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Layers of Equitation Part 1: Vision

Updated: Jun 1

Over the coming months, I’ll be blogging about the layers of equitation. Like an onion, the outer layer skills must be addressed before the deeper layers can be revealed. The pursuit of horsemanship is an art which allows a pathway for the student to open up to wisdom. It demands concentration, and a unification of body, mind and spirit. As the rider evolves, they may find optimal flow with their horses. Flow is the feeling of moving and thinking as one in harmony with the horse. Flow is one of life’s finest gifts; it is the fuel that keeps the pursuit alive. It appears at the boundary between boredom and anxiety, where the challenges are balanced with the rider’s ability to act. If you’re one of those riders chasing the flow state, follow along as we go in depth on the skills involved and how to unlock them.

As riders, our eyes are one of our greatest sensory tools, yet most of the time we are unaware of how we are using them. As humans, when we are taken by surprise, we are hard wired to narrow our visual periphery, which sets in motion our fight or flight response. Imagine how the horse, as a prey animal, must feel when a human starts giving them predatory signals by riding defensively or fearfully. The cycle goes something like this: When our horse either spooks or makes a mistake, our vision instantly narrows and hardens. When we are caught by surprise or become defensive, tension arises elsewhere in our body, the horse feels this tension and it generates more opposition and resistance in response. To break the cycle, we can train our body to respond differently. All it takes is awareness and practice. Here’s how we can make use of our eyes to be the best guide for our horses:

“Visual help is our most natural aid; yet in riding it is often overlooked.” - Sylvia Loch

Practice mindfulness with your gaze. To stare with a hard gaze at your horse’s ears, or any object in front of you with tunnel vision will limit your ability to feel the horse and can be a source of unwanted tension. Try softening your gaze and use your peripheral vision. Notice how you feel when you make this intentional shift. Develop the awareness of what is going on around you, beneath you and inside of you as you ride.

When tension in your body arises, are you aware of it? Your horse certainly is. Developing the ability to soften a hardened gaze will also allow you to soften tension elsewhere in your body. Your body should feel toned and moving in unison with the horse. When tension arises, your body feels like it is working against the horse. Use a wide, all encompassing gaze to feel what is going on internally. Do a scan of your body in the moment and release any area that may be holding tension.

Practice squaring up your shoulders. This is done by keeping the buttons of your shirt or jacket lined up with the horse’s mane, while also not collapsing in your side body left or right. When the horse is turning, your upper body should turn as well to stay in alignment with the horse. Your inside shoulder will need to get out of the way to allow both shoulders to reman square as you turn. This becomes particularly difficult when it comes to one handed riding. When turning in the direction of the hand holding the reins, it takes extra awareness to keep your shoulders square, get the inside shoulder out of the way, and not collapse the side body.

Riding with soft eyes helps us develop our feel. It helps keep us both aware of our surroundings and centered in the saddle. Our horses will feel the difference and respond with freer, more forward movement. Get in the habit of developing the awareness to adjust your gaze and square up your shoulders until it becomes subconscious. Stay tuned for more tips on what it takes to ride with intention and move in harmony with your horse!

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