. What happens if one or more of the blocks is not stacked in alignment? They fall down, of course, or are in precarious balance. When we are not balanced we tend to use muscle tension to keep from tipping further out of balance. When we ride this lack of equal balance is very difficult for the horse to carry. Just the human head (which weighs 12-14 lbs.) when held too far forward, back, or to the side, forces the horse to carry additional weight not balanced over his back. When a horse is forced to carry an unbalanced load his own balance is compromised, as a result stiffness and tension take over: The horse's freedom of movement and the ultimate brilliance of the performance is reduced. When driving, your stability in the vehicle, not to mention your appearance, is affected by the balance, alignment and use of your body far more than you may realize.
Centering refers to an awareness of the point of the body called the center, which lies in the lower abdomen below and behind the navel. You can locate your center by placing one hand on your lower abdomen with your thumb on your navel and the other hand directly behind on your lower back. With your hands in place, consider a point halfway between your hands. Breathe deeply all the way down into this center of your body. In finding the center, you have located your center of gravity as well as an area that allows optimum balance, body awareness, and quiet concentration. Once you have found your center, you will find that forces like a pulling horse, loss of balance, or even the tensions of the day, will tend to raise your center back up into your chest or shoulders. At times like these you need to be able to consciously bring your center back down into the abdomen and allow it to float peacefully there. Learning to "center yourself" can often be one of the most difficult of the Centered Riding/Driving Basics to comprehend and master, but in the end will allow you the balance and quiet concentration that is paramount to your work and communication with horses.
Grounding is our sense of connection to the ground. Grounding ties very closely in with the other basics in lowering our center of gravity for increased balance and stability. Through grounding we are able to establish a firm foundation from which to balance and work with our horse. In driving, grounding helps us to be independently and securely balanced in the vehicle, freeing us to communicate clearly and effectively with our horse. It is particularly important in timed events in helping the Whip maintain their balance independent of the horse.
Centered Driving, as opposed to riding, presents some interesting applications of the "five basics" as your weight is not on or affecting the balance and direction of the horse in the same way as in riding. When driving, you must communicate with your horse form a distance using the traditional aids of hands, voice, and whip. Centered Driving uses the traditional aids while incorporating the use of breathing, soft eyes, balance, centering, and grounding, as well as the clear use of the mind while working with the horse. Using these basics can change your touch on the reins, as well as what you project down the reins to your horse, even at a distance. This also applies to work on long lines, on the lunge, in hand, liberty work, or round-pen training.
For myself as a Whip, the use of breathing has had fascinating implications in my horses. As we have learned, our breathing can reduce tension in our equine partners. When dealing with a nervous horse or a horse that shies, one of the simplest and most effective responses you can give is to breathe. A deep breath with a long deep exhale can work wonders in calming a frightened horse; remember to continue breathing after the first breath however! If you spot a potential problem, say an approaching car, begin your deep calming breathing and you'll find that an anticipated spook will be reduced or won't happen at all. It works!
Several years ago I had a young, high-strung mare at the Ohio State Fairgrounds, where the elevated train tracks run right by the horse barns and arenas. Sure enough, right at the most inopportune time a train roared through overhead. The mare wound up tight, ready to bolt, just as I gave a deep "whoa" breath and sat deep in my seat. I continued the regular deep breathing until the train had passed. A potential disaster was avoided and I've been a believer in the power of breathing ever since!
I have further implemented my breathing to communicate with my horses. One of the first skills I teach a young horse is to halt when I breathe in and then exhale. I certainly don't abandon the use of the word "whoa," as "whoa" can be an exhale sound, and I still use it in training and on occasion. I also use my reins or lead shank to limit further forward motion if I need to. But I have refined my communication with my animal by helping him anticipate that I will be asking him to stop when he hears me inhale, and allow him to stop quietly and in balance as I exhale. It's a simple trick and probably one of the most valuable ones I use in training my horses. After I've trained my horses to halt by using my breathing. I can incorporate this response further in asking for downward and also upward transitions. Interestingly enough, my signal to the horse, or breathing pattern, is the same for both up and down transitions. It is the clear use of my mind, or intent, that prevents confusion on the part of the horse as to what my intentions are. When I inhale, the horse is aware that a transition is coming; my long deep exhale allows him to balance and smoothly negotiate the desired transition. I use my voice and whip signals as well but not always, only when I need to turn up the volume in my communication to the horse.
Breathing does not take the place of these traditional aids; it merely helps to clarify quietly to the animal what I want to do. Breathing patterns can be used to help the horse find and maintain rhythm and tempo. Counting, humming, singing, or speaking in a "sing-song" voice, in time with your horse's rhythm, can be used to establish a pattern of rhythmical breathing that corresponds to the horse's gait. Try this at a trot, as the "one-two, one-two" timing is easy to work with. You may discover a particular breathing pattern that works best for you and for this particular horse's trot. Perhaps you inhale on a count of two and exhale on four, or inhale on one and exhale on two. Different breathing patterns will work for different Whips and different horses. There is no right or wrong pattern, it is individual. What is significant is that your breathing develops into a consistent pattern that says to the horse, "This is the rhythm I want to trot at, and the tempo I want to keep." If your breathing becomes slower or faster, does your horse follow? Try it and see!
When I drive a dressage test, I establish my rhythm, tempo, and impulsion through my breathing patterns. Down the center line, breathe in, exhale, and balanced stop at X. Breathe in, exhale and flow forward at a trot. Keep my breathing consistent through the trot phase, breathe for transition down to working walk, and so on throughout the test.
As you learned earlier, soft eyes can open your field of vision giving you greater awareness of what is happening in the ring around you, to relieve tension and soften your communication with the horse. This is especially useful when driving in a crowded show or warm up ring, or on the road with traffic. In an obstacle class, staring hard eyed at the cones may get you through that one set, but won't give you time to prepare adequately and smoothly for the next set. In cross country driving and road work, I can guarantee that if hard eyes take over and you stare at an obstacle, or at the scary mailbox that you are certain will spook the horse, he'll spook. Rather think, "Soft eyes, open field of vision, breathe!" and drive quietly past the scary monster. In driven dressage, again soft, accurate communication is the key to balance, consistency, and beautiful movement and harmony between horse and human. Come down that centerline staring hard at X and you'll miss it and have a crooked line to boot. Drive with soft open eyes, see the judge at C; your peripheral vision finds your spot between B and E, and you drive straight, balanced, smoothly into your halt. You can't force it to happen, rather your sensitivity and awareness will allow it to happen. Try it, see how you feel, and give your horse the opportunity to give you his feedback as well.
Your balance while driving plays a large part in clarifying your communication with your horse, as well as improving your appearance in the show ring. It also affects your control of your vehicle, stability, and even your safety, especially when negotiating natural obstacles.
We have all been told to "sit up straight, shoulders back" when we drive. Let's try it. Find a fairly hard chair or stool from which your feet comfortably touch the floor, as in your vehicle. You may want to loop a set of reins over another chair to simulate driving. (Leaning the chair forward balanced on the reins will give you even more feedback as you take or loose contact.) Now sit as if you are driving, arms hanging naturally from the shoulders, holding the reins. Notice how you feel. Now try sitting as if you were a soldier at attention: back stiff and straight or even arched, chest thrown out, shoulders pulled back neck stiff and straight. How do you feel in your back, your seat bones, your arms and hands? Are you holding your breath? Do you feel tension or even pain in your back? Where is our weight? Do you feel as if this stiff position would be very balanced if your horse suddenly moved forward?
Good body alignment is easier if you can allow the body to fall comfortably into place rather than trying to force it. Now play with your balance a bit. Can you put more weight into your feet or your seat bones? Can your deep belly breathing help to lower your center of gravity? Try sitting as if you were hanging from an imaginary cord attached to the center top of your skull. When I enter the show ring I always travel with a little imaginary guy in the sky who is suspending me from that sky hook to my skull. How do your head, neck, shoulders, seat, and legs feel when you sit gently suspended as if you were a puppet, as opposed to bracing yourself into a stiff position? Which position gives you more relaxed shoulders, arms, and hands, and would produce a more subtle and sensitive contact with your horse's mouth?
Check in with your two seat bones. Put the same amount of weight in each seat bone. Shift your weight side to side, back and forth, until you find your best balance. Now arch your back and lift your tailbone. Feel the weight shift to the front of the seat bones, and your back hollow? How does this make you feel? Now drop your tailbone down to the chair. Feel the weight shift to the back of your seat bones. Do you feel your back flatten or begin to slouch? Try rocking slowly back and forth on your seat bones until you find a spot halfway between front and back, as if your weight is pressing directly down through the chair to the ground. Does your back feel better?
Find your feet. Feel the weight in your feet: is it the same in each foot? Feel the floor or the ground under your feet. Allow your feet to sink deeply to the ground as if they were sinking into deep moist sand at the beach. Can you find a sense of sort of a magnetic pull drawing your feet toward the ground? We call this sensation of being connected to the ground "grounding". For optimum balance, you want to establish a sense of having your weight down into your feet as well as your seat bones. Whips who drive with a wedge seat shift their balance forward, dropping even more weight into their feet, because of the stability it offers. As you drive, you need the stability that lowering your center of gravity provides. Breathe deeply, allow your breath to come from deep within you as if you can breathe from you hips, your legs and your feet. Breathe down into your center, does this help drop your weight into your seat bones and feet? Do you feel grounded?
Are you sitting squarely and evenly, or leaning to the left or right? Do you have the same amount of weight in each foot? How about each seat bone? If possible, do this exercise in front of a mirror, or ask a helper to see whether your shoulders are even. It is very likely that one is higher or lower than the other. How much adjustment does it take to make them even? Probably not a lot, but when you do place them evenly they may feel strange or crooked to you. If this is so, it shows that you have established a posture habit that you have held for so long that crooked feel right and right feels wrong. The same principle applies to sitting unevenly, with more weight on one seat bone, or with one shoulder or hip forward or backward, or one arm curled in.
Don't worry - you are not alone, we all have balance and posture issues! The good new is that we can fix them. First however, you need to be aware of what improvements you need to make. When driving, your position in the vehicle plays a big role in the balance and performance of the horse, even though your weight is not directly on his back as it is when riding. As whips we need to establish our own stability within the vehicle for safety, and in order to improve our ability to communicate with the horse. When you watch others drive, it is obvious that poor posture is inelegant and unattractive, but lack of posture and balance has other ramifications. Notice the Whip who uses his reins to help maintain his own position in the seat during transitions, turns, or bumps. Watch the Whip who leans sideways on the turns; as if leaning is going to get that horse and vehicle around that turn. (If you want a chuckle watch people driving their cars, they do the same thing!) When you use your reins, even unconsciously, to help with your own balance you compromise the balance of your horse and in turn may resort to more use of the reins than necessary. As well, poor balance and posture take a toll on your body, especially your back, leading to stiffness, soreness, and early fatigue. You will not drive your best when you are tired or uncomfortable. This is particularly obvious in timed speed events.
Your position will change as you drive; that is to be expected. However with increased body awareness, you have the power to regain your alignment and balance at will. When you go into the competition ring or the dressage test, take a moment, check your position. Let the little guy in the sky pick you up, breathe and drop your center and seat bones beneath you, allow your weight to drop and ground your feet, take a couple more deep breaths and proceed with confidence.
Earlier in this article, you learned to find your center. When you drive using soft eyes and breathing from your diaphragm, you will be able to find and work with your center. When I drive from my center I find an increased awareness of myself, my balance, and my ability to communicate sensitively with my horse. My concentration is much more acute and refined.
One very powerful application of the use of the center is in turning. When negotiating a turn, I use my center as well as my reins and whip if necessary. When I want to go forward, my center is directed forward; when I want to turn left, my center turns left. To learn to do this, imagine a flashlight beam that shines out from your center. Shine your beam straight forward aiming out across the ring. For a left turn for instance imagine your center just below and behind your belt buckle) swiveling to the left. Though subtle turns of your own body, you can aim your horse directly where you wish to go. Notice that you don't need to turn move your body much at all to swivel that imaginary beam left or right. In fact. be careful not to turn your light beam too sharply and lock it there - you'll end up overshooting your turn! Merely turn your center and release, turn your center further and release, until you take yourself and your horse exactly where you wish to go. Pay attention to the subtle turning of you body when you use your center to turn. Your body turns from the hips with your trunk, your shoulders, and your head all working together to negotiate the turn; your rein aids become so subtle as to be nearly invisible to an onlooker. How many Whips do you see that turn just their heads, lean, and pull the inside rein to turn? How many times do these horses drop an inside shoulder, stumble, or overshoot the turn and then have to be pulled back on track? Using your center to help implement the turn allows your aids to be clear to your horse. The turning of the entire trunk, which is the natural result of using the center to turn, naturally positions our shoulders and arms to softly follow the arc of the horse's bend through the turn. Using the center allows the Whip to be much more subtle and accurate in communicating your intent to the horse.
Intent is the crystal clear ability of the Whip to determine what he wishes his horse to do, and how and where he wishes the horse to go. Intent is clarity of thought on the part of the Whip. So often when we work with horses, our intent is not clear to the animal. We'll toot along and then decide to turn or stop, and the poor animal is hauled along with us, out of balance and out of communication. Sometimes we let the horse make the decisions for us: "There's a fence; I guess I'll turn," or "I'll just follow this other horse," or "I trot a little faster down this slope." It's easy to let the horse make the decisions until one day the time comes when we want to do something else and the horse resists losing his control. An accomplished Whip works hard mentally during a drive if he wants to establish a smooth balanced performance. The Whip decides exactly where and how to go and then takes the horse with him in balance and harmony. Use of the center is one thing that helps to keep this mental focus that allows us refined communication with our horse. When I use my center to turn, I make a conscious, clear decision about where I'll implement that turn, and the horse will go with me. Such precision also lets you evaluate your horse's performance; if you know exactly where you intend to go, you will know if he’s 6 inches or 6 feet off the intended path.
Perfection in a dressage test is the result of clear intent on the part of the Whip. I must know exactly where I wish to go and communicate this precisely to my horse. Clear intent is also the secret of success in cones and obstacle events. I need to know exactly where I intend to go so that my partner, my horse, is clear as to the exact path. Probably one of the biggest faults we humans have in working with horses is that we are not clear in our own minds as to what we want, and as a result, we send our horses weak, mixed signals. The horse becomes confused, unbalanced, and resistant to working with us.
Clear use of our own center clarifies our message to the horse. Soft eyes, breathing, balance, and grounding help us find and use our center. Our center in turn helps -us find and maintain our soft eyes, balance and grounding and clarifies our intent. Each element works with the others to help us achieve quiet harmony and communication, not only in our driving but also in our everyday life. No one element or "basic" is any more or less important than the other. Certain ones will work better for different people. You may find, for instance, that centering comes easily to you, but soft eyes don't seem to have much effect. You may find one horse that really responds well to breathing and another that couldn't care less. That's okay, there is no rigid formula for Centered Driving or Centered Riding. You merely keep and use these components that I've shared with you as tools. You can pull them out and use them in whatever degree they work for you, whenever you want to use them. Do give it a try, however, and see what your horse has to say; horses generally tell the true story when given the opportunity. These changes may not happen overnight, although some of the immediate effects of Centered Driving may astonish you!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Peggy Brown is a clinician and instructor of Centered Riding and Centered Driving from Maumee, Ohio (USA). She is a lifetime member of the American Driving Society and has trained, taught, and competed in driving for forty years. She holds judges cards with the American Haflinger Registry. She currently competes in the US and Canada in Pleasure driving, Combined Driving and under saddle events with her Haflingers and German Riding Pony, and was the Bronze Medal Winner in the 1997 American Pleasure Driving Championship. Peggy's Haflingers won the 1998 CDE Great Lakes Challenge Award, the North American Haflinger Registry Pleasure Driving Championship, and the Champion Versatility Award. Peggy was longlisted for three years in Advanced Combined Driving. She is certified as an Expert Instructor in driving and multiple disciplines with the American Riding Instructor Association and was honored in 2005 to receive the Instructor of the Year Award. A qualified Centered Riding and Driving Clinician, she is available for clinics, lectures, and demonstrations.
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