In previous articles I have discussed the Centered Riding® concepts of Building Blocks and Breathing. There are three more “Basics” that I think it is time we caught up on. In this next series of articles I am going to present Soft Eyes, Centering and Grounding. First let’s start with Soft Eyes.
Soft Eyes really shouldn’t be anything new to people familiar with the horsemanship concepts presented by Ray Hunt and Tom Dorrance. In fact, when I read their books I was amazed at the similarities between what they were saying and Sally Swift’s concept of Soft Eyes. Sally describes the essentials of Soft Eyes in Centered Riding as “wide-open eyes and periperhal awareness, awareness of your entire field of vision and feeling sensations from within.” While all these descriptions are accurate I would like to further define Soft Eyes using some images and suggest some corollaries that I often equate with this concept. Let’s start with Soft Eyes vs. Hard Eyes.
Find an object to focus on somewhere near you. It may be a book on the table or a chair in your living room. Now stare at that object with all of your concentration. Notice what happened to the muscles in your face and your breathing when you stare at the object. Then, instead of staring at the object, “look” at it. Allow yourself to see the other things in the room while you continue to look directly at the initial one. Notice that as you open up your field of vision the tension in your face decreases and your breathing returns. This is the difference between over-focusing on an object and looking at it. By over-focusing, you create unwanted tension in the body, which will inhibit other parts from functioning fluidly (i.e.: breathing, hip joints, legs and hands). This intense staring is “Hard Eyes” and the broader looking is “Soft Eyes.”
In Soft Eyes you have maintained your observation of the particular object you picked, however you are not putting 100% of your attention on only that object. You are now simply observing it as a central theme amongst everything around you, therefore you are allowing yourself to use both the central and the peripheral parts of your vision. There are two parts to vision, central (detail) and peripheral (scanning). When someone is said to have “tunnel vision” it means that they are only using the focusing or detail part of their vision. When someone appears to be “staring off in space” they are only using the peripheral part. Remember the last time you drove home from town or the barn? Did you suddenly find yourself in your driveway and wonder how you got there? Obviously you were watching where you were going so that you made the correct turns to get home but, you were not really aware of it because you were “lost in thought.” The conceptual (pheripheral) part of your vision took over and made sure that you did not get in an accident by scanning the road ahead and informing you if any action needed to be taken.Now think of the last time you drove in heavy traffic or in a snowstorm. Suddenly all of your attention was on the road ahead of you. By the time you got home you were exhausted because you remained super-focused for the entire drive. You were only using the central (detail) part of your vision and not allowing any scanning to occur. Maintaining that kind of focus for hours is exhausting.
Let’s look at an example of how this works with your riding. Remember the first time you were in a horsemanship clinic or lesson? You were trying as hard as you could to absorb everything the instructor was saying so that you would not miss a drop of information. You wanted your horse to stand still so that you could listen to the instructor. Instead your horse was spinning around while you were trying to focus. You may have found yourself losing your patience because your horse was “not cooperating” and you wanted to “get after him” because he was being difficult. By the end of the day you were exhausted and collapsed in a heap on your bed.
In this instance the student was trying “so hard to get the information” that the learning process was actually being blocked. Intense focusing restricts breathing and coordination so that the person’s movements became clumsy and harsh. Often students feel like they “just aren’t getting it” because they are trying too hard. What is happening here is that the student is super -focusing or using Hard Eyes to try and take in the information. This kind of focus prevents the use of scanning or peripheral vision, which would have allowed them to take in the larger concept being presented. Once the larger concept is understood then the details can be filled in later, similar to painting a picture. You have to start with the background then fill in the details. So while the student may be trying to get all the details right, he could wind up missing the essential part of the lesson and go home feeling incapable and frustrated.
Now consider what it was like after you had been to a few clinics. Unconsciously you found that you were more relaxed. You knew the routine so you could sit back and observe the instructor describe the exercise you were about to perform. You had worked with your horse at home in a quiet setting where you were both able to breathe and explore how to do some of the things you learned in the previous clinic. Now you both had some idea what the exercises were and what was going to be asked of you so you were better prepared for the next step. Your horse was much better behaved and he tried to cooperate with your requests.
By knowing the routine (the overall sequence of events) the student is able to relax a bit and use both the focusing and scanning part of vision to take in new information. Soft Eyes can now be used. The horse is more cooperative because he also knows what is going to happen so he can relax and breathe knowing that the student is not so anxious about being there. Remember that horses are always watching our reaction to a situation to decide if they are in danger. If we reassure them by our breathing and work with them using Soft Eyes, they will feel much less threatened and therefore remain present and interested during the training session.
When you are riding this same kind of focusing holds true. Consider the following experiment. While riding on an experienced, safe horse, look down at the horse’s neck or ears. Use Hard Eyes to focus intensely on something you want the horse to do such as a round circle or a good transition. Notice what the horse’s reaction is and how much difficulty you both experience in performing the task. Also observe how much tension you have in your muscles and what has happened to your breathing.
Now look out beyond your horse’s ears at the scenery around you. Allow yourself to see the horse through the bottom part of your peripheral vision. Observe that while using your “Soft Eyes” you can still see your horse’s head, neck and ears. You might even be able to see your hands down in front of you and an area around you which encompasses more than 180º when using your peripheral vision to its full extent. Notice what has happened to the muscle tension you experienced previously and what the quality of your breathing is like now. Again perform the task you tried in the first part of this experiment. What has happened to the horse’s movement? How easy is it for both of you to accomplish the task? What is the difference in the quality of the movements?
What you will probably observe is that by using Soft Eyes, both you and your horse will find it easier to accomplish the task. It required less effort on your part and your horse was more cooperative. You might also have noticed that your horse was “more forward” because you were creating a space for him to move into by looking out in front of you. Also, you may have found that it was easier to keep your balance because, by looking beyond your horse, your head is more balanced over your seat.
So in this first instance of Soft Eyes vs. Hard Eyes, using your peripheral vision along with your central vision, you are able to have “wide-open eyes and periperhal awareness, and awareness of your entire field of vision.” This allows you to observe your surroundings more like a horse, so that you can “see” the larger picture. As you grasp the larger concept, you can allow the individual pieces to fill in, creating a detailed understanding of the concept. By seeing in this manner you will be able to have a relaxed awareness of your surroundings without anxiety of whether you are going to “get it” or not. This mode takes the stress out of learning process and you no longer have to go into a reactive “flight” mode because you can see what is approaching instead of being surprised because something “snuck up” on you.
In this regard, one of my corollaries to Hard Eyes vs. Soft Eyes is the concept of Intense vs. Intent. When you are intense, things are strained, harsh, overbearing, demanding and unpleasant. The person who is intense is always trying to “make it happen” even when it is clear that it just isn’t right. Kind of like trying to put a square peg in a round hole, the intense person often won’t let go of something until it has been broken or beaten to death.
Intent, on the other hand, implies that you know what you want to accomplish and you don’t feel the need to force it. Someone who is intent is quietly directing the process as it unfolds even if momentarily it seems like it is not going in the desired direction because they know that ultimately the outcome is going to be what they want. The desired result may even change in the short term in order to accomplish the task in the long term. The person with intent will be able to sit back and relax as events occur, observing without reacting. He will alter the program as required make things easier. He will get the peg to ultimately fit in the hole because he put the peg in the right hole.
The person who is intense often does not trust the process and anticipates or attempts to avert perceived failure. Whereas the person who has intent is secure enough to know that they are going to succeed regardless of how long it might take or how much they will have to adapt to the situation. In this regard, when you observe someone who is a “good hand” with a horse, notice that there are several predominant features. The “good hand” remains calm in spite of how the horse is behaving, they quietly, calmly and consistently shape the situation to accomplish the task and they never lose sight of what it is they want the horse to do in the first place. In this way, the “good hand” has clear intent and allows the horse sufficient time to understand what is desired. They assist the horse in the process of learning rather than forcing to horse through the situation.
Having clear intent before approaching your horse gives the horse a sense of security. When you approach the horse lacking confidence the horse will question you and feel unsure. What you get from the horse is exactly what you put out – confusion, fear and poor results. Coming on like gangbusters, full of demands and deadlines can create a highly reactive situation because your goals feel overwhelming to the horse. They are too difficult, not because the task is hard but because the intensity in the approach caused the horse to react instinctively, triggering the “fight or flight” reflex.
A large part of intent is knowing what you want to accomplish before you ever catch your horse. If you are unclear about the outcome then it is virtually impossible to create it. In other words, it is important to have a clear concept of what you are looking for before you begin. According to a Feldenkrais principal (Feldenkrais is a form of body work for humans that develops body awareness and mobility) everything that your body needs to do to perform a task happens when you clearly think about it. So before you ever get out of a chair, the act of thinking about getting out the chair causes your entire nervous system to perform the task on an infinitesimal level so that when you get up everything works properly.
So this means that if you want to do something, the clearer you can visualize it the more likely you will be able to achieve the desired outcome because your body has already performed the task. No you can understand why I will not let my students jump a course of fences until they can visualize their lines, turns and jumps in their mind’s eye.
However, not everyone can visualize. So, while visualization is a great way to practice your riding, if you don’t have that skill there are other ways to have clear intent. Intent can be in the form of an image, feeling, thought or sound. In other words, you may know what the feeling is even if you don’t quite know what it looks like. Or it may be that you know what it will sound like when you get there so your intent is to recreate that sound. This is particularly true when uncovering lameness. By listening to the sound of the footfalls on a hard surface you can discover where the problem lies. So while visualization can help in defining your intent, there are other senses that can be involved in the process.
My last corollary to Soft Eyes is “Having a Plan.” A plan is an outline of the steps you will use to accomplish the goal. Having a plan is perhaps one of the keys to a successful outcome. I will never forget when the importance of this concept became locked into my brain. In 1988 was working for a trade fair in Melbourne, Australia, doing TTEAM on a variety of exotic animals. Eric Cope, a man who provides crocodiles for such events, was there with a 12′ croc. It was housed in a cement pool and swam freely in the enclosure during the event. At the end they had to trap the croc and place him back into his crate for transport to Sydney. I watch Eric sit down with his crew and tell them exactly how they were going to catch this creature. Its jaws were large enough to chomp off a man’s arm in one go. Eric told the crew exactly how things were going to happen when they roped the croc and where everyone was going to be for each phase of the procedure. His plan was exceedingly clear. He also explained what they were going to do if things did not go “according to plan.” When they walked out to the pit I was amazed at how textbook the entire thing went and within short order the croc was boxed and shipped. The power of Eric’s ability to see and express his plan clearly and concisely made it work.
Having a plan can be as simple as “I am going to ride today” or as complicated as detailing what you are going to do during that ride moment by moment (i.e. ride to point “A”, walk a 20-meter circle, halt, etc.). Having a plan gives you a course of action, which allows you to accomplish the goal. Intent is the quality or way in which you achieve it. You might start out thinking that you are going to ride your young horse for the first time today. You have done all the groundwork and you feel like he is ready. Your intent is to have a calm relaxed horse who is accepting of your weight on his back. So you plan is to ride in the arena for 20 minutes. When you get out to the barn you discover that he is a bit anxious because the temperature has dropped and he is feeling the cold. Instead of just throwing on the tack and hopping on, you change your plan to include groundwork for 15 minutes because your intent is to have a calm session where the horse feels relaxed and quiet while you walk in the arena. With the weather change it might take you several days to accomplish the original plan. Three days later you ride him around the arena according to your plan and he is quiet and relaxed because your intent is to have the horse working with you and cooperative instead of tense and resistant. While you could have handled it if things “got a bit western” that was not the point. Your goal was to have a positive experience for both you and the horse so that you can develop partnership and trust. Therefore, altering your plan to fit the overall intent of your goal allows both of you to be successful. Here is where using Soft Eyes to take everything in that is presented to you allows you to alter the program to fit the situation rather than becoming intense and forcing the issue.
Having a plan can be a detailed description of what you are going to do, a feeling of following the flow of the horse’s movements or an image to create your path. When riding a line there are lots of images you can use. Susan Harris talks about a giant pencil several horse lengths ahead of you that is drawing the line you are going to follow. Johnny Clark has students toss a blue ribbon on the ground in front of them allowing it to unroll and then riding the line it created. These are two images that can assist you in creating a direction to follow so that your plan takes you through figures in the arena. By allowing yourself to clearly “see” the image in front of you and using your peripheral vision take in your surroundings you can “flow” through the exercise effortlessly rather than struggling and hauling on your horse.
So next time you go out for a ride allow yourself to use your expanded field of vision when looking at your horse and the environment. Notice the scenery around you while you feel your horse underneath you. Use your inner eyes to visualize what you want to do and where you would like to go, while allowing your “outer” vision to encompass all that is around you. See how little effort you really need to direct your horse when your intent is to guide your horse from a relaxed state of being that “sees” the desired results and acknowledges the process required in the moment to achieve your goals. And recognize that while the description may differ from horseman to horseman, discipline to discipline, there are some common principles that apply universally to all “good horsemen”. Perhaps the most prominent of these is to have a plan so that you instill confidence in yourself and your horse. By using Soft Eyes to gently focus on the situation with clear intent of the desired outcome, you allow the horse space to explore the task without fear so that you can both be successful.
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