Peggy Brown explains how Centered Driving techniques apply to all types of driving including pleasure, draft and combined driving. Learn how to achieve independent seat and hands, clear intent, and exercises to improve balance and movement in the driving horse. This lecture will appeal to both beginner and experienced drivers. 

Peggy Brown

altPeggy Brown is a Centered Riding and Driving instructor and the co-author and producer of the best selling videos Anatomy In Motion - The Visible Horse and Anatomy In Motion - The Visible Rider. Peggy and her Haflinger mare Ulie were long listed for several years with the US Equestrian Team in combined driving. In 2005, Peggy was awarded the Instructor of the Year Award by the American Riding Instructor Association.

Copyright 2010 all rights reserved.

Centered Driving is an adaptation of the principles and techniques devised by Sally Swift in her popular book Centered Riding published in 1985.   Centered Riding is not a new type of riding but rather a new way of utilizing and expressing classical principles of riding and working with horses.   Centered Riding and Centered Driving not only address the hows of horsemanship but also the whats and whys of effective communication with the horse.

Centered Riding is founded on four components that Ms. Swift refers to as "the four basics".   These four basics are : Soft Eyes, Breathing, Centering, and Building Blocks.   Awareness of  these four basics will have a profound effect on the ability of an individual to communicate clearly and effectively with the horse whether riding, driving or work in hand.   When the driver becomes aware of his own body, inner balance, and clear control, the horse will respond with increased freedom, forward motion and suppleness.   A horse who is balanced and in clear communication with his handler moves with a unique freedom and joy that cannot be duplicated artificially.

 

Soft Eyes are an awareness of what we are doing with our eyes.   How many times have you caught yourself staring at your horses neck or ears as you drive, waiting for a shift in attitude?   Worse yet is the driver that leans sideways to keep an eye on his horse's leg action.    Staring or "hard eyes" unconsciously creates tension and block feeling on the part of the driver.   Soft eyes allow us to take in a much greater field of vision when we drive.   This open vision not only allows us to be more clearly aware of our surroundings  but also of other drivers in the ring,  perhaps our anticipated route in a dressage test or  an obstacle class.    Even more significant  is the increased sensitivity and awareness the driver will experience in his own body as the eyes cease to be locked and become soft and opened.

Breathing plays a very significant role in equine communication and behavior.   In a wild state horses communicate frequently through their breathing and breathing patterns.   Aside from the obvious snorting and blowing, a horse that stops breathing and holds its breath while looking for danger gives other herd members the obvious instant message that something is wrong,, get ready to run!   How often when you work with horses do you unconsciously hold your breath?   Watch yourself the next few days and you may find that you unconsciously hold your breath while doing many simple things.   Perhaps bending down to pick up a foot, leading a horse through a door, switching on a light, trying to stop a spooky colt in the round pen.   All day long you'll undoubtedly find many examples both in the barn and in everyday life.   What message do you suppose you send your horse when his handler, his pseudo herdmate, is holding his breath?   Proper breathing reduces tension in both the horse and handler, when tension is reduced the communication between horse and human becomes open and clear.

 As humans we need to also consider how we breath.   As we age we tend to take shallower breaths from high in our chests, this raises our center of gravity affecting our balance.   We need to consciously make an effort to breath from our diaphragm, that great muscle that acts as a bellows at the bottom of the rib cage.   Remember your fourth grade music teacher imploring you to sing and project your voice with your diaphragm?   Consider this as you breath.   Deep breaths that come from your belly and your whole body will lower your center of gravity, improving your balance and stability again reducing tension and allowing clear communication with your horse.

Building Blocks is a term coined by Sally Swift to help us consider our balance and skeletal alignment.   When we sit, stand, and move we often do not consider how we are using our bodies, we just do it.   Unfortunately over years we develop certain patterns or habits of movement that, while they may not be good for our bodies, or in balance, feel right to use because we've done it that way for so long.   Building blocks is the concept of taking the human body and dividing it into blocks, similar to a set of childs' building blocks.   The head, the shoulders, the trunk, the hips, the legs, and  the feet could all become blocks.   When the blocks are set in a stack what happens if one or more of the blocks is not stacked in alignment?   They fall down of course or are in precarious balance.   Unfortunately we humans do the same thing with our bodies.   As we age we often develop stooped shoulders, back pain, we carry our heads out of alignment with our body, or perhaps we carry one shoulder or hip higher than the other.    Take time to watch people both old and young and notice the posture patterns they fall into.   Poor body alignment  is not usually the result of  weakness but rather a habit we have fallen into over the years that feels normal to us.   When we ride this lack of equal balance is very difficult for the horse to carry.   Just the human head (which weighs around 12 pounds) when held  too far forward, back, or to the side, is making that horse carry additional weight not balanced on his back.   When a horse must carry an unbalanced load his own balance is compromised; as a result freedom and movement, the ultimate brilliance of that horse's performance, is reduced.   When we drive often our stability in the vehicle, not to mention our appearance, is affected by the alignment and use of our body.

Centering refers to an awareness of the point of the body, the center, which lies in the lower abdomen below and behind the navel.   You can locate your center by placing one hand on your lower abdomen with your thumb on your navel and the other hand directly behind on your lower back.   With your hands in place consider a point halfway between your hands.   Breath, breath deeply all the way down into this center of your body.   In finding the center you have located your center of gravity as well as an area that will allow optimum balance, body awareness, and quiet concentration.   You will find that often outside forces like a pulling horse, or daily tension, will raise your center often up into your chest or shoulders.   At times like these you need to be able to consciously bring your center back down into the abdomen and allow it to float peacefully there.   The awareness of and the ability to find the center can often times be one of the most difficult "basics" to comprehend and master but in the end will allow you the balance and quiet concentration that is paramount to your work and communication with horses.

Centered Driving, as opposed to riding,  presents some interesting applications to the four 'basics" as our weight is not on or affecting the balance and direction of our horse.   We drivers must communicate with our horses from a distance using  the traditional aids of hands, voice, and whip.   Centered Driving uses the traditional aids while incorporating the use of breathing, soft eyes, balance, centering as well as the clear use of the mind while working with the horse.

For myself as a whip the use of breathing has had fascinating implications in my horses.   As we have learned, our breathing can reduce tension in our equine partners.   Keep in mind that in the event of  a nervous horse or a horse that shies, one of the simplest responses you can give as a driver is to breathe.   A deep breath with a long deep exhale will work wonders in calming a frightened horse.   Try it, keep in mind after that long exhale to keep on breathing, you'll find it's simple and works wonders.    If you anticipate a problem, say on the road as a car approaches, begin your deep calming breathing and you'll find that  an anticipated spook  will be reduced or won't happen.   It works !

I have further implemented my breathing to communicate with my horse.   One of the first skills I teach a young horse is to stop when I breathe and then exhale.   I don't throw away the use of the word whoa. If you think about it "whoa" can be an exhale sound,  I still use it on occasion.   I will still use my reins or lead shank to limit further forward motion if I need to.    But I have refined my communication with my animal by helping him anticipate that I will be asking him to stop when he hears me inhale and allows him to stop quietly in balance as I exhale.   It's a simple trick and probably one of the most valuable ones I use in training my horses.  

Breathing patterns can be used to help the horse find and maintain rhythm and tempo.   Different breathing patterns will work for different drivers and different horses.   There is no right or wrong pattern, it is individual.   When you drive be aware of your breathing.   Try this at a trot as the one two one two timing is easy to work with.   Do you have a particular breathing pattern that follows with this horse's trot?   Perhaps you inhale three strides and exhale four, or inhale two exhale three.   There is no right or wrong answer.   What is significant is that your breathing develops into a consistent pattern that says to the horse this is the timing, the tempo I want to trot at and the tempo I want to keep.   If your breathing becomes slower or faster does your horse follow?   Try it and see.

I've trained my horse to stop using my breathing.   I can incorporate this response further into asking for downward and also upward transitions through the use of my breathing.   My signal to the horse is the same for both up and down transitions.   I inhale deeply, exhale and allow the transition.   Interestingly enough even though I am using the same breathing pattern for both, there is no confusion on the part of the horse as to what my intentions are.    At times I still use my voice aides, naturally more in driving than in riding, I also still use my whip.   Breathing does not take the place of these traditional aids it merely helps to clarify quietly to the animal what I want to do.   When I inhale the horse is aware that a transition is coming and my long deep exhale allows him to balance and smoothly negotiate that transition.

When I drive a dressage test I establish my rhythm,  tempo, and impulsion through my breathing patterns. Down the center line breath in, exhale and balanced stop at X.   Breath, exhale proceed at a trot.   Keep my breathing consistent through the trot phase, breath down to a working walk and so forth throughout the test.   But let's explore further to see how breathing relates to and works with the other "basics".

Soft eyes are extremely important while working with horses.   Take a minute and stare at an object or a point in the distance.   Stare at it really hard.   How do you feel when you are staring?   Do you feel tension in your face, or chest, or shoulders?   How much can you really see when you are so intently focused and staring at an object?   The horse being the incredibly sensitive creature that he is, is well aware when his handlers eyes are "hard" and staring.   The tension travels like electricity right through the reins to the bit.   Now relax, take a couple deep belly breaths and look out at that same point or object.   This time also take in everything else you can see around it.   The sky or ceiling, the ground, things on each side.   Notice that you can still look at that object but you can also see allot of other things at the same time when you cease to stare.   Do you feel any different when you look out at the world with soft eyes?   Do you think your horse will feel that difference too?

As we learned earlier soft eyes can open out field of vision in the show ring to give us much greater awareness of what is happening in the ring around us,  to relieve tension and soften our communication with our horse.   In an obstacle class staring at the cones may get you through that one set but certainly won't give you time to prepare adequately and smoothly for the next.   In cross country driving and road work I can guarantee you that if those hard eyes get the best of you and you stare at that obstacle, or that scary mailbox you are sure will spook your horse, he'll spook.    Soft eyes, open field of vision, breathe and drive quietly past the scary monster.   In driven dressage again soft, accurate communication is the key to balance and consistency.    Come down that center line staring hard at X and you'll miss it and have a crooked center line to boot.   Open soft eyes, see the judge at A, peripheral vision finds your spot between E and B, straight, balanced, smooth.   You can't force it to happen, your sensitivity and awareness are going to allow it to happen.   Try it, see how you feel, give your horse the opportunity to give you his feedback.

Our balance while driving plays a large part in clarifying our communication with our horse as well as improving our appearance in the show ring.   We know we are supposed to "sit up straight, shoulders back" when we drive.   Let's try it.   Find a chair from which your feet comfortably touch the floor as in your driving vehicle.   A hard chair may make this easier to feel if you have one close by, but anything will work.   Now sit up straight as if you are driving, arms hanging naturally from the shoulder holding the lines.   Now sit up straight, shoulders back, how do you feel?   Where is your weight?   In your feet, in your seat bones, in your chest?   Are you holding your breath?   Do you feel any tension or even pain in your back?   Do you feel as though this position would be very balanced if your horse suddenly moved forward?

Play with your balance a bit, can you put more weight into your feet or your seat bones?   Can your new deep breathing, from deep in your belly, help to lower your center of gravity?   Are you leaning right or left?   Check in with each foot  do you have the same amount of weight in each?    Check the same way with each seat bone are they both the same or is there a wee bit more in one side or the other?   If you can do this exercise with a mirror or a helper see how your shoulders look.   One is probably higher or lower than the other.   How much adjustment does it take to make them even?   Probably not a lot and undoubtedly when you do hold them evenly they'll feel funny to you.   This is merely because you have established a posture habit that you have held for so long that crooked feels right and right feels wrong.   Don't worry you are not alone, we all do it and  the good news is we can fix it.   To  begin however you need to be aware of what improvements you can make.

When driving our position in the vehicle plays a big role in the performance of the horse even though our weight is not directly on his back affecting his balance.    As whips we need to establish our own stability within the vehicle in order to improve our ability to communicate with the horse.    Watch others drive, poor posture looks bad that's obvious, but lack of posture and balance has other ramifications.   Notice the whip who uses his reins to help maintain his own position in the seat during transitions and turns.   Watch the whip who leans sideways on the turns: as if their leaning is going to get that horse and vehicle around that turn.  ( If you want a chuckle watch people drive cars, they do the same thing.)   When we use our lines even unconsciously to help with our own balance we compromise the balance of our horse.   This is particularly obvious is timed speed events.   Poor balance and poor posture take a toll on our bodies, especially our backs and we will not drive our best when we ourselves are tired or uncomfortable.

Balance and posture are a whole article in themselves but for now let's consider a few exercises that should help.   First of all good body alignment is easier if you can allow the body  to fall comfortably into place rather than trying to force it.   Back to your chair again.   Can you imagine a hook attached to the top of your skull right over and between your ears?   Now attach  a rope to that hook and allow it to hold you suspended as if you are a puppet.   Allow your body, your spine to hang naturally  from your skull.   The rope is going to pick you up from above.    When I enter the show ring I always travel with a little imaginary guy in the sky who is suspending me from that line to my skull.   Now check in again with your two seat bones.   Same amount of weight in each seat bone, shift the weight side to side, back and forth until you find the balance.   Now lift your tail bone.   Feel the weight shift to the front of the seat bones?   Feel your back hollow?   How does this make your back feel?   Now drop your tail bone down to the chair.   Feel the weight shift to the back of your seat bones.   Feel your back straighten and maybe even arch a bit back?   Can you rock your seat bones back and forth until you find a spot halfway between front and back until your weight is pressing directly down to the ground?   Does your back feel better?

Find your feet.   Feel the weight in your feet, is it the same in each foot?   Feel the floor or the ground under your  feet.   Allow your feet to sink deeply to the ground as if they were sinking into deep, warm sand at the beach.   You want to establish a sense of having your weight down into your feet.   Whips who drive with a wedge of course shift their balance forward and drop more weight into their feet because of the stability offered.   However you drive you need that stability that lowering your center of gravity provides.   Breath deeply allow your breath to come from deep within you.   See if you can breath from your hips.   See if you can breath from your legs and your feet.   Does that help you drop your weight into your seat and feet?  

Your position will change as you drive, expect it to.   With awareness however you have the power to regain your alignment and balance at will.   When you go into that show ring or dressage test take a second, check in with your position.   Let the guy with the skyhook pick you up,  drop your seat bones underneath you, let your weight drop firmly into your feet,  breath some deep breaths and proceed.

You learned early in the article how to find your center.   The spot in your lower abdomen below and behind your navel.   When your eyes are soft and you are using your diaphragm to breathe you will be able to find and work with your center.   When I drive from my center I find an increased awareness of myself, my balance , and my ability to communicate sensitively with my horse.   My concentration  is much more acute and refined.

One very powerful application of the use of the center is in turning.   When negotiating a  turn I use my center as well as my reins and whip if necessary.    When I want to go forward my center is directed forward when I want to turn left my center turns left.   To learn to do this first locate your center now imagine a beam of light, perhaps like a flashlight beam.   This beam of light comes right from your center and shines far out across the ring.    Shine your light beam straight forward, now allow your beam to turn left.   Remember that beam shines far you probably won't need  to move your body much to shine it left or light.   Be careful that you don't turn your center or your light beam and then lock it there!   You'll end up overshooting your turn!   Merely turn your center, release, turn your center, release until you take yourself and your horse exactly where you want to go.   Notice the subtle turning of your body when you use your center to turn.   Your body turns from the hips with your trunk, your shoulders, and your head all working together to negotiate the turn.   How many drivers do you see turn their heads, pull, and turn?   How many times do these horses drop an inside shoulder, stumble, or over shoot the turn and then have to be pulled back on track?   You get the picture.   Using the center to help implement the turn allows our aids to be clear to our horse.   The turning of the entire trunk which is a natural result of using the center to turn naturally positions our shoulders and arms to softly follow the arch of the horse's bend around the turn.   The use of the center to turn also allows the whip to be much more subtle and accurate in communicating to the horse his intent.

Intent is the crystal clear ability of the whip to determine how and where he wishes the horse to go.   Intent is clarity of thought on the part of the whip.   So often when we work with horses our intent is not clear to the animal.   We'll tool along and then decide stop or turn and the poor animal is hauled along with us out of balance and out of communication.    Sometimes we let the horse make the decisions for us, there's a fence I guess I'll turn, I'll just follow this other horse or I like to trot a little fast on this slope so I will.   It's easy to let the horse make the decisions until the time comes when we decide we want to do something else and our horse resists loosing his control.   The accomplished whip works hard mentally during a drive if he wants to establish a smooth balanced performance.   The whip decides exactly where and how to go and then takes the horse with him in balance and harmony.   Use of the center helps to keep this necessary mental focus that allows us refined communication with our horse.   When I use actually use my own center to turn I consciously make a decision where I'll implement that turn and the horse will go with me.

Perfection in a dressage test is the result of clear intent on the part of the whip.   I must know exactly where I wish to go and communicate this precisely to my horse.   Clear intent is the secret behind success in cones and obstacle events.   I need to know exactly where I intend to go so that my partner, my horse is clear as to my intent.    Probably one of the biggest faults we humans have in working with horses is that we are not clear in our own minds as to what we want to and then send our horses weak, mixed signals.   The horse becomes confused, unbalanced, and resistant to working with us.

Clear use of our own center clarifies our message to the horse.   Soft eyes, breathing and balance help us find and use our center.    Our center in turn helps us find and maintain our soft eyes, our balance and clarifies our intent.   Each element works with the others to help us achieve quiet harmony and communication, not only in our driving but also in our everyday life.   No one element or "basic" is any more or less important than the other.   Certain ones will work for different people.   You may find that centering works great for you but soft eyes don't seem to have much effect.    You may find one horse that really responds well to breathing and another that could care less.     That's okay there is no right or wrong formula for Centered Driving or Centered Riding.   You merely keep and use these components I've shared with you as tools.   You can pull them out and use them in whatever degree they work for you whenever you want to use them.   Do give them a try however and see what your horse has to say, horses generally tell the true story given the opportunity.   These changes may not happen overnight, although some effects of Centered Driving may astonish you!

 Working with a qualified Centered Riding and Centered Driving instructor will help you establish the "basics" within yourself and your driving . For a list of Centered Riding Instructors and Clinics near you contact centeredriding.org  or Peggy Brown,  Walnut Hill Farm, 2365 Perrysburg Holland Road, Maumee, Ohio 43537 419-865-8308.