It's still way too cold to ride or do any other work with the horses, so I've been thinking about things . . . I've been thinking about using my eyes, and other forms of "seeing", and what role those means of perception play in my work with horses.
I've found that how I use my eyes has a big impact on the horse - who would think that such a small thing would have such a big effect? But that just indicates how sensitive the horse is. I use my eyes in a number of ways. I use them for focus - to direct where we are going next. If I focus my eyes and can be in the moment enough with my intention, often the horse will just go where I look without any other cue on my part. Using my eyes to give us direction also has the beneficial effect of improving my overall posture and balance - I try to remember to look ahead and not down at my horse's head (this tends to drive energy downwards and block smooth forward motion), to bring my chin in and lift my head and neck up, stretching my spine and lightly engaging my core. This results in riding in balance, not leaning forwards or back and with my legs draped softly underneath my body - where if the horse were to vanish from underneath me, I would be securely standing on the ground in a relaxed, balanced position. (I believe it's riding in a relaxed, balanced position that allowed me to stay with Pie when he did his big spin a few days ago.)
And using the eyes, and focus, are also about energy. At one of the week-long Mark Rashid clinics in Colorado that I had the good fortune to attend, Maisie and I were working on our canter departures, and on my reducing my cues to almost nothing. I discovered that all it took for her to step into the canter on the correct lead was a slight shift in my eyes up and to the inside. It was almost as if my eyes were lifting her up into the canter - it was very magical.
I also use my eyes in my day-to-day interaction with my horses - to observe them and get to know their personal behaviors and mannerisms, as well as the details of their bodies. Having people caring for horses who know the horses well and can detect the slight changes in behavior and appearance that may mean injury or illness is very helpful in keeping horses healthy and happy. I think using the eyes to observe - to truly see - the horse does take practice and intention. But this is probably true of any seeing that we do.
But I think for many people - certainly me - the effects of visual perception often overwhelm all other forms of sensing. I find some of the other senses very helpful when assessing how a horse "is" - I often put my hands on the horse and find I can sense the horse's mood and feelings that way, as well as check for lumps, bumps, soreness and anything out of the ordinary. I also find smell to be important - horses that are unwell will often have urine and manure that smells odd.
When riding, I think being able to activate the other senses, especially feeling - awareness of posture and balance, the movement of the horse, your own movement - leads directly to a better connection with the horse and therefore better communication and mutual understanding. To do this effectively, I find, requires that I not be carrying any braces in my body and that I breathe consistently and deeply. If I'm just "with" the horse, feeling the horse's body move, I'm often much more able to influence the horse's movement without doing much at all.
And in fact, I often ride for moments at a time with my eyes closed (obviously to be done with care in the right circumstances). I find taking the visual component out of the equation often allows the other senses to come to the foreground - I can more easily feel the swing of the horse's barrel and the movement of each leg and footfall. It's possible at moments to be part of the horse, and to communicate more effectively with thought, intention and energy.
Just some thoughts for a cold winter day - looking forward to much more riding in the spring!