Sunday, January 2, 2011

Eyes Wide Open, Eyes Wide Shut

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!


  1. Great post and I agree with everything you say. Thanks for sharing.


  2. Interesting thoughts. I'm always being told by instructors to look ahead because my body will follow my eyes and put pressure on my horse. It's a hard habit to break though because for some reason--especially during a class--I want to look down.

  3. You are such a thinker. Great post.
    The cold hit us today. In the teens with the windchill...some snow.

  4. Sublime. I think this post is one to be added to instructor's manuals and posted beside barn whiteboards. If I could absorb and gently hold all of these perceptions simultaneously, instead of scrambling to pick between them, I would be a better rider. Thank you for this post.

  5. I was taught early on not to look directly at a horse when you approach it. They take it as a threat. Same goes for trotting them out at endurance rides. If you want good impulsion, you don't look at the horse. Same for loading into a trailer, getting youngsters into a wash stall, or walking over obstacles. Amazing how effective it is.

    It's also amazing how you can steer while riding by looking where you go. I tell my students, "Look where you want to end up. Don't look down unless you want to end up on the ground."

    Good post :)

  6. I have also had the experience that once I'm settled in on my horse, balance and posture-wise, it seems all I have to do is look where I want to go, and we go there.

    At first I thought that my aids were minimal, but I wonder if it may be even more that they are very very focused... and intuitive. Bypassing the thought process. Hope that makes sense. It is a lovely thing when it happens. :)

  7. I was thinking as I read your post, we don't realize how much pressure we put on our horses with our eyes...always intently watching. When Maddy does something really cool in her groundwork, I actually scratch her and turn my back on her to take the pressure completely away.

  8. Once again, a perceptive post.

    But the ending strikes a special chord with me. My favorite trainer, Lockie Richards, would always say, "Feel it?" His voice often rings in my memory when I ride.

  9. Sally Swift's idea of using "soft eyes" has been as important to my riding as the idea to look where you want the horse to go. Both work, but when you put them together the effect is exponential.

    I'm glad someone else closes her eyes at times when riding - for me, that almost always brings me very close to what's happening in my seat, and usually if I'm feeling out of balance, closing my eyes for a few strides gets me synced up with the horse's movement better than anything.

    Great things to think about when we're not riding as much!

  10. I used to shut my eyes while riding all the time when I was a kid. I would try to feel what the ground surface was without looking.

    I've actually been thinking about doing more riding in the dark to simulate having my eyes closed, but that will have to wait until Coriander's frogs come back.

  11. I too close my eyes when it's safe to do so. I find it helps me be softer, more aware of my actions with that of my mounts.

    When I have lessons on lunge I also close my eyes when working on balance and seat. It really makes you "hear" and "feel" everything in minute detail.

    I've been looking for good "bitting" books, one that covers everything from sizing to a bits purpose. Any suggestions or keyword to search your blog for a related post?

  12. Jeni - there's a "bits" label on the labels sidebar. Sorry not to be of much help on books - over the years I've come to use only a couple of types of bits - I used to use lots.

  13. Very well said! I need to keep the balance issue in mind tonight when I go out to the arena. In western pleasure we work on the head so much that my eyes go down and I topple forward--not a very good way to achieve collection!

    I also agree that if you really use your sense then you'll discover ailments a lot earlier than if you want for them to appear. I've also found that if I "tune in" to my horses enough, in the way they react to me greeting them, petting them, that they will also "tell" me if something is wrong, especially my two Eddie girls. They seem to know they can "speak" to me in their own way. I can just tell by their reactions and their expressions if they are in pain or like just yesterday, they're bored and desperately in need of some sort of activity! :)

  14. Kate, This is a fascinating, thought-provoking post - thank you for sharing it!

    How very interesting to think about the impact our eyes can have on so much. Fascinating to read about what happened with Maisie at Mark's clinic, and how you could get the canter with such tiny cues. How I would like to be able to do that.

    I agree with you about how much more you can sense the horse when you close your eyes when riding. I don't do it often but love to do it. This post is a good reminder about some things I can concentrate on when riding. Thanks again!

  15. Really lovely post.

    One of the best lessons I ever had was with a woman who did dressage. She put me on a huge school horse she had, put me on a lunge line, than made me close my eyes for much of the lesson. There's so much more you notice with eyes closed.

    The key, I think, it learning how to feel and notice these things while our eyes are opened again.



Thank you for commenting - we appreciate it. No spam or marketing comments will be published.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.