Eye focus is one of the most important skills to develop for all equestrian disciplines. It links together the plan riders have for the ring with their performance – what they do, and how and when they do it. It establishes the correct timing which impacts the quality and consistency of a horse’s performance from start to finish.
Eye gaze (a fixation point) and eye movement (between places or objects) are what connect the visual information to different regions of our brain, enabling us to send messages to our body that control the necessary responses. They connect the external object (dressage letter, brush jump) with a rider’s internal instruction of how to use the seat, legs, body, arms, or hands and how the horse is responding during their performance.
Three types of eye gaze
1. The locate eye focuses on something stationary such as a jump, dressage letter, or uphill bank. Example: Triple bar out of a corner across a diagonal on an indoor equitation course.
> Outcome goal: Maintain the correct pace and rhythm out of the corner to jump the width of the triple bar. Cantering through the corner, the rider locates the centre of the triple bar.
> Rider’s internal instruction: “Keep the pace and rhythm out of the corner.”
>> Critical question: “How responsive is my horse to my leg?”
2. The smooth pursuit tracking eye follows something in motion such as horses in the warm-up ring, a dog running outside the ring, competitors in a flat class. Example: A rider following a competitor in a hack class.
> Outcome goal: Ensure there is enough space between horses to highlight your horse’s movements to the judge.
> Critical questions: “How close am I? Is the horse a bigger mover than mine? Will I have enough room to maintain a steady lengthened stride at the trot? Where is there more space in the ring?”
3. The traveling eye moves calmly in a path in front of the rider’s movement: galloping cross-country, on bending lines in a jumper course, during warm-up patterns, while course walking.
Example: Show jumper course walking.
> Outcome goal: A detailed winning strategy from start to finish.
> Critical question: “What specific routes and tracking will I use through the turns, to the jumps, on landing, and in between jumps?”
Four types of eye movement
To ensure a smooth execution of a plan from the moment you enter the ring to the time you exit, the eye continually moves from one location to the next.
1. ONSET: The eyes pursuit track, travel, or locate the object (jump, dressage letter) before the movement starts.
2. DURATION: How long the eyes stay steady on that specific location, travel, or pursuit track.
3. OFFSET: The eyes moves off the location, travel, or pursuit track.
4. SACCADE: When the eyes move rapidly from one fixation point to another.
Developing a rider’s skill in eye gaze and eye movement will be uniquely different with each equestrian discipline. A show jumper will have a greater need to develop the skill of combining a locate and pursuit eye for the warm-up ring, compared to a dressage rider’s need in the warm-up ring. An event rider galloping cross-country will use a travel eye for a much longer duration than an equitation rider’s traveling eye duration in an indoor arena bending line.
Top riders use these eye gaze and movement skills and you can train your eyes to do the same. While little research has been done with regards to eye gaze and movement in equestrian sports, Dr. Joan Vickers, a specialist in educational psychology including motor learning and control, has researched a variety of other sports (golf, hockey, basketball, etc.) using a mobile eye tracker – goggles with one camera to read eye movement and a second camera to pinpoint gaze location. A fundamental part of her research has been to detect the difference between how an elite athlete uses their eye compared to a non-elite athlete/amateur. Each of the sports are distinctly different, but the results were the same:
- Elite athlete’s onset (when the gaze locks onto an object) is earlier.
- Elite athlete’s duration (length of the gaze) is
- Elite athlete’s offset (when the gaze leaves the object) is sooner.
- Elite athlete’s gaze has fewer rapid shifts or saccades.
These exceptional findings enabled Dr. Vickers to establish a training technique on how to improve the skill of eye gaze and movement in sport – “The Quiet Eye.”
Exercises to improve horseback riders’ eye gaze and movement
When riding, begin with understanding where you use a locate, pursuit, or travel eye, and if you use one more than another.
STEP 1: Call out what eye gaze you are using when it happens. Are you more externally focused (on a jump or other obstacle in the ring) or internally (on a specific area of the body, such as your hands or your horse’s ears)?
STEP 2: Practice doing the opposite of what you were calling out. Train your eye to focus more externally. Research indicates training external focus has greater improvement in long-term performances.
Be aware of your onset, how long you hold it, and when you offset.
STEP 1: Set cones where you onset and offset. Can you hold the gaze steady in between?
STEP 2: Set the onset cone further away. Recognize how much your eye may want to saccade (rapid shift) as you hold the duration longer. It is natural for your eye to shift, but the goal is to only shift a few times to obtain the most visual information. Note that elite athlete gaze has a long duration and picks one very specific place.
STEP 3: Put it all together: Incorporate eye gaze and movements to a complete dressage test, show jumping or cross-country course.
> Outcome goal: Eye gaze and movement perform like a pro’s – onset earlier, duration is longer and offset is sooner.
> Critical questions: “Does my eye gaze move smoothly from start to finish? Was my internal instruction clearer? Was my horse’s response more consistent throughout?”
A Jumper’s Focal Point
What part of the jump should the rider actually be looking at?
Interestingly enough, research has found that it is not the top rail (which is continually taught). Riders should “locate” the top rail, then their eye should move to the landing side. Similar to stepping over a log, you would look to see how wide the log was, but then you would look on the landing side to see where your feet would land.
To help train your eye to look at the landing, place cones out of the way on the far side of the fence at the appropriate distance. Locating the landing will make the distances for takeoff become much more consistent and the anxiety of “finding a distance” greatly decreases.
How the ‘quiet eye’ helps manage anxiety
If the eyes move too rapidly from one object to another, the brain is unable to register information. Biathlon shooting research monitored heart rate under physical and mental stress and whether the shooter missed or not. As heart rate increased, accuracy declined 75% with those shooters that choked; those that did not had a longer duration time. Training your eye to look sooner and stay steady longer will decrease errors and increase attention, problem-solving, and relaxation.
Reaction time can make the difference between a championship or reserve. So how do you make your brain react faster? Train it to see earlier!