Trainer Tuesday: How do you teach a rider who has developed the habit of looking down?

Welcome to Trainer Tuesday! Each week we ask trainers a question and gather their answers for you. These trainers have a range of experience, backgrounds, and focus points of their programs, so the answers have as much variation as you would expect and also probably much more similarity. 

This week’s question posed is: How do you teach a rider who has developed the habit of looking down? 

Here are their answers:

“If I’m teaching a lesson at home, and it’s with a child, I usually will hold up my fingers and ask how many I’m holding up as they are coming down the jump or line of jumps towards me. If the student is showing, we pick focal points at the ends of the ring to look up at. Or eyes always above the ears. Adults and kids, always look where you want to go next, and that’s not the ground!” -Kristen Carollo
Read about Kristen Carollo here. 

“One exercise that is helpful for riders who habitually look down, is as follows…

Stand at different points in the arena and hold up your hand and ask the rider to count how many fingers you are holding up. Keep changing the number of fingers and your spot in the ring. You can do this while flatting or jumping. The simplest method for jumping is to set up a line and have the rider verbally announce how many fingers you are holding up after they have measured the out of the line.

Another option is to tell them that they will eventually end up where they are looking. So if they are constantly looking at the ground, that is likely where they will end up at some point haha!” -Lyman T. Whitehead
Listen to T on the Plaidcast here.

“The dreaded looking down! The great Sue Ashe says ‘those who look at the ground- meet the ground! But even that is not enough to convince them! Sometimes I will go to the end of the ring, hold my hand up and change how many fingers I’m holding up. They have to go to the jump and say 2, 5, 1. This makes it a little more fun and engaging. Or I’ll ask them what they are looking at. If they say ‘tree’ I’ll ask them what kind of tree? They’ll start laughing and say ‘I don’t know!’ But, They have a good jump! Why? Because they are looking up and they’re distracted and leaving the horse alone! Eventually the only thing I have to say is eyes!

I will also joke with them about the only time they can look down is when the winning lotto number is written on the jump! Then we are all buying fancy ponies!

I always explain to my students that just by looking down: their shoulders go forward, their leg slides back, heels go up. So one seemingly little error, snowballs into a big position mess!” -Jennifer Pigue
Read about Jennifer’s students winning the Horsemanship Quiz Challenge stable challenge here.

“I use two main exercises:

I stand on the landing side of the fence at a distance, and as I think the rider has seen their distance ask them to look at me. Sometimes I will hold up a hand with a different and changing number of fingers raised and ask the rider to say the number of fingers out loud.

Second exercise is to incorporate a turn on the landing side of the jump. As the rider sees the distance I say either “look right” or “look left” before they get to the jump, or before they leave the ground.” -Geoff Teall
Listen to Geoff on the Plaidcast here.

“Riders need to be taught to look up from the very first lesson. Teach them to find objects outside the ring directly in front of them. If their habit is looking down while in the air, have them ride to a point outside the ring, staring at it or telling you what it is while over the jump. You can’t drive a car looking at the steering wheel!” -Robin Greenwood
Read about Robin here.

“When I have a rider who has the habit of looking down I use exercises with specific focal points for them to focus on as they are riding. I will also stand at the end of the long side and have them look at me and ride to me. I will do this on the backside of a jump as well.” -Jenn Tirrell
View Jenn in The Plaid Horse here.

“I only teach students how to change their diagonal – not to look for or try to identify it – until they have been riding for at least a few years and can feel it. This prevents them ever starting to look down as a solution to anything. Once one has developed the habit, riding a lot of small ponies or ponies that you feel top heavy on helps you feel the balance you need to keep your chin up.” -Emily Elek
Stalk Emily’s spreadsheet here

“Here’s a neat trick to help keep our eyes forward. Many riders remind themselves to keep their eyes up by ‘looking where they’re going,’ but let’s take it a step further and imagine looking where your horse is looking and going! This is called the Partner Perspective because you’re seeing – and visualizing – your ride out of the eyes of your horse which creates a new kind of connection and understanding between horse and rider. For example, if you steer your horse towards a four foot wooden squirrel… what must he be thinking and seeing? Keep your legs on and keep looking at the squirrel just like he must be!” -Daniel Stewart
Read Daniel’s articles on Plaid here.

“Focusing on focal points is a good way to break the habit of looking down. I add focal points around the rail and also do the classic, ‘how many fingers am I holding up’ trick while the riders are going around.”  -Caroline Mercier Stanton

“Early on, I usually use a little humor to try to coax them out of it. I tell them that the instructions are not written in the arena dirt, or that the $20 bill they are apparently looking for is mine, so they might as well give up. Or, I tell the teenage girls that this is the one instance in their lives where they are actually encouraged to look snotty – and there is no teenage girl who does not know how to do that, lol. Beyond that, it is a habit that will be broken the same way it was installed…by constant repetition. I remind them frequently to look up – or chin up, or eyes up, or shoulders back. Unfortunately, like learning almost anything, it’s a long, slow climb of doing it over and over the correct way. There are no shortcuts.” -Daphne Thornton
Listen to Daphne on the Plaidcast here.

“I love using Teaching Tools when I teach clinics to help problems just like this one! If I have to say more than once to a rider “Get your eyes UP” I’ll put on either the black strap Eyes Up Goggles(they are actually basketball dribbling glasses) or the Murdoch Eyes Up Glasses.  Both are equally effective because the rider can still look down, but their line of vision is blocked and they can’t see anything!! I’ll keep them on the rider for about ten minutes and then take them off because I don’t want them to become a crutch! Sometimes just the threat of putting them back on is enough for the rider to be able to remember to keep these eyes UP!” -Sally Batton
Read Sally’s book The Athletic Equestrian: Over 40 Exercises for Good Hands, Power Legs, and Superior Seat Awareness.

“I bought a bulk box of dribbling goggles that I handed out to riders who look down; I can enforce keeping one’s eyes up during lessons but it’s their daily routine that will make a lasting habit. I try to use solutions riders can apply every time they saddle up!” -Courtney Hayden-Fromm
Read about Courtney here.

“When a rider develops a habit of looking down, I turn to focal points. If we are in our indoor I will have them pick a spot on the wall, or something they can see out our window. If they need more lift we go to looking at our heaters in the corners. When we are outside, or at a show, I give them focal points such as certain trees or objects. I build that into the course, ‘Jump the line, look at the right side of the bright pine tree and ride to it, then turn and look at the tiny elm tree…’ It seems to help them all use their corners. -Elzabeth Lampert 
Read about Elzabeth here.

“We train to scout early and in advance — riding to targets on secure lines.  This replaces the waylaying habit of looking down. For hunters, jumpers and eventers, it’s obvious that we must look for the next fence.  For dressage riders it’s not as obvious, but equally important that we decide our lines-of-travel by scouting ahead.” -Jane Frizzell

“Create specific focal points around the ring – straight ahead and above horizontal. Ride from focal point to focal point.” -Traci Brooks
Listen to Traci’s book With Purpose: The Balmoral Standard.

“I stand ahead of them and hold my fingers up and ask them to add the first and last number I hold up when approaching a jump or going through a turn.” -Stefanie Mazer
Read Stefanie’s Tips to Successfully Matching Buyers and Sellers here.

“I try to use focal points past the jump continuing through the landing after a jump. I also use basketball dribbling glasses.” -Waddy Oursler

“For riders who look down, I commonly tell them to pick a specific point to look up to & track with their eyes. I have them pick points all around the ring. When they turn a corner I have them find their point & ride to it. This tool can work double duty, as it also helps riders ride straight away from the jump and helps prepare the rider for the rest of the course to come.” -Abbi Ferrigno

“I feel looking down is another bad habit that is an indication of something missing, wether that be feel, timing or education. I’m from a bit of a different camp in that I tell my riders often to look down at their horses neck so they can see what’s happening. Most people can see it better than they can feel it. Feel is learned and I feel that vision helps the learning process.” -Berry Porter
Read about Berry’s winning student Eleanor at the WEC Premier Cup this past weekend here.

“I usually have them focus on something ahead before jumping a fence. When we’re doing flat work I have them look between the horses ears. Also when using the corners I have them focus on the next corner and then ahead. After while that usually prevents them from looking down.” -Pearl Running Deer

“We use focal points. We start by teaching a rider to approach us as we raise a various number of fingers in the air. The rider keeps eyes on the fingers ahead, saying out loud the number of fingers held in the air. This starts to develop a habit of eyes ahead where they should be. We translate that to objects at the end of a line such as a tree or trash can. Finally, at the show, a rider can walk around the arena before competing to select focal points at the end of the ring they can use after every line or single.” -Mary Ann Thomas
Read about Mary Ann in The Plaid Horse here.

“It’s all about focal points. I stand at the other end of the ring and hold up my hands, having them count how many fingers I’m holding up. We do this warming up and jumping down a line at home. In the show ring, we focus on riding to the predetermined focal points.
Piper… we’ve had this discussion and for a whole other article… in my professional opinion, I don’t think the walk/trot poles and crossrails should be judged if the kid knows their diagonals between jumps. Corners, yes but not down a line. We teach that and then spend the rest of the kids career telling them to look up. Why are we all as professionals and judging not seeing the downside of judging diagonals down a line in the show ring?” -Dr. Holly Helbig, DVM
Listen to Holly on the Plaidcast here.

“What has worked for me as a ‘looker downer’ is when someone tells me ‘chin up’. I find that when people say ‘look up’ I will often move my eyes but my head and neck remain down. When a trainer tells me to look up, and I’m thinking ‘I did look up’ but what they really mean is that my whole head and neck need to move. By saying chin up, we get this effect. It’s a positive command and is extremely effective.” -Rachel Howell, Amateur Rider

View last weeks Trainer Tuesday here.

“WHY do you look down?

First let’s think about why you are looking down – 

  • Habit (Texting, school, computer, driving)
  • Can’t feel what you think you should
  • Worried about your horse?

Because you KNOW you shouldn’t, but that doesn’t solve the problem…..

What can you “DO” about it?

  • Focus on a point in the distance – like a tree or the field beyond the arena
  • Practice ride looking toward the sky so that you have to “feel” your horse
  • Wear an eye patch – so that you only have one eye
  • Wear something that limits your vision – like LookUp Glasses – proven to stop riders from looking down.

Your horse will thank you!” -Wendy Murdoch
Listen to Wendy on The Plaidcast here.