Many years ago, I learned the value of riding with “soft eyes.” You might be wondering, What on earth does that mean? If you drive a car, you probably drive with soft eyes. Think of it like this: when you use soft eyes your focus is soft, your peripheral vision is active, and you are able to perceive a large area. For example, you can watch the car in front of you and keep an eye on that child near the road as well. In contrast, there are “hard eyes,” where you sharply focus on a particular point or object to the exclusion of everything else. You may have found yourself staring so hard at something that you didn’t even see the person that walked by you.
Try this exercise: when riding, pick a point in the distance and focus hard on that point. Feel how your body reacts. Do you tense up? Does your horse react? Are you still aware of other objects in your environment? Now, turn your head 45 degrees to the right or left. Focus hard on a point there. What happens? If you’re like most of us, your horse will drift in the direction that you’re looking. Why? Because your body responds to your focus by stiffening and subtly cueing your horse to turn. Now practice using soft eyes. Look ahead but don’t focus on a particular point. Use your peripheral vision to scan your entire surroundings. You’ll be surprised how far your visual range extends towards your shoulder area! You’ll likely feel your horse soften as you soften.
Using soft eyes when riding is an important tool. When you keep your focus soft, your body naturally softens. You also have greater awareness and perception and can sense your environment. This keeps you in tune with your horse and allows you to make corrections or adjustments almost before they are needed.
There is also a place for using hard eyes. I most often found this a useful tool in pattern classes or showmanship, where a straight line is essential. If you choose a point at the far end of the arena and concentrate on that point, you’ll find that your body directs your horse straight to that point. The same goes for barrel horses – focus on your pocket and your horse will slip right into it for a great turn.
Have you ever noticed what kind of eyes you ride with? Do you find that these same examples hold true for you as well? Have you found a use for hard eyes other than those that I’ve mentioned? I’d love to hear your stories!