On page 25 of her book Centered Riding Sally Swift says,
It is important to realize from the beginning that imagery can influence muscles. Muscles can be brought into action or released by images without discernible motion. In this way the quality of control of the arm, leg, or whatever, can be improved and eventually, through practice, become automatic
The Unbendable Arm exercise Sally Swift discusses in her book Centered Riding 2 Further Exploration is not about the arm not bending, but about the quality of energy in the arm. Here are some of the things Sally Swift says about the Unbendable Arm:
- “The Unbendable Arm exercise will help you understand the availability of the kind of strength and energy that comes through clear intent.”
- “It can be used in countless ways, on or with a horse.”
- “Horses clearly understand this effortless language and instinctively, even profoundly respect it.”
The Unbendable Arm Exercise
To experience the feel of the unbendable arm energy, you need to compare two different ways of resisting the efforts of someone trying to bend your arm.
- First, make a fist, hold your breath, and resist the effort to bend your arm with all your strength.
- Next, relax your hand. Use your soft eyes and deep breathing. Stack up your building blocks. Center yourself. Draw energy up from the earth and stream it out your arm with the clear intent of not letting your arm bend.
The Four Basics
If you are unfamiliar with the terms: soft eyes, deep breathing, building blocks, and centering, these are the four basics Sally Swift discusses in chapter 3 of her book Centered Riding.
- Soft eyes are where you focus on an object, but also open up your peripheral vision so you see the sky above you, the ground below you, and everything on both sides of you.
- Deep breathing is where you breath with your diaphragm, drawing your breath down into your center, and filling your body. You can imagine having one of those chemistry flasks inside you with the long neck and big bulb on the bottom. Breath all the way down the neck of that flask and fill the bulb on the bottom.
- Building blocks is a balanced stance, where your bones are stacked up so they can support you while your muscles remain relaxed.
- Centering is just drawing your attention to your center—the area in the bowl of your pelvis.
Doing the unbendable arm exercise allows you to feel the distinct difference in the quality of the energy in your arm, and the amount of effort you expend between using your strength, and using the unbendable arm energy.
Once you have felt the quality of energy with the unbendable arm exercise, you can use that quality of energy when you ride.
Think of taking energy up from the ground, through your center and streaming it out your arms in the direction you want to go with the quality of the unbendable arm. You can think of the streams of energy as railroad tracks, and you are riding your horse along those tracks. When you want to make a gradual turn, bend those railroad tracks in the direction of the turn.
Driving and Drawing
When you want to make tighter turns, you can use the unbendable arm energy differently in each arm. Think in terms of streaming energy out the outside arm, and drawing energy in the inside arm. Outside and inside refer to the bend in the horse. If you are turning to the right, you stream the energy out the left arm and draw it in with the right arm. If you are turning to the left, you steam the energy out the right arm and draw it in the left arm.
Real World Example
I recently shared this concept with a very new rider. Although she had very little riding experience, her horse was very experienced, and responded to images of energy very well. In the time frame of one riding lesson, this student had the driving and drawing working so well, she was riding circles and serpentines without taking the slack totally out of her reins.