The Eyes Have It

by Corrine Fierkens

“Pretend you have a heavy earring in your left ear”, the instructor said. The make-believe earring worked well and good to Straighten my head out…. Until, that is, a minute later when I had to start thinking about the imaginary beach ball I was holding, and then the little birdies in my hands, and then the bucket of water in my pelvis, and then the 20 dollar bill under my knees, and
then zipping up my spine like a zipper, and then my breathing because I was so cerebral at that point- trying not to drop any of my imaginary props- I was forgetting to exhale!

“Good grief!” I thought. “Is this what it’s going to be like if I want to become a really good dressage rider?” My mind was swimming in a sea of very clever metaphors used to help me understand how to more effectively use my body, but I was on overload. It was as if I couldn’t even see where my horse and I were going- my “mental eyes” were turned so far inward.

“It’s never like this on the trail,” I thought. “I do some of my best riding and training outdoors.” That thought didn’t come back to me until years later while I was doing something that has improved my own riding and horsemanship more than anything: teaching abled and dis-abled young people to ride. 

As it turns out, many children struggle with “images” and benefit from being given specific and direct instruction. I was reminded of this again and again when students looked at me as if I were speaking ewok and said things like, “Miss Cori, how can I make my hands any quieter? I’m not even clapping them.”

 It was while I was teaching these kids to be more aware of activity surrounding them that I suddenly heard that internal comment I had made years before, “It’s not like this on the trail…” except this time with a conclusion, “because nothing can take my eyes off the scenery and potential safety issues out there. Eureka! When I ride outside the arena I HAVE MY EYES ON THE HORIZON!” 

So I took a moment to teach kids what the horizon is, and gave them the substitute of the top rail when they were indoors. This gave them a specific place to put their eyes when the instructor said, “Look up,” (which, by the way, usually resulted in ceiling staring and whiplash.) 

The results were consistent. Not only did the kids develop more arena awareness because they finally had the benefit of peripheral vision, but they also self corrected a number of posture issues. Bonus! 

Here’s my theory on how/why this works: We all have a  dominant eye, just as we have a dominant hand and leg. When we look down, we do not have a visual spacial frame of reference, and our dominant eye… dominates… sending incorrect information to our proprioceptors about what “balanced” is. 

When we place our eyes on a horizontal line, it gives the eyes a point of reference and brings awareness to non-horizontal eye position (tilted heads) and also disengages the dominant eye somewhat. As our eyes (and consequently our heads) typically align with horizontal visual cues, we become subconsciously more spatially aware and therefore effortlessly correct a series of misaligned posture issues that compensated for an off-kilt head. Basically: eyes on the level= head on the level. 

Now, when I catch a student or myself being very one-eye dominant I just give a simple verbal cue; “horizon”. 

By the way, if you’d like to know which of your eye dominates, it is easy to figure out. Have a friend watch you as you hold your hands like a window frame out in front of your face and frame the face of your friend. Make sure that the friend can see both of your eyes initially, before you slowly start to bring your frame (which is only big enough for one eye) back toward your face. Repeat this a few times and have your friend make
note of which one of your eyes you end up peeping through your frame with. This is your dominant eye. Your head will typically tilt that direction while you ride. 

So just remember this; When the rider became discombobulated and overwhelmed, she got back on track when she put Her-Eyes-On the Hor-Iz- On.