Monday, April 26, 2010

It's All In Your Head

The rain arrived yesterday. It's not really all that bad, just sort of misting. But I don't want to go out in it to do anything. So I've just been sitting in the sun room watching the rain fall and pondering. I was reflecting on some of the more memorable advice on riding I've received over the years. One of my favorite bits of advice came from a German instructor I rode in a few clinics with many years ago. She told me "Look where you are going. Why are you looking at your horse? He's still there. You will know if he goes missing." Through the years, I have often repeated that pearl of wisdom to myself and others. It's one of my favorites.

We are all guilty of looking down when we ride at some point or another. And we've all been told not to do it because it pulls our shoulders down and shifts our weight forward, throwing the horse on his forehand. Plus, if you're looking down you're not watching where you're going. But is there more to it than that? As I was contemplating the advice, the sentence "You will know if he goes missing" suddenly struck me in a new way.

As humans, we rely on our eyesight much more than our other senses. So much so that the areas of our brain involved with touch, hearing, and smell are atrophied in comparison to other animals. But the brain is a very plastic organ, it can change and rewire itself if necessary. Studies in blind humans have shown that when visual information is no longer coming in, the brain re-wires itself so that the other senses become more acute. A blind person has a much more sensitive sense of touch, smell and hearing than a sighted person. This re-wiring of the brain will occur at any age. Studies in sighted adults who were blindfolded for a period of time showed that the re-wiring begins within a few weeks of the loss of sight. Blindfolded individuals showed a significant increase in sense of hearing, touch and smell and Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) showed an increase in activity in areas of the brain corresponding to those senses. Even more interestingly, when the blindfolds were removed at the end of the trial the brain returned to its previous sighted configuration. All increases in acuity of the other senses were lost as soon as vision was restored.

So, where am I going with all that? When you look down at your horse, what are you looking at? Are you checking to see if he's round, if he's bent properly around your leg, if he's popping his shoulder out or falling in? Those are the things I'm usually checking for when I look down. But in dressage, we're always seeking that elusive concept of "feel". Shouldn't I be feeling whether those things are right? As we all know, a horse can look correct, but not actually be correct. But if he feels correct, you know he's correct. By looking at my horse, am I losing my feel? Am I relying too much on visual information and deadening my other senses? It's an interesting question.

Of course, there are times when it's advantageous to use your eyes to check things. If you're riding an unfamiliar horse, trying a new exercise or just starting out in dressage you may need to look down or look in the mirror to check yourself or your horse, but those glances should be fleeting and should augment the feeling, not replace it. In dressage "feel" must be learned, and constantly looking down will hamper that learning process.

So stop looking at your horse and you'll know if he goes missing.


  1. Very thoughtful post - I think we tend to over think what we do, and as you point out, we're very visual and tend to want visual confirmation when the "feel" would be more useful and accurate, and not interfere with the movement of the horse.

  2. I remember a similar comment. "Stop looking at your horse, he's still there, you don't need to keep checking." Same thing about looking at the ground, perhaps for jumping, "It's not going anywhere."

    You are so right that we must learn to feel what's right when we ride instead of trying to "see" if it's right.


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