Somebody recently asked, “Why do so many of the great masters ride looking down?”
This topic also came up for discussion at the clinic in Canberra last weekend.
I don’t know if it is still widely taught, but when I was a kid there was a lot of shouting at students to “look up where you are going” and, “keep your heels down.” They were the two most repeated mantras that instructors pounded into their students. I was clearly a poor listener as a student because I strayed far.
So here is my take on looking up or looking down.
I think there are two reasons in favour of looking up – one is a good reason and the other is not.
The action of looking up tends to help straighten the rider’s back and align the spine more vertically rather than round the shoulders and pitch the upper body forward. So it can help to maintain a steady and more correct centre of gravity for a rider. However, this is not automatically true. A rider can tilt their head down and maintain a good position of the spine and centre of gravity. The classical dressage master, Nuno Oliveira was an excellent example of somebody who appeared to do all the wrong things, yet was able to maintain excellent balance with the horse. So while looking up can help a student rider avoid getting into bad habits of misaligning their spine and balance, it is not a rule that the first automatically causes the second.
The second reason that I was told you must always look up was incorporated into the phrase, “ you must look where you are going.” The inference was that if you looked down at your horse you would not be able to see where you were going and you ran the risk of running into things or worse creating crookedness in your horse. In my view, this is a weak reason for requiring riders to look up. Most riders who tend to look down know exactly where they are and where they are going. Both the horse and rider know what’s ahead, behind and to the side and rarely run the risk of collision.
When it comes to looking down there are two ways of doing it. The first is for the rider to tilt their head downward, and the second it is to look down while keeping their head level. For example, Nuno Oliveira often tilted his head forward to look at his horse, whilst the modern darling of competition dressage, Charlotte Dujardin is an expert at looking down while maintaining a level head position.
As I said above, it is possible for a rider to look down and still maintain a good position and know where they are going by maintaining spatial awareness. Nonetheless, some people find that looking up and forward is easier for them to achieve these things. If a rider can ride effectively when looking up or looking down, the choice to do so should be personal and between them and their horse.
But in my opinion, the decision to look up or look down when riding a horse should be determined by the rider’s ability to focus. A rider can learn to stay balanced and be aware of where they are going no matter where they are looking, however, the ability to stay focused and attentive to the horse under them is often influenced by where they are looking.
I find by looking down at my horse I can feel a lot more than when I am looking up and ahead with all the distractions that come into my field of vision. Looking at something like the neck of my horse allows me to be much more aware of everything else about the horse. My ability to feel and be aware is magnified because the horse’s neck becomes a point where I can shut out distractions. If I look up and ahead there is so much visual information being taken in that I struggle to filter it all out and focus on my feel. Nevertheless, there are a lot of riders who are able to be very focused and aware when they look up. For them, looking up is a much better option.
In summary, I no longer believe it is important for a rider to “look where they are going.” I think as long as our horse approves of what we do, who cares?
Photo: This must be one of the “great masters” that the person who posed the original question was referring to.