Note: I wrote this article was written in 1995 for Dressage and CT Magazine when Sally was 82 years old. Her dog Joy was still alive. She sat out in her garden for me to take photos (see gallery). I fondly remember spending this beautiful day with Sally, just the two of us in her kitchen. Wendy
For 20 years Sally Swift has been leading a revolution in rider awareness. She began slowly and quietly, teaching a few of her friends in Brattleboro, VT, where she has lived for a long time. Then, with the publication of her first book, “Centered Riding”, an explosion occurred which launched this elderly lady onto the international equestrian scene.
I first met Sally at a TT.E.A.M. clinic hosted by Kim Walnes in February 1986. I did not realize who she was at the time. She watched me manipulate a horse’s tail and noticed how the movement went all the way down the horse’s spine. Later I found out this woman was the Sally Swift. In August of that year I attended my first Centered Riding Clinic. It was actually a Two-Part Centered Riding Instructor’s Course held outside Fort Collins, CO. I was sitting on a horse waiting for my lesson. Sally came over and placed her hand on my left thigh. This seemingly insignificant action nearly brought me to tears. I had broken the left hip socket two years previous and was having difficulty riding as a result. Suddenly I realized here was someone who could help me release the tension, which limited the movement in my leg. And so began my journey of learning Centered Riding from this woman.
I have now worked with Sally Swift for nine years, riding with her and her apprentices, becoming an apprentice myself, teaching Centered Riding Clinics and helping her develop Centered Riding, Inc., a non-profit organization devoted to increasing awareness and educating people about Centered Riding. However, after all this time I realized that I didn’t really know exactly how the whole thing got started. So recently I spent an afternoon with Sally recalling the past twenty years.
We sat at her kitchen table, which is ladened with magazines and letters. I had to move things out of the way just to find room for my laptop! Occasionally, we were interrupted by Joy (Sally’s 17-year-old Jack Russell Terrier) as she made repeated attempts to dislodge my cat from behind the stove. At 82 years old Sally’s eyes are still shiny, her voice interested and bright and even though it takes her several hours each morning to get her body going, she is still teaching lessons and clinics on a regular basis. Whenever I asked a question that required some research into her old appointment calendars, Sally would swing her legs over the baby gate that blocked off the kitchen from the hallway and wander off into the back room. Upon her return she would once again hoist her legs over the gate, sit down in her sheepskin-padded chair and pour over the diary in search of the answer.
Question: How did you get started teaching Centered Riding?
Answer: It sort of happened. I had been very conscious of my body ever since I was a child because I have a scoliosis, which they discovered when I was 7 or 8 years old. I started going to a Miss Mabel Elsworth Todd in Boston. She was doing a sort of physical therapy where she taught that the mind could reach muscles deep in the body that could not be reached just by moving an arm or a leg. I learned a lot about the body because there was always a full size skeleton hanging by the table where they worked on me.
After I got out of high school, in 1931, I taught riding professionally for about 12 years, very differently than how I teach now, tight knees and all that.
I stopped teaching professionally and went back to school for two years at Mass State and two years at Cornell. I graduated in Agriculture in February 1947. I went to work in farm management and dairy cattle, Jersey cattle first then Holsteins. I worked for 21 years at the Holstein office in Brattleboro. In 1975, at age 62, I retired and began teaching what is now Centered Riding. I am now 82. You see I have been at it 20 years. I decided I wanted to teach riding to my friends and travel a little. I began experimenting with teaching from my center, using the information I learned from Miss Todd. It worked so well my friends began talking and I began teaching a lot and the whole thing mushroomed. I never advertised.
Question: How did you meet Miss Todd?
Answer: When the local doctor first noticed that I had a curvature of the spine, my mother did not know where to take me for treatment. She talked to my aunt who was working with a follower of Miss Todd. When my mother asked the local doctor, he said that you can’t do her any harm so why don’t you try it.
Question: How long did you work with Miss Todd?
Answer: I worked with her and her followers until my twenties. Miss Todd did a lot of work in the lower body, the pelvis and the psoas muscle. I found that if I dropped a ball plunk into my pelvis I could do anything that I wanted to do. Miss Todd did not call it centering and I did not teach this when I was young because I was embarrassed. I used it though.
Miss Todd made me learn how to write and do other things with my left hand. She wanted me to ride because it was good for my back. I wanted to ride anyway.
Question: What was the most important thing you learned from Miss Todd?
Answer: The concept of centering.
Question: When did you learn to ride?
Answer: My sister taught me how to rise to the trot when I was 8; she’d had ten lessons. My first riding teacher was an English gal, Phillis Linnington. She gave me all my basic training. After high school, I spent three years apprenticing with her while I was teaching; did most of the work, my horse was used in the school and I paid rough board which was $15.00/month. Full board was $30. This was in the early 30’s. A set of shoes cost $4.00, reset for $3.00, then they went up to $6.00.
Question: How did you get interested in dressage?
Answer: Tom Poulin came down to judge a dressage show that our riding club put on. We lost money but it was one of the early ones. It is now the King Oaks Dressage Show. The date was originally ours. We passed it on to Stonely Burnhum and then they passed it on. We had a big four-ring show. At that early show Tom stayed with me. He found out I was fascinated with dressage but that I did not know anything about it. He asked me to come up to his place in Maine as an auditor. I was not riding any longer at that point; the invitation came just before I retired from the Holstein Association. I was doing some teaching for fun throughout that era. I went up to Tom’s place in Maine several times to watch the teaching and got to know Janet Black.
After those trips up there to Maine, Tom and Janet got me going to Priscilla Endicott’s. She was the one who founded NEDA and was chairman for many years. Priscilla ran clinics and when I first went there she had Hans Wikne coming (October 1975). He was from Sweden. I went down planning to stay for a day and I stayed 7 days. He taught at the same school where Major Lindgren taught. Walter Christiansen was also doing clinics at Priscilla’s. He was a very high quality teacher but there was something about Wikne that went with Centered Riding. He was just inherently that way. He was a very gentle person. Christiansen rode very centered but did not teach that way.
At this point I was beginning to teach Centered Riding. I was in the stage when I was pulling legs. I used to pull Priscilla’s legs and teach her around the corners. I teach her less now because I don’t drive as much. We got together again because of the Boxborough Trade fairs (1994-1995). She is a Grand Prix rider; it’s fun working with grand prix riders.
Question: So you started teaching Centered Riding in 1975?
Answer: Right after that.
Question: How did the idea spread?
Answer: It grew by itself. I started at Huntington Farm in South Strafford, VT, just after I came back from Tom Poulin’s. I had taught Essie Perkins to ride at camp when she was little – she was Bea and Beth Perkins’ mother. Essie said I couldn’t stand out there teaching all day long without getting paid so she started paying me $50 /day. (Later I started to charge a $100 a day when I found out an organizer was charging $50 a lesson!)
Then Denny Emmerson gave an instructor clinic for Peggy Dils at the Stonleigh-Burnham School. Betty Booth was also were down there. Denny was teaching “pull your shoulders back” and other things that didn’t work and I was talking to Betty. She said: “why don’t you talk to Denny about that, he is a very open person”. I said, “Before I go I will”. Denny lives in the same town as Essie Perkins and he had seen me teaching at Huntington Farm. I knew him because S. Strafford is not that big. Denny said: “when you come up to Huntington Farm again give us a day”. So I went up there and did a day, which led to many more.
Question: What happened after that?
Answer: It mushroomed from there. I started clinics in 1977. It was a lot better than what most people were teaching. That’s pretty vain but it’s true. In the 80’s I began training people in what is now called the Centered Riding Instructors Course. I found myself going to Canada and eventually Australia and then Europe. I began having people travel with me as apprentices and those who traveled with me are now Senior Centered Riding Instructors. They are carrying on the teaching.
Question: How did CR spread so effectively?
Answer: Well, I think it spread by word of mouth because it works. And then the book helped a lot. That spread it abroad too.
Question: When did you write the book?
Answer: I started writing it almost immediately about 1978. Denny and Priscilla both said that I had to write this down but I wasn’t ready. Denny is fun to work with because by himself he is a wonderful rider. When he gets under pressure he is a pressure rider. After a lesson he had with Walter Christenson we got talking. He said he couldn’t get as much out of a horse if he had not worked with me. That’s when I asked him if he would write the preface to the book and he said he would. It took me 7 years to get it clear. It was published in 1985. Over those seven years I was processing and I had processed a lot of stuff by 1985. When I go back now I am amazed about how much I had processed and that I have changed very little since then. The work has gotten more sophisticated and some of the details have improved but basically its still all there.
Question: How did you come up with the 4 basics in your book?
Answer: They just happened; they came out of the teaching. I discovered that I kept teaching the same things over and over, soft eyes, breathing, centering and building blocks and recently I have added another basic called grounding that under girds the four. I found I kept teaching them over and over again. We named them together, my students and I.
Question: Did you have any idea the book was going to be so successful?
Answer: I thought when I published it I was going to get awful letters because it was so different. And I have never had a nasty letter, an awful lot of good letters, but nothing bad.
Question: Were you surprised by its success?
Answer: I really was surprised. I had no idea it would do that. I knew it had to be written. I thought it would limp along. Carolyn Robbins, my publisher, had 5000 copies done. Those sold and then they just kept printing more. It became one of the top ten best-selling horse books for years. The sales have hung on almost level. It’s still Trafalgar Square’s biggest seller by far. It has been translated into Swedish, German and French. Now it is being translated into Italian.
Question: Who are some well-known people you have worked with?
Answer: Louise Meriman, Lenden Gray, Priscilla Endicott, Marsha Kulak, Robin Brueckmann, Kim Walnes, Becky Hart, Carol Grant Oldford , Jane Savoie, Vi Hopkins, Max Gahwyler, Denny Emerson, and Tad Coffin.
Question: When was your exposure to the Alexander Technique?
Answer: I started working with Peter Payne, an Alexander Teacher, in 1980. He would come to my house. Carol Brown introduced me to him. She was a local person who ran a wonderful shop and sold Irish tweeds and lived to be over 100. Peter came over from England, his wife was American. Later on he also started giving T’ai Chi classes and I began taking those.
Question: What did you find interesting about Peter’s work?
Answer: He verified what I was teaching and added sophistication to the basic stuff. It was already there but it became more sophisticated and I learned more ways of teaching it after his T’ai Chi classes. The unbendable arm and all that came from Peter.
Question: How long did you work with him?
Answer: Seven years. Then I went on to working with Rupa Cousins, another Alexander Teacher.
Question: Why do you think the concepts of Centered Riding work so well?
Answer: I think they are so natural. I think this is what a natural rider does unconsciously. I think this is one reason that many (you never say all or never) very brilliant riders find it difficult to teach others what they do because they have never experienced learning it. You go to the wonderful riders because they are wonderful riders and the wonderful riders cannot tell you how.
Question: How do you feel about riding instruction in general?
Answer: That’s dangerous! I think that in too much riding instruction you are only told what to do with the horse with no weight or emphasis on what to do with your body in order to communicate with the horse. Most of us, due to the stress of living nowadays and habits in society, do not handle our bodies well. As we learn how to better deal with our bodies we then deal more efficiently with the horse
Question: Can CR work with different riding disciplines?
Answer: Yes, because the basic thing with CR is that you establish balance and communication with the horse. It’s learning how to cooperate with your horse so that you do not physically or mentally interfere with him. Therefore you help him enhance what he does regardless of the discipline.
Question: Do you see Centered Riding fitting in with all different disciplines and styles of teaching?
Answer: I find that it is fitting in very well. For those who are exploring it, Centered Riding has been very successful, but they have to want to explore it.
Question: Is Centered Riding different from the old balanced seat or classical seat?
Answer: It is very close to the old classical seat. It is actually close to the classical seat in each discipline. Now people are going to disagree with that in saddle seat but if you go back to Helen Crabtree you see that she taught very close to the classical seat, and they have gone way away from that. There was a man before Helen Crabtree whose name I forget. He rode like a dream. His legs were under him and his horses all floated and they were gorgeous and the saddle horses now can’t float; they are not allowed to. The fact is when you ride Centered Riding in saddle seat the horses go better and good western riders are centered anyway. It’s the judges that need to be educated. Think about how centered barrel racers and cutting horse riders are, the good ones. The dressage people are getting better. A few years ago you could hardly find anyone with their legs under them and now you can see quite a few of them. They used to hang their heads off the front. But of course, as they get their feet under them the heads come up and visa versa. It is awfully hard to ride with your feet in front of you and be in balance.
Question: You’re in the process of writing a new book. When do you think it will be available?
Answer: I suppose I should say – 1.5 years. If I get it done this fall it will take about a year to get it out.
Question: What is this new book going to cover?
Answer: The big thing is that it is going to have a lot of groundwork in it, which is done off the horse. The whole middle section is broken down into pieces of learning that are done first on the ground and then on the horse. Then there are chapters on the basic concepts, centering, use of self and pain. It also brings in new ways of teaching and new approaches to Centered Riding.
Question: Have their been any significant changes since the first book?
Answer: The use of groundwork is a big change. Including grounding as a basic and the application to the higher levels are other changes. However, the basic principles have not changed.
Question: Why do you think horse people are increasing their interest in body awareness?
Answer: I think body awareness has come into many other different areas besides riding. I think we are a Johnny-come-lately in terms of riding. The martial arts have been drawing attention to the importance and use of the body for a long time.
Question: Why do you think you are so good at what you do?
Answer: Well, I like to teach. That has been always true. I am one of those people that knows how to teach. I had that in me to teach. Also, I think Miss Todd’s training had a lot to do with it.
Question: You are 82 years old, why do you keep teaching?
Answer: I still love teaching Centered Riding! I gave the neatest lesson the other day! I like the satisfaction of seeing horses move and live more happily and of seeing people finding that what they learn with their horse applies just as well to the rest of life.
Question: How would you describe Centered Riding to someone who is unfamiliar with the techniques?
Answer: That’s a $64 question! I never know how to answer!! Well, let me think. It’s a way of becoming more aware of your body and your horse’s body. That certainly is part of it, so that with improved “use of self” you use your own body more efficiently and can help your horse do the same.
Question: How would you describe centering?
Answer: I don’t know, that is what I am working on. I think it is an awareness that if you go to your center, the inner lower body, and let it become the core of motion and activity, you will have improved efficiency with inner peace.
Question: What changes do you see happening in Centered Riding?
Answer: Well, what I am finding is that it becomes simpler and less complicated as we go. It becomes simpler as we become more sophisticated in how to teach it. As I work with my teachers, I keep wanting them to simplify what they teach.
Question: What would you like to see as the future of Centered Riding?
Answer: I would just like to see the concept of Centered Riding become a part of riding for all disciplines. There is no sense in having it separate.
Question: How would you suggest this happen?
Answer: Evolution. It is happening. You can’t push it; you can’t force it; you just open the possibilities and let them take advantage of it. That’ s how it is spreading. People find it works and what works spreads.
Question: What have you done to insure the continuation of Centered Riding techniques?
Answer: I have all my Senior Instructors to carry on the work, plus a lot of other instructors who are coming up the ladder. From the mechanical point of view we formed Centered Riding incorporated in 1993. I think incorporating was necessary for the Senior Instructors who are going to carry on. I still feel in the long run the Centered Riding, “Inc.” will fade into space and the techniques will go on. By the time the seniors retire, Centered Riding will hopefully be incorporated as a part of riding. Whether it continues to be called Centered Riding is not important 50 or 100 years down the road.
Question: What do you think is the most valuable contribution Centered Riding can make to a rider?
Answer: Centered Riding improves harmony and communication with your horse. You get what you want when you are in harmony and you can’t get it when you are out of harmony. You can get movement but you can’t get beautiful movement. It is the beauty that comes from the centered part of it.
Question: What’s the one concept you most want a rider to take away from Centered Riding?
Answer: Inner peace. I am not sure that’s the right answer but it’s true. That is what we are looking for isn’t it?