I'm really enjoying this conversation -- making me think lots! Way cool!
And I am absolutely fascinated by it.
Who, I wonder, suggested an always down heel and 'tension.'
And if they did, how much tension were they talking about?
Possibly the same amount it takes to hold our bodies upright and from flopping completely over like a cooked noodle?
The exercises one does to learn to flex the ankle produce tension while the hamstring, calf, and ankle accommodate by stretching. Once stretched, all becomes in fact a relaxed state.
Ms Swift, in her first book, describes this very much as I do in her chapter on jumping. pp164, where one sees a model, on horseback, described by Ms Swift as an example of the "jumping seat."
And across the way, pp 165, figure 135, we see what appears to be the same horse and rider, with the rider sitting, heel still down.
Having spent a great many hours in this position, much of it while training hunters and jumpers, and also hacking with my students over trails, and also galloping over cross country courses, I can confidentially say that if the hamstring, heel, ankle, or any part of the body is unduly tenses, either it's not being done correctly, or the stretching exercises were not done sufficiently.
My calf is always relaxed in this position, except when I'm out of shape. A few minutes then, (a bit more now with age), and my tendon is stretched again, and I'm quite comfortable and can ride for hours without discomfort. Not as much as when I was 30, but enough.
I suspect if I got back into a schedule say about half what I used to, say 3 hours a day instead of the six and 8 that was more common for me back then, I would, now, be in good condition and relaxed.
Let me know what you think of the chapter on Jumping. The concepts Ms Swift discusses are nearly exactly what I was doing and teaching in the 60's. She does have a wonderful way with metaphor to get you to see the picture. I had to cultivate that skill as I learned to be a better teacher.
I hope no one thought I was, as I was accused of in another web forum, advocating a braced tense position in any part, or the whole of the body, when I discussed how to deal with tired strained legs, by stretching down and moving to the median with the ankle.
Summing up, I don't advocate tension any more than is needed to relax into the heel and ankle, except for those moments of high force stress, or while exercising to practice.
Actually riding? Nope. And with proper instruction one won't become tired, sore, and tense. Leigh, your description of the stretching down is right on target.
In fact, some other analogies you use are perfect. There is something about doing these exercises to the point you do lower your body down your legs that also moves you more into the horse, as though you are beginning to share our center of gravity with him.
It's quite a lovely feeling. The Centaur feeling I always described it to my students as.
Your body moves and flexes with the horse, in all directions. Hips loose and rolling with his, compressing the body, as Ms Swift describes by her opening and closing the angles of hip, knee, and ankle to absorb but still follow the horse, and then extending the body as the force of the shocks subside through ankle, knee, and hip joints and their tendons and ligaments.
She calls them shock absorbers, and right she is.
It's exactly how the spring and levers work in an automobile.
Here's a quote from pp 165 where she is discussing this:
"Your lower legs, thigh, and body create the shock absorbers mentioned earlier. You ankles, knees, and hips are hinges --- the hips the most active hinges, and the knees second. That doesn't mean the ankles are rigid, just that they have less room for motion, since the heels remain constantly down but with a springy feel to them."
I daresay that her students did exercises to stretch the hamstring and flex that ankle downward.
As for the rolling of the ankle? She cites, later in this chapter an Olympic level (he took Gold) competitor, Bill Steinkraus, whose career I was following closely in the 60's before I left the horseworld.
I used to point to photos of his showing a fault he and many other jumper riders had, that they did not maintain good straightness with their horses approaching and over the jump. And not only could one see this in their body and head position, but their bend would lift one heel. You can see it in the picture in Ms Swifts book.
However, while he still had the misalignment of body, his OTHER heel and ankle maintained the correct position. I speculated to my students that he rode out his jumps despite his fault in alignment for two reasons: one, that he was a superbly trained athlete riding a superbly conditioned and trained athlete, and he kept THAT OTHER HEEL DOWN AND COCKED.
And here he is on a Gold Medal round in the Mexico City Olympics.
An example of Centered Riding even before there was Centered Riding as Ms Swift introduced it.
still with that silly fault he and Pessoa, another jumping champion, shared. Slightly off center, but still with at least one foot, ankle, and lower leg in that position.
I don't think it should be practiced to exclude practice of other placement attitude on the horse. Not every jumps all the time, and for that matter, not everyone jumps. But should a horse bolt and gallop cross country with one, I'd hope they solidified their seat more securely with their heel down, deeply.
Though I admire her chapter on jumping, still she does mention one thing that for some reason has become common, and I faulted my students for, while she is teaching it.
The "releasing the crest." This is bridging the horses neck with your hands on his crest and moving them forward over the jump to follow the horse.
Now this seems logical. But it has a serious fault.
If one relies on this brace to maintain one's position one gives up practicing balance, true balance. Learning to allow the hinges to open and close, as shock absorbers, so that the body parts maintain their relative positions around the center of gravity.
If you brace your hands on the horse, this is gone. And one can get sloppy with the body parts.
I only allowed my students to use this while learning, and not much at that. They would take their hands off more and more frequently for longer and longer periods of time as the searched for, then found their balance, occasionally losing it, then finding it again.
Until, of course, they had it with them all the time and did not need to brace on their hands at all.
Though I considered Jane Essling, my student I show going over a jump in my photo album, a very talented jumper, that particular day at that particular jump she bridged. She was most apologetic after her round. And she knew that it slightly unsettled her position with telltale even if tiny mis-alignments, as well as degradation of the shock absorber effect.
Fortunately the horse was well trained and very well conditioned. I think this highest jump she'd attempted to date intimidated her just a bit. But nothing did after that. Not on that horse. He demonstrated to her his real ability.
Well, I've gone on and on again.
I do encourage folks to read Sally Swift whenever they have questions about Centered Riding. And especially when they have read or heard someone who claims to teach it.
It may be that some interpretations are taking place that aren't really in Centered Riding repertoire. As introductions to Centered Rider so often state, this method is used in many styles of riding. Jumping and galloping as well dressage and other flatwork. And whatever the style demands is augmented by Centered Riding, I think, rather than fundamentally changed.
This is why the Jumping chapter in her book so delights me.
She could have written one on racing, and it would be the same thing, only more flex of the levers around their joints, and more following with the hands, etc.
Still the principles of aligning the body parts to do those two important things, absorb shock, and remain fluidly in balance with the horse would and do apply.
These thoughts remind me that the 'seat' isn't static, and that it changes as needed, and that there is a continuum, from the most closed of "levers," as in racing, to the most open, as in dressage, and that all between those two, are still available to be enhanced by the principles of Centered Riding.
I wonder if Ms Swift would disagree with me?