The Key To Seeing the big picture from the back of your horse
Become a better rider. Have a thriving horse.Optimizing peripheral vision and proprioception to ride with effortless awareness
What Is Soft Focus?
The easiest way to think of soft focus is to imagine sitting on your horse in a wide open space. Picture an area where you can see for miles. As you look out you are able to simultaneously capture the expansiveness around you while still noting the direction your horse’s ears are turned. You are also able to pick up on the squareness of your shoulders, the weight of the reins in your hands, and your ankles being softly drawn down by gravity. By effortlessly taking in all that is around you with soft vision-you are able to openly feel what is going on inside your body. While observing all views from every angle at the same time we tap into soft focus.
In Sally Swift’s book Centered Riding 2, she refers to this type of vision as “soft eyes”. She goes on to explain how keeping your entire field of vision expansive and flexible allows you to take in greater awareness of all things including how your body is feeling and the feel of the horse.
*Side note her book is also filled with excellent info and descriptions for optimizing many riding skills, I highly recommend it. If you want to check it out further you can grab a copy of it here.
I’ve been testing and teaching soft focus for years and I can honestly say that the changes that come from adopting this way of riding well outweigh a strong leg, more seat, heals down, and steady hands. At the risk of sounding dramatic soft focus changes your relationship with yourself and your relationship with your horse. Enough chatting about what it is, let’s dive into the philosophy further with the Why and How.
Why Do I Need It? Key Benefits Of Soft Focus
Know exactly where you are in the arena at all gaits. No more feeling flustered by obstacles (or corners, depending on the day) that sneak up out of nowhere.
*Master Ideal Timing
Having a vision for your entire pattern or exercise will give you the ability to cue your horse at the perfect time to execute each element in exactly the right spot. This will make your patterns that look effortless and organized.
*Make Your Horse's Job Easier
By using soft focus you will be able to stay more balanced in the saddle because you will not be looking down as much. It will also be easier for your horse to know where you want to go because they will feel you focusing on the path you want them to go on while still remaining aware of what your body is doing.
*Increase Your Horse's Trust
When you are able to give organized and timely directions to your horse they will naturally have more faith in your ability to lead your team of two effectively. This biggest area that I have seen increased trust with soft focus is riding in traffic. When your horse knows you won’t accidentally run them into another horse because you have the entire arena in focus they are much more willing to trust your directions.
*Feel More Relaxed And In Tune With Your Body While Riding
Eliminating the tension that comes with hard focus will make it easier to breathe and move with the rhythm of your horse’s movement. It also makes it much easier to feel when areas of your body become tense so you can make a conscious effort to release them.
How Do I Develop It? Key Exercises and Tips To Improve Soft Focus In The Saddle
1. Use Colored Markers
Using cones or markers that are different colors can make your eyes tune-in more specifically to your surroundings without having to switch to narrowing your focus directly on the marker. As you view your entire riding area its easier to take in where each color is placed rather than try to remember where each cone is. You can then set up patterns and activities with an order based on a sequence of colors.
By doing this you create a sort of short-cut in your mind. For example setting up an exercise that involves cantering at the green cone, turning right at the blue one, stopping at the red cone, and then backing to the yellow one your memory will work off of green, blue, red, and yellow to keep track of what you’re doing and where you’re doing it. Because the vision of the entire exercise is organized and simplified in your mind you will find it much easier to free up brain power to stay in touch with your horse’s movement and connected to what your body is doing as you ride. Give it a try, you can grab reasonable colored cones here or you can mark the ones you already have with bands of different colors of tape.
2. Ride Between The Lines (horse limbo)
Learning to perfect the use of peripheral vision on all sides of the horse at the same time can be incredibly valuable. Just picture riding in an arena that has a lot of traffic. You’re trying to keep track of where the other horses are while staying focused on what you want to accomplish with your horse. It can get overwhelming very quickly causing your horse to lose confidence in your ability to give clear directions and keep him safe. So how do we get better at being aware of surroundings while maintaining a seamless flow of instruction to our horse?
Try out a game of horse limbo (don’t panic you’re not going to be riding under a ground pole hanging from the rafters). Start by setting up two poles on the ground parallel to each other about six feet apart in the center of your arena. If you have a partner on the ground while you ride they will adjust the poles after each time you pass through them (hence the name horse limbo). If you don’t have a partner you will set out another pair of poles on one end of the arena that are four feet apart from one another and a pair two feet apart on the other end.
As you ride between the poles you will keep soft awareness of your distance from them on either side of you while still maintaining you forward focus of where to go next. You partner on the ground can challenge you by adjusting the distance between the poles making the track you ride narrower as you get better at riding straight through the center. They can also call out what speed to go as you ride through. If you are working solo start out with slower speeds working through the wide, medium, and narrow pairs of poles then increase to faster gates as you get more skilled at staying centered.
3. Track Awareness (focus on the path you want to ride)
Choosing a specific track to ride is a great way to use peripheral vision to keep track of the direction your horse’s energy is going while still staying on task. The set up is simple and flexible. Set out cones in groups of three in a row spaced with about three feet between each cone. Then set out poles either scattered at random or on a circle (see diagram options). Don’t worry about getting the set-up perfect you will play with spacing to make it more or less challenging when you have a chance to try it out for a couple of rides.
As you approach each set of cones and each pole, decide if you are going to ride right in the middle or ride to the right or left side. As you make and execute your decision start picking out the next obstacle to ride over while maintaining straightness in your horse.
*Remember if you shift to a hard focus ahead your horse will probably not stay on the track you picked for the obstacle you are riding over. If you shift to hard focus on the obstacle your horse will struggle with where to go next making you lose your seamless flow from one to another.
4. Call out horse's shoulders while riding figure eights
Being able to see what your horse’s body is doing by using peripheral vision without losing track of the rest of the arena and awareness of what your own body is doing is a key to becoming a great supportive rider. By riding a figure eight and watching out of the corner of your eye when your horse’s outside shoulder comes up you can start to gain more “feel” for the horse’s movement. Working this exercise on a figure-eight gives you a chance to practice becoming aware of both shoulders evenly as you swap from one loop to the next. It will also set you up to start feeling for getting the correct diagonal when posting at the trot.
5. Body Awareness- Tracing Circles
As you ride you can put your reins in one hand and with your other hand placed on your shoulder make small circles with your elbow. Use your peripheral vision to track where your elbow is going. You will know that you are starting to get the hang of it if you can keep an eye on where you are riding and still softly see your elbow out of the corner of your eye. If you look too hard at your arm you will get a bit disoriented to the direction you’re going. Challenge yourself to work it at the jog and lope.