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Jack Le Goff: The Need for ‘Eye Control’

In this excerpt from his book Horses Came First, Second, and Last, legendary coach Jack Le Goff talks about the importance of using your eyes properly on course.

Jack Le Goff and Image on their way to a team bronze medal at the Rome Olympics in 1960. Photo courtesy of Jack Le Goff.

Whether it is on the flat in a dressage ring, in a show-jumping ring, or on a cross-country course, the eyes are the first and most important tool that a rider has. Most of my life, I have heard instructors yelling, “Keep your eyes up.” Of course, that is true, but do their students know why they are being asked to do this? There is more to it than just saying the words. The eyes should anticipate the track you are following for jumping fences, just enough to make sure you are on the track you walked for riding your course. In dressage, your eyes should be only a few strides ahead as the speed is slow and you know the geometry of the figures in the dressage arena. If you turn your head too much to one side, you are likely to get your horse off the track that you are supposed to follow. One word of caution: your head weighs between 20 and 30 pounds. If you move your head over to one side or the other, you will totally alter the balance, the direction, and the straightness. So if you have a bad habit of tilting your head, then I say, “get rid of it!” The habit, that is.

I have said for years that horses will follow your eyes. Nothing is truer because your eyes dictate the desired position needed to make a turn to the rest of your body. Consequently, it has a significant influence on your weight and balance. I have repeatedly used the example of a racecar going downhill as fast as possible and asked students to think what would happen if the driver took his eyes off the road ahead.

There is also one other imperative factor that is related to the use of the eyes and that is the sense of balance. Without getting too involved in physics, let’s accept that the center of gravity is directly under our feet. When moving forward on a horse, the balance is obviously always moving forward directly under you at a 90-degree angle. So if you keep your eyes on that 90-degree angle relative to the ground (center of gravity), you are in the best place to detect if your horse is speeding up, slowing down, or changing his balance or direction. Please experiment. Look down first and see where the center of gravity is, then raise your eyes directly in front of you and look straight ahead so your line of sight is parallel to the ground. This line will always put you at a 90-degree angle from your center of gravity and down to the ground. I would be surprised if you could not feel a remarkable difference. It is like riding a bicycle or driving a car: you will be able to feel, as well as see, whether the horse is staying on a straight line and whether he increases his speed or slows down. I guarantee you will feel it.

Observing horses teaches you a lot of things. When a horse is jumping please concentrate on his eyes and you will be able to tell at which precise moment he sees the jump. You will then see him react to that jump: he will run to it, slow down, or avoid it. The sooner the horse sees the fence, the sooner he will react to it and the more time the rider has to adjust his riding to the horse’s reaction and make the necessary corrections for a successful jump. So get his eyes on the fence as soon as you can…. People have often heard me shout, “Get his eyes on the jump!” The best way to do this is to get him straight in his neck between the reins. 

This excerpt from Horses Came First, Second, and Last by Jack Le Goff is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books (www.HorseandRiderBooks.com). 

Rein-Back the Right Way: An Excerpt from ‘The Principles of Riding’

In this excerpt from “The Principles of Riding,” the classic book from the German Equestrian Federation (FN), we learn what makes for a correct rein-back and how to correct common rider mistakes that lead to issues in the movement.

Photo courtesy of Trafalgar Square Books

When performing rein-back, the horse moves backwards with each diagonal pair of legs in unison. The diagonal steps are in the same sequence of leg as in trot, but without the moment of suspension. Therefore, as with trot, the footfall of rein-back is referred to as steps. The horse should step back willingly, markedly and on a straight line, with even steps. The horse’s feet should be lifted actively off the ground and set down backwards. This can only be achieved when the rider manages to have a controlled driving influence, even when going backwards. The rider’s aids are comparable to riding half-halts, which means that the horse is ridden into the sustaining or lightly asking hand, from back to front, with weight and leg aids. This is then followed by a giving rein aid.

Specifically, rein-back is ridden with the following aids, with the precondition that the horse is in a square halt on a straight line.

  • The rider needs to have the horse on the driving aids so that she would be able to ride off at any time without any delay.
  • By tilting the pelvis backward, a weight aid on both sides carefully gives a forward impulse without placing any more weight on the horse’s back (the upper body remains erect).
  • The rider’s lower legs both provide a forward-driving impulse to enable an active lifting and, subsequently, stepping back of the horse’s legs.
  • Both reins work briefly in a retaining or slightly asking manner and then immediately yield again. The diagonal pair of feet lifted off the ground through the driving aids steps back; the movement impulse being diverted in a backward direction.
  • This giving of aids as an interplay of driving, regulating and then once again giving aids is continued step by step until the horse is brought to a halt by the last half-halt.
  • Any sideways stepping of the horse is countered by the rider bringing the forehand onto the same track as the hindquarters, but not by pushing over the hindquarters.
  • Rein-back is completed when the rider rides the horse clearly forward using the leg and weight aids and gives with the hands without giving up the connection.

 Typical seat-and-aid mistakes/possible reactions of the horse:

  • If the rider uses the rein aids in a dominant or exaggerated way, she makes it very difficult for the horse to step backwards. If the contact becomes tight and stiff, or if the neck is too “short,” and the support from the driving aids is lacking, the horse will not go backwards with clear two-beat steps. The feet are instead dragged backwards (for example, dragging forehand). If resistance also emerges, the horse will tense up in the back. The horse is then no longer able to step backwards with a pure rhythm.
  • If the rider reacts incorrectly to the horse escaping sideways, owing to natural crookedness, for example by positioning a leg slightly too far back or by a rein that is directing minimally sideways, the horse might step backwards in an entirely crooked way. However, crooked steps can also be caused by an uneven use of leg and rein aids.
  • If the rider leans the upper body forward and at the same time, places the lower leg too far back, she no longer has the horse “in front” of her. The aids are then reduced to the rein aids only. In this case, horses frequently tend to drag their feet backwards in an irregular sequence, or they become too rushed.
  • Excessive forward-driving aids cannot be understood by the horse if it is meant to step backwards. In this instance the rider works against the forward tendency with distinct rein aids. The horse will react with resistance.

Photo courtesy of Trafalgar Square Books

This excerpt from The Principles of Riding from the German Equestrian Federation is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books (www.horseandriderbooks.com).

The Perfect Half-Halt … What Does It Feel Like?

In this excerpt from Rider + Horse = 1, leading expert in movement and riding Eckart Meyners is joined by Hannes Müller and Kerstin Niemann in explaining how half of anything can make the whole difference.

Photo by Horst Streitferdt.

It is always a risky undertaking to try to describe “feel.” Just as it is impossible to dispute matters of taste, each rider would probably describe her riding “feel” a bit differently when she applies a half-halt. An attempt to describe the feel could be something like this: The horse determines the right moment, which is when all the horse’s joints are flexing during movement. This is when the rider “gathers” the horse’s impulsion into a slightly more closed body frame (shape).

To explain further, the horse flexes his large joints from the hip through the stifle to the hock, and farther on down. Thus, his pelvis is tilted, his croup lowers, and his muscles cause his back to arch slightly upward. As a prerequisite, the rider needs to be very supple on the horse’s back since her pelvis must “receive” the movement of the horse’s arching back and follow it, meaning she slightly tilts backward and her pelvis gets “sucked” into the horse’s back movement. As a result, she will feel how her lower leg softly and automatically “clings” to the horse’s body, since her backward-tilted pelvis initiates the driving impulse in her lower leg. At the same time, her hands follow the movement of her pelvis.

During the moment of suspension in the horse’s trot or canter, the rider’s pelvis tilts slightly forward again, and as a result, her lower leg somewhat disconnects from the horse’s body and her hands move slightly and elastically forward. This is the moment when the rider “lets the horse’s forward impulsion out.” When the horse’s hooves make contact with the ground and the joints flex once more, the rider can utilize the next half-halt in the rhythm that is predetermined by the horse. This way, the rider can influence the horse with many consecutive half-halts that accompany the horse’s every movement—sometimes more, sometimes less pronounced. The functional principle is similar to a perpetual motion machine, since all the horse’s movements, whether at the walk, trot, or canter, give the rider the recurring opportunity to use the half-halt technique to influence the horse.

Since describing how and to what extent half-halts are applied is so complex, consider this thought: “The horse ‘collects’ the half-halt from the rider.” This means that through the rhythm and sequence of his movement, the horse determines how and to what extent the rider applies the half-halt; however, this should not mean that the half-halt is ridden in a reactive manner: Being able to actively utilize the half-halt requires a great deal of coordination on the part of the rider.

The following example is a fitting comparison: Take a ball and keep bouncing it on the floor with one hand. When the ball jumps up toward your hand, you first receive the ball’s movement, meaning you act reactively. Then, however, you can influence the ball’s direction and dynamics by lifting and lowering your wrist. You are, therefore using your own activity to bring energy into the “conversation” between a human hand and the ball. Just like when bouncing a ball, the rider must use her proprioception and skills in order to find the correct moment for the half-halt. Those who have developed proprioception during their riding education can “feel” the point in time when they must collect the horse’s impulsion, retain it, then with a yielding rein aid, immediately allow the horse to swing forward.

Coordination of Aids

The rider must be prepared to coordinate her aids during the half-halt, a big test of her riding skills and coordination. But she cannot learn this simply by “being moved” passively (“reacting” rather than “acting”) on a schoolmaster. Furthermore, since there are no comparable skills that a rider can fall back on that would allow her to transfer the skill to riding, this transfer must occur by using a rider’s various abilities.

Just as it is part of training for other sports, the rider should be able to fulfill intricate, complex tasks, which must occur simultaneously, consecutively, and under time pressure. As a consequence the rider becomes more sensitive to her coordination abilities. She can then act and react during situational changes without any difficulty.

Cross-coordination exercises turning around the rider’s longitudinal axis provide the best preparation since they involve using both sides of the body via the brain … these exercises assist with the interplay of aids—especially across the diagonals of your body.

Suggested Exercises

These exercises can help the rider increasingly become better able to fine-tune her aids and her influence while applying the half-halt.

  • Walking and circling one arm.
  • Walking and circling both arms consecutively—like a windmill—from front
    to back, and vice versa.
  • Walking and circling both arms at the same time from front to back, and vice
    versa.
  • Skipping and circling both arms from back to front, and vice versa.
  • Stand on balance trainer on both legs and throw a ball from left hand to right
    hand.
  • Stand on balance trainer on one leg and throw a ball up in the air.

The goal is for the rider to not only reactively experience the half-halt, but to be able to actively use it in order to change the horse’s gait, movement, and posture. Nowhere does the conversation between rider and horse become more clearly apparent than in the skillful application of half-halts.

This excerpt from Rider + Horse = 1 by Eckart Meyners, Hannes Müller, and Kerstin Niemann, is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books (www.horseandriderbooks.com).

Jack Le Goff’s 7 Rules for Conditioning the Event Horse

In this excerpt from his book “Horses Came First, Second, and Last,” the late great Olympic event coach Jack Le Goff gives us his seven tried-and-true rules for mentally and physically preparing the horse for competition.

Jack Le Goff riding Laurier to third place at Burghley in 1963. Photo courtesy of Jack
Le Goff.

The mental attitude of the horse is of equal importance as the physical conditioning. A relaxed, happy horse will not only compete better but will have far less chance of injury. If a horse is happy in his work, then competing at an event will take less out of him. A calm horse has a longer stride. Take one extra foot on a stride, and multiply that by the number of strides on a cross-country course and you will see a big difference. The horse will be faster on the course with no increase in speed because he is taking fewer strides to do it. The development of your conditioning program should include both the body and the mind and will help the horse do his job at maximum efficiency.

Conversely, if the horse is unhappy, he may not make the extra effort. You can pretty much get the horse up to the Preliminary level whether he enjoys it or not. But when it comes to the big fences, you cannot force him. It is all down to the mental attitude; many horses are physically capable of jumping the heights and widths, but they just will not do it. Horses have to like you and be happy in their work to put out that kind of effort. I see some people who do not ride so well, but horses go for them. I believe someone like that must be a good horseman or horsewoman because the horse wants to work for him or her.

Injuries are often related to the horse’s mental condition. If a horse is relaxed, he is not going to get into half the trouble he will if he is fighting the rider all through the course. Not only is the unhappy horse going to knock himself, he is also going to have problems in his back, muscle soreness, and problems in the shoulders, all because he is mentally unhappy and tense. He is going to run around with his head in the air, unresponsive to his rider, who will then head to the hardware store for a solution instead of the drawing board!

The happy horse will use his body properly. He will be able to make the time between jumps; he will seem like he is flowing, coming back smoothly for turns and flowing forward. His muscles will work freely. The tendons will slide inside the tendon sheath, and they will seldom be injured. The articulated joints will work fluidly. There will be no rubbing or grating because the horse is relaxed. His muscles are relaxed and he is supple, listening, obediently responding to the rider’s aids, and he is covering the ground with relaxed, efficient strides, not wasting an ounce of his energy. This is the epitome of our goal in our training and conditioning program. And again, it all comes down to going forward, coming back, and turning smoothly like a well-oiled machine.

Although there are basic principles to conditioning horses, I never trained two teams the same way and have always adjusted the conditioning of event horses according to specific factors, such as:

1. The distances and speed required and the nature of the terrain of the target competition.

2. The length of time since the horse’s last competition. A horse that has not been competing for several months will need more conditioning than one who is competing regularly.

3. The facilities available for conditioning. Gently rolling open fields are ideal, some hills would be an asset, but you must make the best of what you have nearby.

4. The temperament of the horse. With a hot horse, you must use a lot of long distances at slower speeds. With a more easygoing horse, you will use shorter distances at faster speeds.

5. The age and soundness of the horse. With a horse whose soundness is delicate, you must replace the speed work on the flat with slower work uphill and possibly swimming.

6. The upcoming competitions. When conditioning for a three-day event, the horse trials leading up to it will be a critical part of the horse’s fitness preparation and nothing can replace competition.

7. The rule of three. Three weeks prior to a major competition I always sharpen up the horses with a competition. If you have to travel a long distance to the final competition, then the trial can move to four weeks prior. Racehorse trainers would not conceive running the Kentucky Derby without prep races. Finally, let me say that it is essential that a horse get a rest period after a hard season. They should be turned out for 10 hours a day in a safe pasture whenever possible and for at least three weeks. Young horses at the Preliminary and Intermediate levels don’t need any riding during this decompression period, but an older horse may need a gentle hack to keep his joints loose and his back muscles in decent shape. A rest of less than three weeks simply will not do. Also, a midseason break just doesn’t work as the horse simply won’t let down during that short length of time, but you can give him what I call an “active rest.” This means taking him for hacks with no work as such. It is better to let the groom do it if possible as you would be tempted to do something instead of leaving him alone. Horses can go sour more quickly than people. Treat them like people because they think and react to their conditions and they have feelings; they also need a vacation!

This excerpt from Horses Come First, Second, and Last by Jack Le Goff is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books (www.horseandriderbooks.com).