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Painting of Maestoso II Catrina ridden by Shana Ritter. Painting by Janey Belozer.

Thomas and Shana Ritter perform a Pas-de-Deux to Music during the 2007 Open House Performance, aboard the Lipizzan stallions, Favory Toscana-18 and Conversano Mima. Photo by Amelia Gagliano.

- by Dr. Thomas Ritter

©2000 - All Rights Reserved

I found an interesting statement in Philip Kapleau's book "The three pillars of Zen" (p.104), which contains, among other things, conversations between the Zen master Yasutani Roshi and several of his Western students. In one encounter, Yasutani Roshi tells a student who had complained about leg pain when sitting in zazen:

"When the body's center of gravity is established in the region just below the navel, the entire body functions with greater stability. The center of gravity in the average person is in the shoulders. Moreover, instead of sitting and walking with an erect back, most people slump, placing an inordinate strain on all parts of the body."

This statement really struck a chord with me, because almost every new student who comes to me is "top heavy", which prevents them from sitting deeply and securely. From a Western, scientific perspective, the center of gravity cannot really rise or drop in the human body. However, in Asian martial arts, as well as obviously in zazen, the energy (ki in Japanese, or chi in Chinese) center of a person can move around in the body.

It appears that a person is most balanced, most "centered", when the energy center coincides with the physical center of gravity, which is located just below the navel. If the energy center rises above the center of gravity, the person is "top heavy", easily unbalanced. In a martial art, such a person would easily be defeated by an attacker, as he would be too slow and too weak, too ineffective in his reactions, due to his imbalance.

On horseback, such a person will always be more or less out of synch with the horse's movements, which makes him an ineffective rider and puts him at risk of involuntarily parting ways with his horse.

You can immediately tell when the energy center is located too high in a rider.

The tell tale signs are:

  • stiff hips, that are usually placed too far back and too high up in the saddle,
  • a hollow back, that results in the seat bones being lifted up and away from the horse,
  • shoulders that look tense and that are in most cases tipped forward,
  • pulled up heels and knees
  • stiff, dead hands, often a straight arm with no angle at the elbow, and too short reins.
  • a "jack-knifed" waist, creating a "false bend" in the rider

    These symptoms usually occur in combination with each other. In particular, the stiff hips, wobbly waist, and tipped forward shoulders always seem to occur together.

    The horse rarely fails to encourage this seat by pushing his croup forward-upward against the rider to topple him forward onto his thighs, often combined with a simultaneous smart thrust of his head and neck to pull the rider forward, just as the croup is pushing up.

    A top heavy rider is completely helpless against this maneuver, and the horse succeeds every time in pushing the rider out of the way and freeing his back and hindquarters. A balanced, "centered" rider, on the other hand, remains uninvolved in this challenge. Instead, his seat functions as a conduit for the horse's energy. This means that if the horse chooses to push and pull on the rider in order to unbalance him, he will only half halt himself and pull the rider deeper into the saddle.

    E.g. if the horse challenges the rider's hand, the top heavy rider takes his elbows off his hips every time, which means that the rein aids will get stuck in the jaw or the poll, instead of being transmitted along the horse's spine and into the hind leg on the same side. A centered rider keeps his elbows by his side. This creates a secure connection between hand, elbow, hip, seat bones, and the horse's hind legs. If a horse challenges the centered rider, any push against the bit on the horse's part will transmit this force through the rider's body into the hind leg, which will bend underneath the self-imposed half halt.

    If the horse pushes his croup up, the top heavy rider will inevitably collapse forward, with his stiff hips back and his shoulders tipping forward. The cycle of energy and the cycle of aids are interrupted in the rider's waist, just like a garden hose loses all its water pressure if there is a large hole in it. The centered rider, on the other hand, stays connected. His hips are supple, so that they can absorb the upward thrust of the horse's croup. The rider's lumbar back muscles become more engaged by the flexion that the horse's action imposes on them. Like a spring, their elastic tension rises the more the horse pushes the rider's pelvis up. As a matter of course, the back and abdominal muscles will elastically push the rider's pelvis down again, which also flexes the horse's grounded hind leg. The more strongly the horse pushes up against the rider, the more powerful the downward thrust of the rider's pelvis, i.e. the half halt, will be. The rider's role remains relatively passive throughout. It is the horse who determines the timing and intensity of the half halt by his own actions. If the rider succeeds in remaining centered, the horse will realize quickly that the only opponent is himself, not the rider, and that any resistance is therefore futile. This is the fastest and kindest way of resolving a certain type of resistance.

    Becoming centered on horseback is one of the most important skills the rider has to learn, if not the most important one. Centering has physical as well as mental aspects. George Leonard (The way of Aikido, 37f.) answers the question of how to become centered:

    "At first, it seems ridiculously simple: All you have to do is put your attention on the center of your abdomen (hara in Japanese), at a point one inch or two below the navel, and things will be better in many ways. This is true and it is rather simple and you get immediate results. But the matter of centering has ramifications that could take a lifetime to play out. There is centering in stillness and centering in rapid motion. There is centering under pressure and centering while in pain. There is regaining center after disorientation or defeat and remaining centered during moments of great triumph."

    He also recommends touching your abdomen at the level of the center of gravity with your hand briefly, in order to help you focus on it. Most people have their energy center higher up. Leonard explains this in the following terms:

    p. 38:

    "The problem is that most of us don't start out putting much attention on our physical centers. When asked where their 'I' is located, most people would say 'In my head', which seems logical enough. After all, your brain, nose, mouth, eyes, and ears are located in that part of your body. Logic is always important, but it is also always partial, as it is based on a one-to-one physical and symbolic correspondence that doesn't exist in the real world. When the aikidoist is told to 'see from your hara', he or she, of course, doesn't try to make eyes appear in the center of the belly, but rather becomes highly aware of the center and the connection between it and the eyes. 'When seeing from the center', the aikido student is far more successful in dealing with attacks, especially multiple attacks, than when seeing with the eyes alone. To see from the center, breathe from the center and move from the center leads us to a sense that the locus of our being is centered in the hara. And this sense, this feeling, this practice can change our lives."

    This leads to an interesting parallel to riding. I often tell my students to "think with their pelvis", which is really the same thing as "seeing from the hara", which Leonard mentions. The rider's center determines the rhythm, tempo, and stride length of the horse's gait, engagement and collection, as well as the bend and the direction in which he is going. In other words, the rider controls the horse with his center. Everything has to start there. That's why all rider's aids have to be initiated from the center and flow outward from there to the periphery, i.e. legs and hands. I have often observed that when the rider has a strong center, with good muscle tone in the abdominal and back muscles, his periphery (hands and legs) can be very relaxed and light. On the other hand, a top heavy rider with a weak center and an insufficient muscle tone in the waist will always have to grip with his hands and legs.

    George Leonard sheds an interesting light on this aspect as well. On pp. 38f. he says:

    "When asked 'What area of the body do you associate with physical strength?' many people, especially men, would say, 'The upper chest, shoulders and arms.' Movies and television dramas often show just that part of the body, with muscles tensed, to signify male strength. ...

    "This answer, however, is totally off the mark. The long muscles - thigh, buttocks, abdomen, back - that attach to the pelvic girdle are far stronger than the macho muscles of upper chest, shoulders, and arms. Even such actions as striking and throwing derive most of their power from muscles below the waist. Physically, as well as symbolically, the hara can be treated as the center of power."

    This applies as much to riding as to aikido. Over the years, the flexibility of the rider's hip joints and the controlled, differentiated strength of the waist have become a main focus in my teaching (as a result of my own discoveries in the saddle). This is where the quest for moving in harmony with our horse must start. It is the hallmark of a good rider. You can recognize the truly centered rider instantly by his centaur-like appearance. You can find it in seasoned working cowboys and in classical dressage riders alike. Centering is what enables the rider to communicate with his horse through invisible aids. Unfortunately, centering physically and mentally generally does not play as big a role in riding lessons as it does in martial arts lessons. By changing this and giving it the attention it deserves, we as teachers can speed up and facilitate the students' progress.

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