Last Updated on March 18, 2022 by Allison Price
Soft eyes are not a new concept. Sally Swift in her 1985 landmark book. Centred riding This was the first time that riders were introduced to this style of looking. However, the soft eyes principle has been taught in many martial arts like Tai Chi Chu’an and Aikido.
Instead of thinking “Yeah, yeah. Soft eyes, got it”, spend a few moments to reexamine this concept and consider how you can best use it to your advantage. Sometimes the smallest changes can bring about the greatest results. You might just need soft eyes.
We often start with hard eyes to help us understand soft eyes. Hard eyes allow you to focus your attention on one thing and only then can you see its form, shape, and detail. This can be useful for tasks such as removing a splinter off a finger. However, it is not very helpful when performing activities that involve movement, balance and awareness.
Soft eyes in ridingSoft eyes allow your eyes to relax. Instead of focusing your attention on one thing, soft eyes allow you to focus on multiple things at once. This applies to peripheral vision, both above and below the eye. Soft eyes can increase awareness of all that is going on around you.
Balance is dependent on vision. Take a step back and stand on one leg. Note how long you can hold your balance without needing to grab something or place the other foot down. Stand on one leg, and then close your eyes. It is much more difficult to balance without visual feedback. A similar effect can be had by fixing your gaze with hard eyes on your ability stay straight, centered, balanced on the horse’s back. Riders will often stare at their horse’s poll or the ground towards the center of the circle as they ride. Riders who ride this way are denying themselves valuable feedback that helps them balance. Try keeping your eyes open and looking softly at your horse. You will notice a difference in your balance as well as your ability to stay softly with him.
Soft eyes are helpful when you’re training in a group. You can be aware of the travel lines of your riding partners while also focusing on your own program. This will allow you to work together seamlessly and make adjustments for their movements.
In the warm-up ring at shows, soft eyes are especially useful. A few years back, I was able to show my horse at the Second Level in Palgrave. There were six show rings that ran simultaneously over three days. We had designated areas to warm up in, so the ring stewards could keep an eye on everyone and ensure smooth operation. My ring was located right next to the Grand Prix ring so both riders had to share a warm-up ring.
My horse became intimidated by Grand Prix horses as he warmed up for the test. They were flying around the diagonal at a rapid pace and swerving in all directions. He believed that we should exit the stage right away. To give him the confidence that all was normal, I had to remain calm, centered, and relaxed. I was able to make my horse feel confident by using soft eyes and keeping my awareness open to all that was happening in the ring. One of our Canadian Olympic riders was warming-up for her Grand Prix test. She kept her eyes on her horse’s ears all the time, not noticing the movements of the others in the ring. I learned from this experience that not only regular riders need to remember to use their soft eyes.
We can’t see the good things with our hard eyes.
Soft eyes increase awareness and enjoyment
Soft eyes will help you be more aware of all that is happening around you and your horse. Soft eyes will make you more open to your horse’s feedback than if you focus on one thing. Soft eyes can make your horse’s ride more like a conversation. You will be more open to his feedback and more aware of what he is saying. You can cause muscle tension in both your eyes and prevent your horse from feeling your back.
This dichotomy between hard eyes and soft eyes reminds me of a philosophy where the human nature is to focus on one thing (usually negative). To the exclusion all other things. However, this can make it difficult to enjoy and be aware of other aspects of our lives. It’s easy to spend all day dwelling on my dog’s wounds, customer issues, or my water bowl that isn’t working. But, this makes it difficult to notice the many other things in our lives.
During your warm-up, a great time to learn awareness of soft eyes. Begin by walking for 10 minutes on a long rein. Then, switch between focusing on one point and letting go of your eyes to see what you can absorb visually. Next, observe if your horse’s hind legs, back, and body are moving more.
Try it with soft eyes and let me know what your thoughts are.
I’m Allison, born and raised in San Diego California, the earliest memory I have with horses was at my grandfather’s farm. I used to sit at the stable as a kid and hang out with my Papa while he was training the horses. When I was invited to watch a horse riding competition, I got so fascinated with riding!