Get Your Eyes on the Prize with Jack Le Goff

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 (