American Dressage Legends: Sally Swift

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Reprinted from the October 2016 USDF Connection magazine.

If your riding instructor has ever counseled you to imagine your body parts stacked like building blocks in the saddle, or to imagine that your arms and hands are garden hoses with water flowing through them toward your horse’s mouth, then you’ve benefited from the revolutionary imagery and innovative teachings of Sarah “Sally” Swift.

The equestrian pioneer, who died in 2009 at the age of 95, eschewed the pedestrian equestrian exhortations—“Heads up! Heels down!”—in favor of a kinesthetic approach. Swift talked about how riding should feel, not how it should look. She called her method Centered Riding, and it spawned bestselling books, countless clinics, and a thriving organization.

Swift’s approach, which was one of the first to emphasize the rider’s mind-body connection, arose from personal necessity. A rider and horse lover from an early age, she was diagnosed with scoliosis (curvature of the spine) at age seven—and would ride wearing a full back brace for most of her life. Her mother took her to the physiotherapist Mabel Ellsworth Todd, author of The Thinking Body, who taught Swift how the mind can be trained to help tap in to the body’s deep musculature, thereby gaining better control.

A Stellar Second Act
Swift is so famous for Centered Riding that many people are not aware that her equestrian teachings were a second career. For 21 years, she was a records manager for Holstein Association USA, “the world’s largest dairy breed association,” in her hometown of Brattleboro, VT. She’d taught riding all along, but it wasn’t until she was in her sixties, after she’d retired, that she’d developed and begun teaching what she called the four basics of Centered Riding: “soft eyes,” correct use of the breath, centering, and “building blocks” (balance).

Today riders are accustomed to hearing about concepts like core strength, and Pilates and other core-focused fitness regimens enjoy mainstream popularity. But in Swift’s day such techniques were largely unheard of in the equestrian community, and she was arguably the first to marry equitation, Alexander Technique, T’ai Chi, and Zen.

Riders throughout New England began to practice Swift’s methods, and before long students— including former international eventing competitor and How Good Riders Get Good author Denny Emerson—were urging her to publish her techniques. Swift’s seminal book, Centered Riding, was published in 1985; Centered Riding 2: Further Exploration followed in 2002. Together the books have sold nearly a million copies and have been translated into 15 languages. The Centered Riding organization (CenteredRiding.org) certifies instructors around the world who practice Swift’s methods.

Centered Riding and Dressage
The dressage world is lucky that New England was one of the places it was being practiced in the 1950s and 1960s. Swift, unfamiliar with the sport, met dressage trainer Tom Poulin at a New England Dressage Association show in Brattleboro. Poulin invited her to watch him train at his farm in Maine. Swift became fascinated with dressage, and dressage students likewise were fascinated by her imagery and ideas.

As Swift recalled in a 2006 interview with USDF Connection, for much of her career she didn’t actually have much interaction with the USDF. That changed in the 1980s, when the Michiganbased dressage pioneer and fellow future Roemer Foundation/USDF Hall of Famer Violet Hopkins saw Swift teaching. Hopkins, founder of the USDF Violet Hopkins National Seminars for Dressage Instructors (forerunner to the USDF FEI-Level Trainers Conferences), invited Swift to her Tristan Oaks Farm to teach Centered Riding at the Hopkins seminars.

Although so many Centered Riding concepts seem integral to learning to ride dressage, Swift was adamant that Centered Riding is not dressage, and that her concepts have more to do with the development of a balanced seat and therefore apply to any equestrian discipline.

Oddly, until she was inducted into the USDF Hall of Fame in 2006, Swift felt somewhat marginalized by the dressage establishment. “They weren’t interested in me,” she said—even fellow Hopkins seminar instructors Col. Aage Sommer and Maj. Anders Lindgren. The formal recognition bore out what riders have known for years: that Swift was ahead of her time.  

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