This picture shows Heather Lizotte riding her 3-year-old Appaloosa mare, Desi. They are schooling Training Level. Working with young horses can be challenging yet rewarding. Young horses can offer special moments that reveal their potential. But, at the same time, the young horse is not yet consistent and needs to develop trust, balance and strength. In the picture, Desi looks full of trust and is moving nicely forward. Even though the picture is taken from a difficult angle to judge, I like the way Desi is reaching out with her neck into the contact. Her breed and conformation make it more challenging for her to develop an uphill stride, but in her current frame, her topline can become stronger and she will then be able to learn to open her stride through her shoulders more easily. Heather looks very concentrated on her job. I can see how much she wants to make everything right for her young horse. But this leads her to the common habit of looking down. Heather must learn to trust her feeling and not rely on her eyes as much.
At any stage of training, rhythm and balance are the first things horse and rider need to establish. Even though straightening is an advanced part of the Training Scale, the rider has to sit straight and ride the horse with an attitude toward straightness right from the very beginning. Balance is much easier when all the building blocks are aligned. The better the balance of the rider, the easier it will be for the horse to find correct balance and alignment in her own body.
Looking down is very tempting, as our eyes have a direct connection to the balance center in our brain and we feel safer when we can see. But ironically, it also limits our ability to balance. Notice how much more sense you have for balance when your eyes are closed for a few strides. Often our eyes can be so dominant that we do not feel many other things like weight distribution on our seat bones or stirrups, contact on the reins, suppleness of the horse’s back or the activity of the hind legs. All this can sometimes be felt better when closing the eyes. Of course, it is impossible to ride a young horse for a long time with closed eyes, but a few strides are sometimes enough to wake up more senses. I often compare this with typing on the keyboard of my computer. I eventually learned to type blind, so now I don’t need to look at my fingers at all when I type. I can even finish typing a sentence while answering some easy questions if my sons come into my office. In riding, so many things must become automatic and must continue functioning even without the help of the eyes. Practicing this can be a very helpful tool for Heather.
I notice in the photograph that she is looking down to the inside and to the right. By doing this, she is shortening the right side of her whole body and even her inside right leg shows more outside rotation. Looking straight ahead could be the key that allows her to straighten up through her spine, have more even weight down to both sides of the horse, have her knees and feet pointing more forward and ride with equal contact on both reins.
Counting strides while looking up can be a good exercise to combine the feel for movement with rhythm. Keeping an even rhythm on a young horse is far more important than keeping the head in position. Instead of focusing so much on the head and front end, your attention should be more on the horse’s hind end, as it is the engine for rhythm. Looking down on the horse's neck will give too much of the rider's attention to the front, but looking up will free the senses to feel the engine and activity and rhythm behind. Another negative side effect of looking down is that our automatic muscles around the core stop working. Those muscles work best when the body is upright and aligned. For the correct interplay of the aids, especially weight aids, this is very important.
Try this: Stand balanced and place a hand on your abdominal muscles and one on the muscles of your lower back. Then sway slightly forward and backward over your feet, keeping your body aligned and straight. You can feel how the back muscles will tense up when swaying forward and how the abdominal muscles will start working when leaning slightly back. Now look down at your feet and repeat the movement. You can clearly feel that the abdominal muscles will respond much later and in a weaker manner when the body weight is shifted back. That explains how looking down disconnects our automatic balance and stability from the horse’s movement. The rider will not be able to react quick enough as her abdominal chain of muscles is no longer part of the automatic upper-body balance system.
As in many riding situations, the right timing and reacting quickly enough are so important that anything that slows down the rider’s reaction time is counterproductive for a correct interplay of the aids.