Bluebird Lane Blog
Bluebird Lane Blog

Soft Eyes: Tap Into the Power of Your Gaze

by Lori Albrough

Now, here are some soft eyes! 🙂

The concept of soft eyes is nothing new. Sally Swift, in her landmark 1985 book, Centered Riding, was responsible for introducing riders to this way of looking, but the soft eyes principle has long been taught as a central precept in various martial arts, like Aikido and Tai Chi Chu’an.

Rather than thinking, “Yeah, yeah, soft eyes, got it”, take a moment to revisit this concept and think about whether you are using it fully to benefit your riding. Sometimes, the smallest things we change can give us the biggest results. Soft eyes just might be that thing for you.

Do not look at your opponent’s sword, or you will be slain by his sword. Do not look into his eyes, or you will be drawn into his eyes. Do not look at him, or your spirit will be distracted.

– Morihei Uyeshiba
  Founder of Aikido (“The Art of Peace”)

To begin to understand soft eyes, we usually start by considering its opposite, which is hard eyes. When you are looking with hard eyes, you focus your vision intently on one thing, concentrating on its shape, form, and detail. This is useful when doing something like removing a splinter from a finger, but in activities involving movement, balance, and awareness… not so much.

Soft Eyes in Riding

With soft eyes, you let your eyes physically relax. Instead of focusing on one thing, you allow that thing to be at the center of your gaze, while simultaneously taking in the largest possible expanse within your full field of vision. This includes peripheral vision both to the left and right, as well as above and below. By using soft eyes you increase your awareness of everything going on around you.

Vision is important for balance. Try standing on one leg, taking note of how long you can stay upright without having to grab onto something or put the other leg down. Now, stand on one leg again, but this time close your eyes. Notice how much harder it is to stay balanced without the benefit of visual feedback. Fixing the gaze with hard eyes has a similar negative effect on your ability to stay straight, centered, and balanced on the horse’s back. Often riders will go along staring at their horse’s poll, or at the ground to the inside of the circle. By riding in this way, they are cutting off valuable feedback that aids them in balance. Experiment with keeping your eyes up and gaze soft, and see if you feel a difference in your balance and your ability to softly stay with your horse.

If you train in a group setting, using soft eyes will enable you to stay aware of the lines of travel of your riding companions while simultaneously focusing on your own program, easily working together, seamlessly making adjustments for the movements of the others, and sharing the same space without running the risk of collision or upset.

Soft eyes come in especially handy in the warm up ring at a show. I remember a few years ago showing my horse at his first show at Second Level in Palgrave. At this show there were six show rings running simultaneously for three days, with designated areas for us to warm up in so the ring stewards could keep track of everyone and keep things running smoothly. The ring I was showing in was right next to the Grand Prix ring, so riders at both levels were to share a warm up ring.

As we warmed up for our test, my horse was intimidated by the Grand Prix horses in the ring with us, as they passaged loftily about or came flying across the diagonal in a line of tempi changes every stride. He was pretty sure that we ought to exit stage left at the earliest possible opportunity! I had to stay centered, relaxed, and aware to give him confidence that this was all normal. By remembering to use soft eyes I gave myself awareness of everything happening in the ring so nothing would surprise me, and I could make my horse confident in my guidance. To add to the challenge that day, one of our Canadian Olympic riders was warming up for her Grand Prix test, and she kept her gaze firmly fixed on her horse’s ears throughout, oblivious to the movements of others in the ring, who simply had to keep out of her way! This experience illustrated to me that it’s not just us regular riders that need to be reminded to use our soft eyes.

With hard eyes we miss so much.


Soft eyes give more awareness, and enjoyment!

The enhanced awareness of everything around you that comes from using soft eyes includes you being more aware of what is going on under you with your horse. With soft eyes you will find yourself more open to the feedback that your horse is giving you through your seat, as opposed to how isolated you are when your attention is fixated on a single point. Using soft eyes has the effect of making your ride more of a two-way conversation as you stay aware of, and receptive to, what he is telling you. With hard, narrowly focused eyes, you introduce unwanted muscle tension into both of your bodies and block your ability to feel the horse’s back with your seat.

This hard eyes versus soft eyes dichotomy reminds me of a life philosophy, where our human nature is to fixate on one (usually negative!) thing to the exclusion of all else. But, by doing this we miss out on the awareness and enjoyment of many other things in our lives. If I go around all day ruminating on the fact that my dog has a wound that won’t heal, or an unpleasant incident with a customer, or the water bowl out back that still isn’t fixed, I miss out on noticing so much, like the sun is shining, my other animals are healthy, and the big group of wonderful clients who appreciate and inspire me.

A great time to develop awareness of soft eyes is during your warm up. If you start by walking on a long rein for 10 minutes, use this time to switch between fixing your focus on a point, and then letting your eyes go soft and see how much you can take in visually. Then, notice if you are more aware of what your horse’s back, body, and hind legs are doing.

Experiment with soft eyes, and let me know what you notice.


                  

5 Responses to “Soft Eyes: Tap Into the Power of Your Gaze”

  1. Pat Wheeler wrote:

    This seems like such a small thing but it is hugely beneficial. As an avid trail rider (and now add in the green horse 🙂 ), I can honestly say that this technique literally saves the day during a tense moment or spook. I have to remind myself to do it when I get tense, but when I do, (and keep my eyes UP), I stay so centered during an unexpected moment that “the moment” ends up being a complete non-event. I will literally gaze up – taking in all the treetops and even clouds (but head straight – not tipping back), in order to help myself sit straight and back…just in case! It works wonders! 🙂

  2. Lori Albrough wrote:

    That’s a really important point Pat. By proactively doing the right stuff to stay centered, balanced, and aware, you fix problems before they even happen!

  3. Toni Farrell wrote:

    Lori,

    Interesting blog. When I was 18, (many, many moons ago)I started to take riding lessons. Always “rode” – never a formal lesson. My Mom said it was time I “learned to ride properly”. My sister, my Mom, and I took riding lessons together for over a year. Then I decided it would be great to learn to jump. It was during that time that my instructor taught me the use of “awareness”. It had to do with ring etiquitte. Who has the rail, who moves over, etc.; and to do all that I had to know (or be aware of)where everyone was. I grew eyes in the back of my head! I never heard it called “soft eyes” until today, but I like the term.

    I moved contentedly through life thinking anyone else that rode knew (AND PRACTICED)soft eyes. Boy was I wrong! When I started teaching horsemanship about 4 or 5 years ago, I noticed that some people were observers by nature, and others were concentrators; soft eyed or hard eyed. My soft eyed students naturally knew what was around them, and therefore their horses trusted them more, and were more relaxed. My hard eyed students had such tunnel vision that, at times, the horse would “drag them off” because of lack of trust. The ‘focused object’ became the scary object.

    Example: In the pasture I will ask both a HE and a SE student to use a bush or small tree for their center and trot circles to see if they can keep equi-distance from the center all the way around the circle. The SE student continues to look out straight through their horse’s ears, while asking for a tip of the horses nose to begin the arc. The student can see the center of the circle through peripherial vision, and is more sucessful than the HE person. The HE person concentrates on the bush/tree, turns too far into the circle, dropping the shoulder and (sometimes) jutting the head. The horse follows the lead. He drops his shoulder, gets heavy in the fore, and either goes straight to the object or shies away from it. (My Fjord goes straight to it – yeah food! My mustang almost bends in half, jutting the outside shoulder, trying to avoid it. Scary,scary)

    A note: Concentration can cause stress. Stress causes adrenaline to be released. Adrenaline causes tunnel vision, amoung other things.

    Guess all of the above is just my chatty way of saying, “Yeah, I agree with you”.

    I always look forward to reading your blog.

    Toni

  4. Lisa wrote:

    Thank you for this article! I use this technique with my Equine Facilitated Wellness clients. It is something that we can apply to so many contexts beyond horses.

  5. Cory wrote:

    Hi I’m researching soft eyes for a school project and wanted to know if you had any research or outside sources besides what is in your blog?Thanks.

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