As riders, we are perhaps more aware than other people of the fact that our hands dominate our beings. Most sports, hobbies and careers don't require us to abandon our innate need to grab, hold and pull and replace it with core, isometric strength and balance. Even more tricky is when we realize that it's not just our hands that we rely on too heavily; it's our eyes!
What could be more natural than using your eyes? They are one of the most important receptors of information that we have, as human beings, but what we don't often think about when riding is that our eyes lie.
Forgive me. I'm going to go all sciencey on you for a minute here...
Imagine this for a moment:
You look down at your horse, or across at the mirrors, and see that your horse is carrying themselves with the tiniest of faults. This information has come to you via reflected light that bounces from your subject to your eyeballs. Your eyes then send signals to your brain, which has to flip everything around and make sense of it, before telling you what you've seen. You then decide if/how you want to address what you've seen; you sort through all of those tools in your rider repertoire and select the ones to use to fix what you saw. Your muscles prepare to contract, your balances shifts, and you move your body to respond to the image that you've seen, seemingly in the very moment that it occurs. The problem is, that moment has completely past! It may have been a nanosecond ago, but it's gone. Forever.
I see this a lot with students learning about connection for the first time. Their hands are almost moving in unison with the horse's mouth, and the reins are almost still, but they're not. Rather than feeling the movement and allowing your brain to respond without the visual input, their eyes are feeding them information a nanosecond behind when the information is actually present.
How to overcome your eyes:
The best initial exercise to really feel this is to ride (safely) with your eyes closed. I highly recommend having someone lunge you in the arena so that you can try closing your eyes and riding from your feel. Be careful, though! Some riders rely a lot on their eyes for balance and you may find that by closing your eyes you feel completely off-kilter. This is just an indication that you may want to practice getting out of your eyes and into your body more often.
After you get a feel for riding without your eyes, you can train yourself to ride with "soft eyes" which I'm sure some of you have heard before. Soft eyes implies that you are riding with your peripheral vision, without specific focus. When I first learned to do this, as a kid, I had a trainer who had the great idea to have her students cross their eyes. It was safer than closing your eyes, and all you had to do was then relax your eyes after crossing them and BAM! You had unfocused, soft eyes!
By riding with this zen-like lack of visual focus, we can get our focus back into the feel of the moment, instead of dwelling on the fleeting past. In addition to that, this also helps keep riders from dropping their chins to stare at their horse's necks (you know who you are!)
Try riding without your eyes for a few minutes this week and let me know what you think!