Finding your Centre
How you can use the power of your core to be more effective with your riding
By Amanda Barton
How heavy is a 2 year old child?
Well that should be a simple, empirical question. When my daughter was a toddler, most of the time, my husband or I had no problem at all picking her up. Hum… but then there are the other times. When she does not want to be picked up she seems to attached to the ground in some way and when she really wants to be put down I feel as if I can’t physically hold her any more, I don’t mean she is throwing herself around in any way or that she is tight and braced in her muscles, its just that she is strangely heavy. I think this effect comes from her completely unified physical and mental intention and that’s the interesting part as we can use the same principle of engagement of the power of our core to be more effective with our riding. In the example above Katie has dropped her center of gravity and you could argue that I’m feeling an application of what martial artists understand as “life energy” coming from her center.
So what’s going on and what does Katie’s weird weight gain have to do with horses?
A simple exercise that I frequently uses on clinics illustrates the power of finding our “center” and the impact this has to our balance and how we feel to another person. Working in pairs, one person places a finger on their forehead and puts all their attention on that place. Letting the finger and arm drop down but keeping their attention on the forehead, their partner then gently places both hands on the shoulders of the first person and tests their balance. The object is not to flatten them but to just gently see how stable they feel.
Next we repeat the process, this time focusing on the area of the heart by touching an area on the sternum and again focusing entirely on that place. As above, the partner tests the balance gently by placing both hands on the shoulders.
Finally, the focus is placed on the “center” which is found about 3 or 4 fingers width below the naval. Sometimes people need a little time to focus and concentrate on this, dropping their attention down to their center, when they are ready the partner again tests their balance.
Whenever I have shown this exercise to riders in clinics, they have found more stability when they place their attention in the area below the naval than either in the forehead or the heart area. Very often the difference is dramatic, to the extent that it is actually hard to push them over in the third exercise whereas they topple easily when the focus is on the forehead. It follows that learning to ride from our center could help to improve balance and reduce the amount of muscular tension we need to do the job of balancing on top of a horse.
We could mean a few things when we talk about our center. Our physical (geometric) center is a point in ourselves which you could find if you imagine dividing your body in half from left to right, in half from front to back and in half from top to bottom. These three planes meet in just one point, that’s our geometric center.
The geometric center is not necessarily the same as our center of gravity. For most of us the center of gravity lies approximately in front of the second sacral vertebra at about 55% of our height. The exact location for each individual depends on their build and alignment. A man with a very muscular torso and long, thin legs would have a higher center of gravity. Another person who habitually stands with shoulders raised and leans slightly to the left would have the center of gravity up and to the left. We become more stable and balanced if we can lower the center of gravity.
I also want to explore the idea that our center is also a center of energy that is more than just our center of gravity. In Eastern culture and disciplines such as Aikido, Tai Chi, Qi Gong, Yoga, Chinese medicine, acupuncture and meditation there is focus on our center of energy which is located pretty much in the same place as our center of gravity, that is about 3 or 4 fingers width below and behind the naval. This is referred to as the dantien, tan t’ien (Chinese), one point, hara (Japanese), manipura (Indian), navel or solar plexus chakra. The center is the place where our chi, or life force is stored. It is a reservoir for our energy and a place of inner strength. Eastern disciplines teach that if we can learn to live, move and act with our attention on our center then we will be more balanced physically and emotionally. We need to learn to see from our center, move from our centre, breathe from our center.
Although modern science has not proved the presence of energy centers in the body, there are several interesting things about the center from an anatomical point of view. It has been proved that the solar plexus (and heart) is surrounded by cells that are very like those contained on the cortex of the brain. These have been shown to allow some form of “intelligence” and may account for the intuition that some people attribute to “gut feelings”. Also there is a major branching of the nervous system along the spinal cord close to the naval center and it is linked to the glands of the endocrine system, specifically the adrenal glands and pancreas.
Depending on which discipline you study, there are other energy centers in the body which are connected by meridians allowing energy to flow around (and beyond) the body. Qi Gong refers to three energy points; the forehead (the third eye or Ajna), the heart (Anahata) and the pelvic center or many other disciplines, such as Yoga, refer to 7 chakras running up the spine from the perineum to the crown of the head. This also includes a chakra close to the naval. In the most simple terms these points are different ways of dividing up the energy in the body.
In a New Jersey State prison, muggers were shown videos of people walking along the road and asked which they would have mugged. Usually the prisoners were in complete agreement, it was those who where out of balance or out of sync in some way that they chose. Those who were centered were hardly ever chosen.
So what does all this have to do with horse riding!
What part of your body do you associate with strength? Upper body? In fact the strongest muscles of the body are below the waist, the muscles that attach to the pelvic girdle. By focusing attention here we can move in the most efficient way which means only using the muscles that we need to do the job in hand. Often people move with large amounts of muscular tension in the whole body, horses can feel this and will usually respond by matching this with tension in their own bodies. This is neither efficient for movement nor healthy in the long term.
There is also a connection between to extent to which we are mentally present and quiet in our mind when we are riding and whether we are centered. Focusing attention on the center stills an over active mind and improves our ability to communicate with the horse.
It generally seems to be the case they when a rider gets very analytical they are “in their head” and they quickly become unbalanced with a high center of gravity and no awareness of their center of energy. Its not surprising that we have such a focus on our heads, we have a big, heavy brain and many of our sense come from ears, eyes and nose which are located on our head.
We are often distracted with thoughts of the future and “what ifs”, fears or thoughts that are totally unconnected with riding a horse. In the exercise described at the start of this blog that’s like the first test of balance where the person is totally focused on a place on their forehead.
Instead, learn to focus on your center when you are riding. Not only will this help to improve your balance by lowering your center but also you will learn to still your mind. Focus on the center is so much more useful to the task of riding then many of the other unconnected thoughts that arrive, uninvited, inside our heads.
SOME CENTERING EXERCISES
A SERIES OF EXERCISES TO HELP FIND YOUR CENTER
These exercises come with an apology to all those people who find it difficult to visualize a picture inside their heads as these notes are written with a visual reader in mind. On clinics we can work with kinesthetic people and do these same exercises in a different way but space does not allow me to write the full details for this here in these notes.
FINDING YOUR CENTRAL AXIS
Before locating the specific point which is your center its useful to get an idea of your central axis. Dancer Andre Bernard said “ideal posture can be found when you allow the parts of the structure to balance as close to the central axis as possible”.
Choose one of the following exercises that works best for you.
1. Visualize a line of light and energy coming down from the sky and going through the dead centre of your crown, brain, neck, chest and abdomen, then exiting between the middle of your legs and continuing down all the way into the centre of the earth. Spend a short while aligning your body around this central line of energy, which you can think of as the core of your body. If you like you can gently rock your body a few millimeters from side to side in order to find the central point of right-left balance around your core, and then rock a few millimeters forward and back so that the front and back of your body can find their point of balance around your core. (Qi Gong exercise)
2. (Alternative to exercise 1) Visualize a miniature searchlight positioned between your feet, coming up through the horse and shining a bright contained beam of light up through your central axis. Imagine the light shining out of the top of your head. The place where the light touches the sky or the ceiling is directly above the place where it originated. (From Eric Franklin)
3. Visualize your central axis as a guitar string extending from a point centered between your feet to a point at the center of the top of your head. Pluck the string and see and feel its vibration in the core of your body. Hear the sound, what is the tone. (From Eric Franklin)
EXERCISES TO HELP FIND YOUR CENTER
I was working with Vicki who was riding a rather worried Icelandic horse. This little horse was hell bent on going as fast as he could while his owner was equally determined to go slowly. I’ve got to be fair to the horse here, on balance he generally had the edge in terms of speed control, and his choice was fast. We helped Vicki to breath a little more deeply first of all but right after that we talked specifically about how you can focus your attention on your center. Vicki had a number of different thoughts going on her head and she wasn’t that centered when we started out so this was a big change for her and the difference was almost immediate and profound. The horse started to breath and he slowed down as if someone had flicked a switch and found a new gear. From here we were able to progress to some other areas of horsemanship with this new calmer horse.
HERE ARE SOME EXERCISES TO HELP YOU FIND YOUR CENTER.
1. Follow the core line, light or energy of your body (see exercise 1 or 2 above) to the lower belly area, about 3 or 4 fingers width beneath the naval. This is your center.
2. Find your center. Visualize any image that you like and mentally locate that image in your center to help strengthen the feeling of this place. Examples could be a luminous point of light or energy at this place, an image of the sun or a coloured ball of some kind. Some people like to choose an image from nature that they enjoy. Choose the size of this image that suits you, this could range from something the size of a golf ball to something much larger.
3. If you find it difficult to make a mental picture you can feel the center, it may have a temperature, warm or cold, a feeling of spaciousness or a comfortable sensation. This works just as well as an image for many people. If you really want some fun you could imagine some kind of sound or music associated with your center!
4. Imagine yourself as the core of a tree. Imagine a cross-section of that tree taken horizontally just below your pelvis, the trunk is surrounded by concentric growth rings. The rings become smaller and smaller as they approach your centre, feel the power concentrated around your center (Adapted from Eric Franklin)
INTRODUCING MOVEMENT IN YOUR CENTER
Once the idea of your center as a static image has become familiar to you, and you are comfortable with a few of the exercises above, (its ideal to work with an image on and off your horse for about a week before moving on), you may enjoy adding some kind of movement to your centre. The advantages of this are to strengthen the image and feeling of centering yourself, to incorporate the idea of energy flowing in this area and to start to bring your horse and his movement into the equation. You may well find that, with some practice, you can start to influence your horse’s movement with these images and so reduce the amount of physical cues that you need to use.
1. Imagine the breath traveling all the way down to your center, remember to do a long out breath first. What influence does the breath have on the center? Some people imagine that it grows or changes in some way as you breath out. Our minds are attracted to things that sparkle, is there a way that you can bring some “bling” into your image?
2. Its natural that as your horse moves underneath you, your center of gravity is challenged and may move away from the neutral, center point we have been practicing. Visualize the relationship between the neutral point in your pelvis and your actual center of gravity during movement, during a transition for example. Merge your center of gravity back to your neutral center point once again. The relationship between the neutral point and the centre of gravity is like a yo-yo. The hand holding the yo-yo is the neutral center, the yo-yo moves away but returns again to your hand. (Adapted from Eric Franklin)
3. If you visualize your center as being round then it could potentially roll as your horse moves. Centered riding teaches that the ball at our center rolls backwards as we move forwards. You can experiment with three plastic water bottles of the same size. Place two on a table and rest the third on top. Hold the bottom two bottles as you push them along the table. What is the direction of movement of the third bottle resting on top?
I have had some great results visualizing my center rolling backwards as I prepare to move forwards and then releasing energy forwards, in the direction I want to go as I want to move off. This image/feeling works well in reverse for the back up. You can also use the same idea for lateral work. This image is interesting because it starts to release the energy stored in the center outside the body in the direction of travel.
Some people think about their center moving in the direction of travel, this can work really well for some horse and rider combinations as well. There is no right or wrong with this stuff, it just depends what suits you.
4. Move from your center. It is most beneficial to initiate every movement from your center, often we move with our head leading the movement. This exercise helps to initiate movement from the center and clarifies your intent as to where you want to go. Imagine a winch is attached from your center to the destination you are riding to. Design the details so that they are right for you. What’s your winch line made of? How does it attach to your center and to the place you are riding to? When you are ready, ride your line with the help of your winch. (Adapted from an exercise used by Mark Rashid)
EXERCISES TO DEVELOP CONNECTION TO YOUR HORSE
The horse’s center of gravity is on a line from the point of the shoulder to the point of the buttock. Its just below the 13th or 14th thoracic vertebrae, but thats going to depend on whether and how the horse is moving. If you draw a line down from the COG it falls closer to the front legs than the hinds so the front legs take 58% of the weight and back 42%. As the head and neck move forward so does the COG.
So where is a horse’s center of energy? Well a lot less is written about this than about the human center! Sally Swift writes in her book Centered Riding 2 that the horse’s center of energy is in the same place as a human’s, that is underneath the lumbar spine. However a lot of people find it useful to think about an area underneath where they are sitting (the horse’s physcial COG) as they explore these ideas.
1. As you ride imagine the horses COG or center of energy and explore the connection that this allows you to feel with your horse.
2. In his DVD, Understanding Footfall, Mark Rashid describes 3 circles of energy that are useful to think about as you are riding. Two cover the horse and one covers the rider. The front circle of energy of the horse includes the front legs, neck and head and intersects with the rider. The back circle of energy on the horse covers the hind end and legs and also intersects with the rider and the front circle. Then the rider herself has a circle of energy which will intersect with both of the horse’s circles.
As a rider we have a choice as to whether we help the horse to connect the hind and front circles by allowing the movement to come through us or we can inadvertently block this by poor balance, poor breathing, excessive body tension or a poorly fitting saddle.
Getting a feeling for the horse’s circles of energy as you ride can be an extremely useful exercise to connect the horse and rider. Remember, there is no right or wrong here, this is simply a question of what the circles might feel like to you. The idea of our own center helps as we think about our own energy circle and our responsibility to help the horse with the connection from back to front