The Rider's Head
Riding a horse with your head can have a lot of different meanings. In one sense, it says “be a thinking rider.” While I totally agree with that statement, for this blog post, I mean head physically.
How often do we instruct riders to “pick up your head,” “look out in front of the horse,” “Quit looking down at the horse,” “Eyes up,” “Heads up,” etc. This is a perpetual instructional issue. Even C.W. Anderson, back in 1944, wrote a book for kids titled “Heads Up, Heels Down.”
Why do Riders Have This Problem?
Believe it a lot, there are a lot of things involved with riding horses that encourage riders to develop the habit of looking down. Unless you catch these developing into habits from the beginning, you may have to correct them later. And let’s agree that occasionally tipping the head is not the same as habitually looking down.
For example, many students struggle with learning diagonals. You may say, I teach diagonals through feel. My experience has been that this works after the student has learned what a diagonal looks like from the saddle. If you teach the rider to sit as a certain shoulder draws back, a visual learner will need to see this. The same goes for teaching beginners about leads.
We teach beginning riders to worry about how long their reins are, whether their hands are even, if they keep them on the neck, if they have their thumbs up, if their hands are moving, having a following hand. If your student is a visual learner, these things require a visual check.
Some students look down because they worry, especially if the horse travels over things, such as poles. Learning to keep your eyes up over a series of trot poles or over jumps requires work and concentration.
And then there is the big culprit, especially with riders who show. Watching the horse’s head for position or steadiness, or making sure it’s in the right place for a frame can develop a head down posture for the rider. This is a common issue among breed show riders and trainers.
And consider this, with the time people spend looking at a phone in their hands while texting or playing a game, the modern body is almost conditioned toward looking down.
Why is Looking Down or Tipping the Head a Problem?
There are obvious visual reasons, such as you cannot see where you are going if you’re looking at the ground, and overall it presents an unattractive picture. The biggest reason is that tipping the head down screws with the rider’s balance and raises their center of gravity.
The average adult’s head weighs between 10-11 pounds. I’m not sure I want to know how anyone knows this, but here is a brief article from What Things Weigh with the answer. (BTW, this article also claims a horse’s head weighs about 10% of its total body weight.) If you’d like more detail about the weight of a human head, check out this Wikipedia article.
Our bodies, along with our necks, are designed to carry our head vertically. Ideally, when the head is over the body, the sensation of the rider’s weight will travel/ distribute through the torso and seat into the legs and heels. Not only does this help to distribute the rider's weight, it lowers the center of gravity from the shoulder blade region to the waist/seat area. The lower a rider’s center of gravity, the more likely they are to develop a deep seat and the more secure they are on the horse.
This simple shift of the head from tipped down to correctly positioned over the body makes it easier for the horse by aligning the rider’s weight over the horse’s center of balance as opposed to forward and overburdening the forehand.
And here's a surprise-A rider who habitually rides looking at the horse’s head in oprder to focus on what the horse is doing may develop an additional problem of learning to balance by sight instead of feel. This change can spread to other non-horse related areas of their lives.
A head properly aligned not only makes the rider safer, it makes the horse more comfortable.
Keeping the head/eyes up is something that every rider will deal with in their riding life. For instructors, the constant nagging to keep the head up, eyes up, or whatever phrase you use can become super tiresome. While I believe in repetition, truthfully, enough droning of the same thing will cause riders to tune out and will bore/frustrate an instructor to tears..
The real cure, of course, is the rider’s decision to change. And aside from showing your rider what they are doing through photography or mirrors, the best way to get a rider to change is through teaching them to use their eyes as independently as they use any of their aides.
Here's a Plan
Incorporate the following exercise in a controlled environment during your lesson. It works for any discipline.
Using an obstacle- a single pole, series of poles, a jump, or you choose the object, have your rider keep eye contact with you from a marker (cone in my illustrations) until they pass you. If your riders do not do poles or jump, use two buckets for them to ride between in place of the poles or jump.
You can talk with your rider during the process, or not. Your choice. Do insist they keep their head up while they focus.
The Head Exercise
Begin by standing in a direct line with their path. When they have successfully held your eye contact until they ride past you, you can move to the next stage of the imaginary arch. You chose how many stations to take on the arc. My illustrations show 3 on each side of center. And you choose how far from the obstacle you wish to stand.
The horse and the rider will travel the same line directly down the center of the poles, jump or other obstacle, while their head and eyes will move to hold your gaze. If you are concerned that your rider cannot maintain the straight line without help as you move on the arc, you can place a second cone at the exit point.
The Head Exercise Diagrams
Use this exercise in a variety of ways: increase the distance of the instructor from the rider. Vary the number of poles. Use cones or markers instead of poles. If jumping, change the height or width of the jump. Instead of eye contact have the rider tell you how many fingers you hold above your head.
I'd Love to Hear From You!
If you try this exercise, let me know in the comments how it worked for your students. Or if you have a head exercise you use with students, I’d love to have you share in the comments.
Here's to giving great riding lessons,
Barbara Ellin Fox