June 18, 2010
Take a Look-See
Copyright © 2010 Robin Brueckmann
When you are riding, what are you looking at? Chances are, you are focused somewhere between your horse’s perky ears and his lovely, flowing mane. Can you see anything else? Where are you in the arena? Can you see the letters?
This type of vision is called in Centered Riding terms, Hard Eyes. This means an intense, singular focus. The benefit to riding with hard eyes is that you can see one thing very clearly; this is useful if you are finding a distance to a jump, but far less useful to a dressage rider. The downside to hard eyes is that it tends to bring your body weight forward and down, and makes all your muscles just that bit more tense and tight, particularly your arms and hands. This results in your horse going more or less on the forehand.
A different type of vision is Soft Eyes. This occurs when you raise your head and allow your peripheral vision to operate. Soft eyes allow you to take in more of your environment, and it lets your muscles be softer and more relaxed.
Try this experiment. Put your hands, palms facing each other, on the sides of your head. Focus intently on something. Now move your hands apart until you can just barely see the palms. Leave your hands where they are, and look at your hands, to see where they are. Leave your hands there. Next, look at the same thing you focused on before, but allow your gaze to soften. Move your hands to reflect this change; move them until the palms are just within your vision. Leave your hands there, and look at them. Are they in a different place now? Most people find that their range of vision is greater when they use soft eyes than hard eyes.
Next, practice using soft eyes while you walk around, on foot. Check your posture; are you able to stay taller and more balanced? Change your gaze to hard eyes, and feel any change in your posture or balance. Change back and forth from soft to hard eyes several times, to feel the difference in your body. Do you suppose your horse can tell the difference? Yes, he can.
Here is an advanced thought about soft eyes. Look at an object with soft eyes, and mentally record how you feel in your body. Now think that the area of your brain that records vision is located in the lower back portion of your skull, near where your neck emerges. Look at the same object again, but this time allow your vision to originate in the back of your skull (where it is, in fact, processed.) How does this differ?
When I was first taught this salient fact, it changed my perception entirely. The timing of this learning was right before I went to judge a show, and I practiced judging from the back of my skull. I was able to observe more details without strain. What I also noticed was that, in order to have this kind of soft eyes, my facial expression was also very soft, so soft that I could not smile back at the rider. In order to have eye contact with the rider, I had to go back to “ordinary” soft eyes. I could then return to the deeper feeling of looking from the back of my skull. Experiment with this, and see what it does to and for you.
Your first major test of using soft eyes will occur in the warm-up arena at a show, where there are a dozen or more horses marching around doing various exercises, mostly ridden by riders with hard eyes. Can’t tell where they’re going, can you? Use your own eyes softly to stay alert to the other horses and riders in the arena with you, and practice watching the riders’ centers to see where they are likely to be headed, since you can’t tell by their hard-eyed gaze. Notice the effect on your horse in this crowded situation; most horses stay better focused on their riders when the riders use soft eyes.
A useful application of hard eyes during a test is when you are giving the horse a clear direction, such as setting up a half pass or getting him straight for an extension. Once you have the intention set, you can return to soft eyes to complete the movement. It’s easy to get into a hard-eyes mode, so remember to release the hard eyes when that gaze has fulfilled its immediate purpose.
Horses can be hard-eyed or soft-eyed, too. You can mainly tell this by their ears. A horse with soft, flopping ears, or one ear turned softly to the rider and the other turned softly forward, is in a soft-eyes state of mind, and he will be relatively easy to ride. A horse with both ears pointed stiffly forward is using hard eyes, and his next likely maneuver is to shy and bolt at whatever caught his attention. His body will be stiff and rigid so he is better prepared for…whatever. Hard eyes in a horse is a precursor to flight, which is rarely a good thing. It’s in your best interest to keep your horse’s focus soft and light.
See what using soft eyes can do for your riding. Your horse thanks you!