By Betsy Kelleher
“Look ahead,” she keeps telling me. I am riding in circles, over four ground poles. My natural tendency is to look down. I want to see where I’m riding and to watch my horse’s head and ears. It’s one of those old habits that I’m told is not a good one, but it’s very difficult for me to change at my age!
So, as we reach the first pole, my instructor reminds me, “look ahead” and I quickly look ahead to the next pole, my eyes tracing a rounded path from where we are to the exact center of that next pole. As we go over that pole, I look ahead again to the exact center of the next one, and then on to the next pole, and my instructor tells me I am doing better. My circles are rounder, and we are able to go over the center of the pole more consistently. Having an instructor on the ground watching and reminding me step by step helps me correct my riding habits. Of course my horse also tells me when I don’t do it right, because then the circles aren’t as round as they should be and we don’t always go over the center of the pole (and some might call that sloppy riding).
Riding round in circles over poles may sound boring, but it’s amazing what that simple exercise can do. I’m learning to hold my head up (improving my posture), looking where I’m going instead of looking down at where I am. It changes my focus. I have been told that my horse will go where my eyes go. Lady has shown me that looking down may bring her to a stop when I’m not expecting it. And with Rocky, looking down may slow the impulsion that I am working for. When I can visualize a whole round circle in fourths, seeing it ahead instead of beneath, it’s much easier to ride that rounded arc and keep my horse’s body curved to fit. Looking ahead teaches me to feel my horse more instead of constantly checking downward for a visual. English riders are taught to feel the correct diagonal without looking and both English and Western riders work to feel the correct canter lead. Feeling your horse’s movements without looking down is a skill that can be learned with practice.
Tension in the rider’s neck and shoulders has some influence on the rider’s head, so you should work for a relaxed neck, properly aligned with a straight line down through head, shoulders, hip and heel. Try this exercise: drop your head down on your chest then tip it way back. Tip it to one side then to the other. Repeat this a few times and remember to balance your head on your neck instead of holding it rigidly in place.
I find myself wondering how a simple detail like looking down can have such a noticeable consequence. I’ve heard that merely tipping the head down actually puts more weight on the horse’s forehand. Really! But if a horse can feel a fly on his back even before it bites, I assume he can surely feel a change in the rider’s body posture. It doesn’t usually matter while walking a wooded trail, but it does matter for more competitive endeavors.
Many years ago, I rode one day with a new friend who introduced me to the four basic principles of Sally Swift, a riding instructor from Vermont who passed away on April 2, 2009 at the age of 95. I felt blessed to have actually ridden in one of her clinics and I greatly admired her and her teachings. She was the founder of Centered Riding, which has become a world wide organization of riding instructors following her methods. Using unique visualization techniques, she taught four basic principles that help the rider relax and influence a horse more effectively.
I used a whole chapter in my first book, Sometimes a Woman Needs a Horse, to explain those basic principles. The first is called “soft eyes, hard eyes,” and the following is a quote from that book. “Hard eyes concentrate on one object (such as the horse’s ears), shutting out an awareness of much of one’s surroundings. The body tends to stiffen, and the horse may react negatively. But when the rider looks up and out with soft eyes that take in a larger perspective (including the horse’s head), the body relaxes. The horse relaxes, because a rider’s soft body is more comfortable than a rider’s stiff body. The ability to see with soft eyes must be learned and practiced, but it results in greater awareness of the horse, of one’s own body, and everything around, through all of one’s senses.”
Sound too good to be true? Then you probably haven’t tried it. Sometimes I read this chapter again, just to remind myself what I have already learned and forgotten. I also have both Centered Riding books and two videos. Yes, I learned about these principles maybe 25 years ago, and I saw first hand how well they work. So here I am, trying to learn all over again to look up and forward while feeling the horse beneath me and seeing all around me, not looking down. After riding a quiet trail horse for many years, I now find a greater need for these principles while dealing with an emotional mare and a younger gelding!
I know I’ve mentioned Centered Riding basics in previous columns, but they are important enough to mention again. If you are a beginning rider, you will definitely benefit from learning these basics early. If you have ridden for years, you may have picked up some not-so-good habits, like me, and you need to look at these basics again. Once you have these basic principles ingrained into your riding habits, everything else works better, no matter what type of riding you do. Basics are the true foundation.
I remember Sally Swift saying that one can apply these basics to all of life. I chose to apply them to my spiritual experience. Again, I quote from Sometimes a Woman Needs a Horse: “Using the principle of soft eyes, I can learn to perceive a wider view of life with greater wisdom and understanding. Instead of concentrating on a problem with so-called hard eyes, I need to see it in proper perspective as a small part of life’s enormous horizon. Instead of looking only at self, I need to look with compassion upon a larger world of people. I realized one day that I viewed life with the same attitude with which I rode. I saw life with hard eyes. I looked for things to go wrong. Because of my fearful attitude, I rode hesitantly with a tense body and mind, not breathing deeply. I missed the joy of living the present moment and I missed the peace of trusting in God’s provision. Looking up and out toward God’s eternal values and His great resources, I can relax and become aware of greater opportunities and dimensions of living. I can dare to ride and live with more courage and purpose.”
Have I really applied all of this to my life since I learned it? Well, unfortunately I still have a tendency to look down at my horse. I still hold my breath during tense situations. I still have to remind myself to breathe deeply, balance myself, look up and out and sit down into the saddle with a soft, relaxed body. And then I am usually amazed at how simple it is and how well it works.
In much the same way, basic spiritual truths are the foundation of abundant living. They are simple and they work. While writing this column, I realized that one of my favorite Scripture verses actually reinforces this issue. Psalm 121:1-2 says, “I lift up my eyes to the hills—where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.”
When I look down at my problems and see only human weakness, I get discouraged and things have a way of going the same direction—downward. Progress slows and nothing works right. But when I look up to God, I find a connection to unlimited Sovereign power, with new hope and direction. Lifting my eyes changes my focus from where I am to where I am going, a principle that works in the saddle or on foot.
(Originally published in the May 2010 issue of the Illinois Horse Network)