The Remarkable Sally Swift

The creator of Centered Riding and mind-body riding guru still inspires.

I was determined to become a proficient rider, and I was as green as spring grass. The year was 1990, and I was 37 years old. I never got over my “girlish horse craziness” and had enjoyed riding trails since my childhood. As an adult, I was ready to learn more. So I signed up for real riding lessons. I didn’t know what a leg yield was, and I didn’t know how to use my hands, seat, eyes or body correctly. My instructor recommended a book called “Centered Riding” by Sally Swift, “a book for ‘thinking’ riders,” as she put it.

I bought the book and kept it on my nightstand, consuming it night after night before retiring to sleep. After turning off the lights, I’d close my eyes and visualize what I had read, riding my imaginary horse, with growing compassion and awareness, into my dreams. I’d imagine riding with soft eyes, breathing and a balanced seat, along with all of the useful imagery that Sally presented in her book.

“Centered Riding is simply a new way of expressing the classical principles of riding,” Sally said. “It answers the question of ‘how,’ when the riding instructor tells you ‘what’ to do to communicate with your horse. It applies equally to all English and western riding disciplines.”

Immediately, the principles of Centered Riding seeped into my weekly riding lessons. I had a clearer picture of how I wanted my lesson horse to look and how I’d carry myself upon him. The book helped me process my lessons with more ease and understanding. I was hooked and soon bought my own American Quarter Horse. Off I rode, onto a path toward becoming the lifetime horsewoman I’d always dreamed of being. My world had opened up, thanks to Sally Swift. I’m still on the path, riding and learning.

Educational Pioneer, Visionary

Born into an era when women mostly honored their husband’s demands and spent their time taking care of the family and household, Sally was among the great American women who broke the mold: impressionism artist Mary Cassatt; modern dance pioneer Isadora Duncan; pilot Amelia Earhart; author and lecturer Helen Keller; seamstress and courageous leader Rosa Parks; and photojournalist Margaret Bourke White.

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Born on April 20, 1913, in Hingham, Massachusetts, to Rodman Swift and Elizabeth Townsend Swift, Sally was named after her paternal grandmother, Sarah Rodman Swift. Since she had a cousin also named Sarah, her nickname became “Sally.”

As a child, Sally loved riding horses. Her first experience was sitting on the back of the garbage man’s horse when she was 2 or 3. Every summer for years, Sally’s mother, who was also horse-crazy, rented a horse and boarded her at a neighbor’s farm. Sally and her sister would take turns riding the mare down the side road, accompanied by their mother.

“Mom loved horses, and she was having a great time sharing her love of horses with us,” Sally says. “She would have been very excited by my creating Centered Riding. Unfortunately, she didn’t live long enough to share any of it with me. It’s a shame, as it would have been very exciting to her.”

At the age of 7, Sally was diagnosed with scoliosis, a lateral curvature of the spine. Sally’s mother found physical therapist Mabel Ellsworth Todd to work with her daughter. Mabel was the author of “The Thinking Body,” which was based on her belief that you could control parts of your body and reach muscles with your mind when you couldn’t direct them with physical movement. Her ideas involved using creative visual imagery and consciously relaxed volition to create refined neuromuscular coordination. It’s still a favorite of dancers, students of motor development and those concerned with questions of human fitness.

As the author said, “It is as profoundly true that we are as much affected in our thinking by our bodily attitudes as our bodily attitudes are affected in the reflection of our mental and bodily states.”

“She would do some manipulation with her hands and give me exercises to do,” Sally said. “Miss Todd encouraged me to do horse riding, saying that it would strengthen my weak back.”

After high school, Sally apprenticed for three years with riding instructor Phyllis Linnington, an English woman who taught the importance of a balanced seat.

“Phyllis taught us that we were responsible for what our horses did,” Sally said. “I was taught a balanced seat, balanced over your center but with tight knees. But I still had Miss Todd’s training in my mind about using my body, the ball inside my body, and if you dropped it into your pelvis as if into the mud, you could do anything. As I look back on it, I see this as the beginning of Centered Riding.”

For the first time, Sally went out on her own to teach riding.

“I believe one of the most important qualities of an excellent riding teacher is someone for whom teaching is more than a job – it is a life’s passion,” Sally said. “Great teachers have extreme patience and an eye for detail. I think having an in-depth understanding of the anatomy of the body – mostly the human body – but also of the horse, is very important. I also believe it is very important to accept the student at the level of her riding and not to overload the student. Some teach too much at one time, and the student cannot sort it all out. It is very important to teach in small increments.”

Sally used the winter months to school with Col. Guirey at the Boots and Saddle Riding School in New York City.

“Col. Guirey was a Cossack prince; he was a lovely, cultured person – a real gentleman,” Sally said. “He was a low-key teacher, but good! In the first lesson, he said, ‘Your knees are too tight!’ I was absolutely horrified to hear this because I had spent so long making them tight! So for 15 minutes each lesson, I sat the trot without stirrups, and it loosened up my knees. I rode much better when they were soft because then I followed the horse. Instead of being on top of the horse, I became part of the horse.”

One day, Sally did some experimenting while riding a horse who was so hot-natured, he wouldn’t walk.

“He was sweet, but high-strung – hot as a pistol – and would’ve jumped the moon, if he could have,” she says. “One day, I had made up my mind that I was going to make him walk. I began to experiment by first holding my breath, then I tried breathing (the way we now teach it in Centered Riding), and the horse responded. I did it at the walk, then the trot, and the horse responded. If I went on breathing without effort, he went on walking. The Colonel, observing this, said, ‘Miss Swift, what are you doing?’ I answered, ‘Just breathing, Colonel.’ ”

In her 30s, Sally went to college and had a long career in the registration department of the Holstein-Friesian dairy cattle association. She began teaching again upon her retirement.

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“It wasn’t until I was 62, however, when I decided that I had had all the office work I wanted, that I thought I would retire, teach my friends and travel a little,” she says.

Sally says her most profound moment of teaching was in the early days of Centered Riding.

“I was approached by a woman who had been quite seriously injured in a horse accident,” she says. “When I started teaching her, she was very fearful and riding completely crooked. I took care of both of those things through my teachings. To be able to so clearly see the benefits of my teaching help her to totally overcome her fears and ‘get straight’ was more rewarding that I can put into words.”

Sally experimented using her methods locally on the East Coast. Soon, Sally’s Centered Riding program evolved and gained popularity, bringing a demand for more Centered Riding teachers. So she started training only instructors in her clinics and traveling longer distances. Centered Riding formalized its teacher certification program in the late 1980s; the corporation of Centered Riding was formed in 1993.
Karen Irland, a Level Four Centered Riding instructor from Washington, says, “Sally is the ‘Yoda’ of riding – truly a unique individual. “She was the first teacher to work mainly with the riders, and her unique ways of teaching riders feel awareness on the horse are her real gift. More and more western riders want to discover a connected, quiet seat on their horses. Centered Riding fits into their needs beautifully – whether it be a pleasure rider or a reiner or cutter.”

“I believe it is very important for a rider to learn awareness of one’s own body – understanding how the body functions, paying attention to yourself and the mechanics of how your body is functioning on the horse,” Sally said. “Harmony between horse and rider is very important. The greatest equine partnerships are built upon unspoken communication. This communication will come about if you think about what you are going to do before you do it; think about how it’s going to feel before you do it. When you feel in your body what you want it to feel like on your horse, your horse understands that.”

When asked about the future of Centered Riding and what she believes lies ahead, Sally said, “In recent years, we have seen many therapies, bodywork modalities and even medicinal approaches built upon the theories of working with and directing the body’s energy. This energetic connection, I believe, is the future of the partnership between horse and humans. I think Centered Riding is going a long way around the world, and I would hope that it is here to stay long past my days.”

She passed away in April 2009.