Humans have hands and use them for almost everything. And as our eyes are in the front of our head, we like to watch what we are doing.
One of my cherished trainers, John Lassetter from England, once let a group of pupils dismount during a clinic and crawl through the school on all fours. They obediently did what he asked, expecting it to be some sort of exercise. When they reached the end of the school, he asked if they had found it yet. Confusion all over. ‘You were looking down all the time, so I presumed you’ve lost something. And because you kept looking down so persistently, I thought you wanted to look for it first…’
Riders look down a lot because we are used to process information with our eyes. And we are obsessed by the position of the head and neck of the horse. The proper position of the head of the horse should be the end result of good riding, hindlegs under and back moving up. But a lot of the time riders tend to pull the head into a position and try to adjust the frame, which is the wrong way around. It tightens the back and stops the forward flow of energy.
The human head is a substantial amount of the total weight of a rider. If you look down all the time, you disturb your own and the horses balance, so you will be tensing up in your back to stop you from tipping forward with your upper body. It doesn’t look good and it is bad for your neck muscles. And if you don’t sit in a balanced position, you can’t feel properly. Try sitting on a skippy ball without your feet on the ground. Now look sideways. You won’t be able to keep your balance. But this is what we expect our horse to do… We are not helping him!
Feel what you are doing
You don’t need to look at the head and neck to get it in the right position. That’s done by stimulating the hindlegs to go more under the body and at the same time controlling the energy this generates with an elastic contact. It is not only better to feel what you are doing, it’s faster if you want to correct something. If information needs to go from hands to eyes to brain to hands, it takes more time then straight from hands to brain and back. And you can use your eyes for better things. Looking where you go, for instance, so you don’t bump into other riders. And so your horse feels by the position of your head where you want to go. That might sound a bit far off, but he does. Ride down the centre line and keep looking forward if you get near the end. Don’t indicate in any way which way you want to go. What happens…? Your horse can see the end of the school and starts to wobbly left and right, asking you to pick a side. If you want to prevent that, look to the side where you want to go a few meters before the end. He will feel it and turn that way, without the wobbling.
When you are riding, you are in charge of the horse. For him to feel secure, you will have to act as the leader and keep an eye out for predators in the bushes. You can’t do that if you are looking down all the time.
Looking down is a bad habit. Don’t do it. Make it a habit to feel instead of watch.
If you catch yourself doing it, regain your position. Stretch up in your core, but keep breathing. Your spine is a pile of loose blocks. Don’t let them drop. Carry your head. Pretend your head is fixed to the ceiling by an elastic cord. Sit proud and feel that way.
If your horse behaves, let the reins go for a minute. Or ask someone to hold him for you. Roll your shoulders back, stretch your arms out to the side and feel where your shoulderblades are. Sit up, without holding your breath. Drop your arms and take hold of the reins, your arms relaxed.
It’s very hard to work on your position in the saddle when you feel tired or you have aching muscles. It shouldn’t be a struggle. Dismount and try again some other time.