Developing the eye means to expand your visual perception to the point where you see beyond the flashy gait, steady head carriage, the “movements” or the jump. It means immediately recognizing whether the horse and rider have a good and solid foundation from which to progress, or if the horse is forced or disconnected. I will relate a little of my personal journey to develop my eye and the benefits derived.
When I see a horse and rider working together, these are the first things I notice: Straightness. First, does the horse track straight? This means not only on straight lines, but also on turns and circles. Does he place his hind feet in line with the track of his front feet at all times? Is the rider’s stirrup length the same on both sides, even on turns? (You will note in this photo that on a straight line a stiff horse can “track” straight without being straight. The rider’s position reveals the truth) Does the horse carry his tail straight and relaxed. Is the gait regular without hitching or paddling. Winging out or paddling on a turn is a sure sigh of lack of straightness and suppleness. And winging and paddling on a straight line shows both crookedness and a lack of elevation at the withers resulting in a restriction of the freedom of the shoulders. Can the rider stay centered in the saddle? Are the horse’s diagonal pairs (during the trot work) moving parallel to each other and covering an equal amount of ground? (This photo shows a clear uneveness, and has become almost an accepted form of trot extension) And finally, you will often notice a rider can place one leg close to the horse’s side, while the other leg pushes away from the horse, there is not place for this leg. Someone with a well developed eye will see these issues in a matter of seconds.
Next I will notice if the horse is supple and relaxed. Relaxation does not mean a lack of work or reduced energy. And importantly, suppleness does not mean a “rubbery” neck and head only. I put suppleness and relaxation together because a tense horse cannot maintain suppleness. So what do we see here? A horse which is supple in his body, not just his neck, will show an ease and willingness to go forward. He will show an even rotation of the hips (if he is straight) meaning each hip will lower with striding equally, not one hip swing forward and the other stiffening. The muscles will look loose with an ease of movement. The hind legs will bend at the joints and reach “forward” with the hocks. Watch for hocks the have beautiful articulation, but articulate “behind” the hips, not under them. This is all too commonly seen and indicates a hind end which is “along for the ride” put not a participant. On turns and circles the supple horse has an ease is maintaining the straightness of tracking when producing the bend. The front legs step forward from a free shoulder, showing some elevation. When the front legs are stiff or stilted, paddle and wing, it is clear they are not reaching from the shoulder and that the shoulders are blocked. This often happens when the rider has worked to develop a “supple neck” and basically disconnected the horse from back to front. Remember of course, all horses do not have great gaits, but with a fully supple horse, you will maximize his abilities.
Finally the overall impression should be of a horse moving easily forward with good expression, soft “gel-like” muscle movement, and a regular rhythm, pushing up and over the ground. All of this should develop a nice contact with the horse’s mouth, and you can almost see the energy flow from behind, through the horse and up to the bit. (Hopefully in this photo you will see the horse works with energy, engagement of the hind quarters, pushing to the bit with a freedom of the shoulder and neck, resulting in a “relaxed” effort) The horse should have enough room in his noseband to allow that he can swallow easily. If the horse cannot move his tongue and swallow, he cannot relax.
So how long does it take to quickly see past the flash, or seeming obedient movements? I can only speak for myself. I spent many hours, week, months and even years observing hundreds of horses. Often Dr. Lespinasse, who is an expert on equine biomechanics was at my side asking “What do you see”. And after I would study the pair and respond, he would often say “Look again, there is more”. It does take time and effort, and everywhere you go, you have to watch carefully and critically to learn. A note here: This is not to criticize riders and trainers, instead this should be an exercise to watch and learn, both from good and bad riding. No ride is ever perfect, there is always something to see. The point is to learn to see instantly the positive and negative so that you can apply this to your riding or teaching.
So how does a good eye benefit us as riders? Once you can see and recognize these characteristics, you will find when you ride you will begin to visualize what you are feeling. This visualization will help you realize exactly what it happening with what you feel, and at this point you can begin to apply correct solutions. Also either when teaching or helping your fellow riders, you can recognize underlying issues that are creating some of the difficulties they are experiencing in their training. You will be looking at more than the “movement” or the “jump”. In addition, for those riders to have their horses trained by others, this will help immensely in recognizing whether or not you horse is on the path you would like to see.
So, go to the the barn, to the shows, etc., and look past the gaits, the movements, the “steady” head, and study carefully what you see. Once you eye begins to progress, you will begin to recognize immediately if what you see is good training or just “smoke and mirrors”. And, as a plus, it takes a lot of the boredom out of watching 100 training level rides!!!