Rigid with tension, the bay Quarter Horse mare refused to bend her neck. She leaned against the draw reins, her mouth held firmly shut by the figure eight noseband. Sweat darkened her coat, turning it black. Her breath came in short gasps as she propelled herself around a twenty-meter circle at an ever-quickening speed. Lynne Fitzwater, attempting to do as the instructor said, was test-riding Persie, an 8-year-old supposedly training-level event horse. Totally in love, the then 45-year-old Fitzwater, for better or worse, bought her first horse.
"There was something about her eyes that made me feel good to be around her," explained Fitzwater. Frustrated with her dressage lessons, Fitzwater knew there had to be a better way to ride this horse and so began her journey of learning.
The search for a way to change Persie took years of trial and error, and then it seemed like nothing worked. Then, slowly, triggered by her discovery of Centered Riding and TTEAM methods, bits and pieces came together. It was a step-by-step process, which, once started, built momentum and gathered layers like a snowball rolling down a hill. Each piece of information on care and training created a new layer of awareness and understanding of her horse and herself. Fitzwater learned how every aspect of Persie's training and care affected her ridability and in turn how Fitzwater's own health - physical and emotional - affected Persie.
Before buying Persie, Fitzwater always wanted a horse. Fighting back the tears produced by memories of a repressed childhood, Fitzwater quotes her mother, who told her sternly, "Ladies do not ride horses." She recalls the time when she was about five years old and she saw her first horse. Her aunt and uncle took her to Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Fitzwater's eyes still sparkle when she describes a lady riding bareback wearing a gorgeous green sequined gown. That day she fell in love with horses. Fitzwater's emotional attachment to Persie formed early in their relationship. It strengthened during the years of her abusive marriage, when she went to the stable in the evenings and cried on Persie's neck. "Persie would stand there and never move away, as if she were saying, 'This is what I am supposed to do. I am here for you, Lynne,'" Fitzwater said, crying at just the memory of her horse's patience. Persie as emotional support transcended the usual horse/owner relationship. At one of the boarding stables where Fitzwater kept Persie the owner flatly states, "Persie loves Lynne." Then she goes on to comment, "Everybody should have that once-in-a-lifetime horse and Persie is that for Lynne. Persie will do things for Lynne that I don't think she would do for anyone else." Thinking of Fitzwater's very controlled, businesslike persona, the stable owner said, "Persie generates Lynne's softer side. Lynne doesn't have children and it's like Persie is her child."
For five years, Fitzwater went from riding instructor to riding instructor. Many advised her to sell Persie because of how difficult she was to ride. Persie was always tense, quick and hard to control. She would fly over ground poles at high speed, scattering them and scaring herself. She went so fast she leaned around the turns, motorcycle fashion. The first clue to Fitzwater's understanding of how to change Persie appeared when riding instructor Hoppy Sterns observed Persie's rapid, short-strided, almost shuffling gait. To look down on Persie's back, Sterns climbed a stall gate. Then she persuaded Fitzwater to do the same. Sterns pointed out that Persie had a definite curve to her spine. Fitzwater had owned Persie for almost five years and this was the first time anyone had noticed or mentioned crookedness. Sterns recommended that Fitzwater seek out the services of Dr. Judith Shoemaker, holistic veterinarian. While adjusting Persie, Dr. Shoemaker noticed that Fitzwater's back was also crooked. She explained to Fitzwater that this, in turn, affected the horse's balance and straightness. Balance and straightness of both the horse and rider affect control of the horse.
Through an article in Equus magazine, Fitzwater became interested in Centered Riding. Its techniques, pioneered by founder Sally Swift, emphasized breathing and balance to allow the rider to feel the horse. A Centered Riding premise is: If there is fear in the rider, no learning can take place. If there is any tension in the rider, he or she cannot feel the horse. Tension is created by fear, imbalance or pain and it shuts down nerve messages to the brain. Centered Riding techniques involve very slow steps that allow the rider to go within the body mentally to find balance and become aware of feel. The awareness connects the mind to the body. Add to this awareness the theory of corresponding parts: Any tension in the rider's body will show as tension in a corresponding part of the horse's body.
Fitzwater's crooked body on Persie's crooked body created a horse without any control. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Did Persie make Fitzwater crooked or did Fitzwater make Persie crooked, or were both crooked to start with? It hardly matters because they affected each other like three-dimensional mirrors. The first step to fixing a problem is learning what the problem is.
Dr. Shoemaker put Fitzwater in touch with Peggy Cummings, a TTEAM practitioner with a strong background in Centered Riding, now teaching her combination of the two under the name Connected Riding. Cummings remembers Fitzwater and the mare as "a real mess; both Fitzwater and Persie were so crooked." Fitzwater sat stiffly erect on Persie; her arms and legs looked like sticks with angles. One of her legs hung down longer than the other and she leaned to one side a little.
Cummings pointed out to Fitzwater that Persie's rump was higher than her withers and her neck came out of her chest almost too low. Persie was built down hill. Conformation-wise, Persie was born out of balance. She had every right to be hard to ride. Cummings explained Persie's conformation limitations to Fitzwater saying, "She is not a Grand Prix Dressage prospect."
Fitzwater replied, "But I think she can do better with what she has." With that positive attitude Fitzwater began the slow challenge of changing herself and Persie with Centered Riding and TTEAM.
In her first lesson with Cummings, Fitzwater sat on her motionless horse while Cummings adjusted Fitzwater's pelvis angle in the saddle. "Find the deepest place in the saddle. That is where your seat bones go," directed Cummings. Fitzwater complained of pain caused by the saddle when she sat that way. Cummings replied that her saddle did not fit. "But it's a custom saddle!" the shocked Fitzwater exclaimed. Next Cummings guided Fitzwater's back until it was straight both from the side view and the back. Habitually Fitzwater leaned to one side with one leg hanging lower than the other. The correct position felt totally wrong to Fitzwater as she sat still on her horse. Cummings allowed Fitzwater's mind time to feel her new position and discover how straight her body was. Cummings verbally mentioned or touched each part of Fitzwater's body to aid her mind's awareness. Once Fitzwater's mind had a chance to experience the new feeling standing still, it was time to move. To allow Fitzwater to concentrate on her body and not have to deal with controlling the horse, another person led her.
Fitzwater remembers her first lesson with Cummings. "It was a shock because I thought I knew how to ride and there I was starting out at the beginning, walking around being led with my eyes shut. I didn't know I was off balance. I felt like I was tipping over. When I sat in a balanced spot, I felt like I was falling off to the right of the saddle. It turned out that I was crooked and Persie was crooked. I learned a lot about my lack of balance and my lack of straightness.
"I felt disbelief that my custom saddle didn't fit me! When she tried to get me to sit balanced, the saddle was painful. I realized I was behind the motion and that the floating forward that she wanted me to do was very hard for me because of my basic life-long posture habits."
The idea of "floating your upper body forward" is the description of the feel a rider gets when they learn to let go of the muscles that they thought held them in an upright position and just engage the involuntary muscles to do the work. ("Less is more" in Centered Riding theory.) Sally Swift says, "Learn to ride on your bones!" Some people learn to ride without tension but most people develop misconceptions about where their body is in space through a lifetime of poor posture habits.
Cummings helped Fitzwater rebalance her body, making incremental, non-threatening suggestions so that Fitzwater could feel her body in a new way. Instead of gripping, she learned to balance and feel. Instead of making the horse do something, Fitzwater began to allow the horse to do what she desired. Fitzwater rode another horse in a lesson with Cummings to try a different saddle. What a surprise Fitzwater felt! The ability to sit down on her seat bones came easily. The fact that she experienced pain when she tried to sit on her seat bones in her own saddle meant that in order to avoid the pain, she subconsciously held involuntary muscles in tension. Tension meant she could not balance and feel the horse.
Like many people, Fitzwater was not aware that her saddle did not fit her. This problem is all too common because the saddle fits a very private part of the rider and someone just looking at how a rider sits in the saddle cannot tell this. It takes someone educated in this perception to look for the symptoms of tight hip joints or lower back. Most instructors will tell riders to work harder at learning to sit and they must be more muscularly fit or supple. The old common cure for this was the longeing method Fitzwater went through. This made her better at protecting a sore area. It did not cure the problem.
Now that Fitzwater knew what shape the top of a saddle had to be to fit her she set about, with the help of Peggy Cummings, to find a saddle that would also fit Persie. Cummings explained that because of Persie's downhill build, saddles would slide forward onto her shoulders and cause her pain. It was very important for the saddle to fit Persie's broad, low-withered back. Her shoulders are wide, like those of many Quarter Horses. She also had a very wide spine. She needed a saddle that was wide enough for her shoulders and left room enough in the gullet for her spine. To follow through on what she was learning from Peggy Cummings, Fitzwater took Persie to a two-day TTEAM clinic taught by Wendy Murdoch. The Persie Murdoch met that day looked thin and scrawny, like a racehorse off a cheap track. The most developed muscle on her body was her lower neck muscle. Murdoch also saw that Persie was built downhill and asked, "Have you thought of getting another horse?" Fitzwater asked herself that a lot but through positive thinking opted to persist in retraining Persie.
At the clinic with Murdoch, Persie and Fitzwater each experienced a revelation. Persie panicked during the simple exercise of being led through a labyrinth of poles laid out on the ground. Asked to proceed one step at a time, she could not do it. When her feet hit a pole she went "ballistic", as Fitzwater put it. Murdoch explained that Persie did not know where her feet were in relation to her head. Persie's proprioceptors were off line. This explained to Fitzwater why
Persie jumped a ground pole as if it were a three-foot fence.
Fitzwater's revelation came when she rode Persie with a neck ring instead of a bit and bridle. A neck ring is a stiff rope that circles the horse's neck. Fitzwater discovered that she had been erroneously trying to control Persie's face to control her body. What Fitzwater had to do was to find a way to control Persie's body with her own.
Slowly Fitzwater and Persie started to build a new foundation of balance and trust. By going back to the beginning they were achieving a little moment of success each day. Step by step, they improved. The riding lessons from Cummings aided Fitzwater in discovering new ways to release muscles she did not know she held in tension. She followed through with chiropractic help for herself. TTEAM helped Persie to stop and think about where her body was.
A typical ride after a day at work did not involve rigid plans. Rather, Fitzwater would intuitively sense how Persie felt that day and do just enough to have achieved a feel like one they had experienced in a lesson. Along with sensing Persie's mood Fitzwater discovered that Persie sensed hers. Any thoughts about the office or tensions from problems at work needed to be put aside before dealing with Persie. Persie took on Fitzwater's tension and would not behave as well. In this way Persie became a reminder for Fitzwater to let go of stress.
Three years of riding with new awareness and correct balance changed Fitzwater and Persie remarkably. At a Centered Riding lesson with the author, Fitzwater felt ready to begin work on cantering. Hadden first went over the horse's leg sequence and then explained how the rider's body moves, particularly the hips. In order for Fitzwater to feel her hips at the canter, Hadden had her dismount and canter on foot. Human hips, cantering on foot, move the same way the horse moves them when the rider is mounted. It sounded goofy to Fitzwater but by then she had learned so many new concepts that worked that she tried it. When she cantered with Persie, it was perfect. For the first time in all their years of struggle together, Fitzwater felt Persie's canter. It was slow and cadenced, and Fitzwater felt she could steer around the corners without quickening the pace.
Now Fitzwater has owned Persie for ten years. For the past five years, Fitzwater worked Persie slowly through all their problems. Persie, at nineteen, looks like a much younger horse and Fitzwater has the softer look of a much younger woman. Persie has a topline to rival any top Grand Prix dressage horse and Fitzwater is schooling her at first level. She and Persie can execute a turn on the forehand to canter transition calmly and flawlessly. They go together as one creature. "Do you know what they say the aura looks like when you ride like this?" asks the smiling Fitzwater. "It is one creature." And then, looking adoringly at Persie, Fitzwater says, "lsn't she just the cutest? Do you know that Persie's registered name is Personal Gain?"