Anyone who has attended one of my clinics will have heard me talk about vision as one of the key elements for improving our riding. However just how important our vision is, was really brought home to me last month when I attended the International Society of Rider Biomechanics 2015 Symposium in Lexington, Kentucky.
One of the key speakers at the Symposium was Dr Todd R Davis, a developmental optometrist. He spoke at length about how our vision and posture are intricately linked. The eyes are extensions of the brain and therefore a part of our central nervous system. For example:- when light strikes the retina at the back of our eye, signals and messages travel through the optic nerve to the visual cortex in the back of our brain. Our brain then processes and interprets this information and then sends it down the spinal cord and onward to the rest of our body. If our posture is poor, these lightning-fast connections can be severed or skewed. Over a prolonged period of time, improper posture can gradually lead to shallow breathing, decreased circulation, stagnated lymph flow, not to mention physical fatigue and blurred vision!
Once our vision is affected by poor posture and begins to blur, our posture often deteriorates even faster through straining to see either a close or distant object by reaching the neck forward or cranking it back. Vision and posture are intertwined and can either work together to spiral downward toward imbalance or spiral upward toward optimal functioning.
Dr Davis went on to talk about peripheral and channelled vision and how these affected our balance and posture. Although the terms used were different, this is what in the horse world is frequently referred to as soft or hard eyes..
When we use soft eyes, our body and breathing stays relaxed and we are able to take in information from our entire field of vision, our balance and posture is better automatically. When we use hard eyes, our body tenses, our breathing becomes shallower, our balance and posture deteriorates.
So let’s experiment with your eyes. Firstly, whilst sitting quietly, focus very intently on one thing. Look intently at the object – you can probably feel your chin start to jut forward and a tension in your shoulders. Now, relax your eyes, although still looking towards your chosen object, be aware of everything else around you – not just to the left and right but above and below. Feel how your shoulders relax and your breathing becomes smoother.
One of Dr Davis’ tips was to try to see from your spine. Instead of reaching your eyes outward and straining or squinting to see something in the distance, try relaxing and imagine you are seeing with the visual cortex in the very back of your brain. This practice encourages relaxed use of the eyes and takes the pressure off the need to see. It also allows for deep, rhythmic breathing and a gentle tuck of the chin to elongate the spine.
And vision isn’t just about seeing either. Vision also encompasses visualisation. Many elite athletes routinely use visualisation techniques as part of training and competition. There are many stories of athletes who’ve used these techniques to cultivate not only a competitive edge, but also to create renewed mental awareness, a heightened sense of well-being and confidence. All of these factors have been shown to contribute to their success.
Top horseman also talk about the importance of visualisation. Dominique Barbier discusses it in depth in his book “The Alchemy of Lightness”, Mark Rashid, Tom Nagel and Marijke de Jong stress how visualisation can improve your riding.
If you struggle with visualization, then I have some comforting news for you, lots of us do! Certainly there are some people who have the ability to close their eyes and instantly bring up crystal clear images, but for many of us this is a skill that needs to be developed over time. With practice however, everyone has the ability to visualize.
There are two keys principles to keep in mind when practicing visualisation. The first is, your practice needs to be consistent. Five minutes a day every day, will always beat an intense hour long session once a week. It helps to make a commitment to practice your visualisation the same time every day. The second key principle is you need to stay positive. Even if you can’t summon crystal clear images yet, you will still gain huge benefits from your visualisation practice. It still works. So, imagine yourself riding the perfect centre line, that fabulous half pass, or even just getting on your horse – and keep mentally practicing it!