The Horse and Rider That Was Me

Vision and Horse Riding Dr. Todd Davis Developmental Optometrist Colleen Kelly and the International Society of Rider BiomechanicsDr. Tod R. Davis is a Developmental Optometrist from northern Virginia, who specializes in Vision Training of children and adults with a wide variety of vision problems ranging from developmental delays and education problems to post trauma vision syndrome.
“Riding a horse is not a gentle hobby, to be picked up and laid down like a game of solitaire. It is a grand passion. It seizes a person whole and once it has done so, he/she will have to accept that his life will be radically changed.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

There is much that goes into riding a horse that to the experienced and passionate rider is intuitive, if not mystical. The subtle shifts in posture, gaze and attention between the rider and horse create a symbiotic perception of their environment. The rider’s intended movements become a shared intention with the horse that, in action, appears as the simple union of rider and horse in a gentle trot or a graceful leap over an obstacle. The shared sense of space, self and movement by the rider and horse is a perceptual blending of two very different visual systems.

In a relaxed state the horse’s visual system is generally monocular (one eye at a time) and binocular (both eyes) when the horse is alert to something ahead of it. The human visual system is designed to be binocular and to incorporate sensory information from not only the eyes, but also the vestibular system (our internal GPS) and special nerves in our bones, tendons and muscles that detect movement. When fully functioning, the human visual system enables us to understand the world around us and to use that understanding to not only survive but to thrive. All too often good “vision” is mistaken for “20/20” clarity. In fact, many people with “20/20” eye sight have vision difficulties not detected in typical vision exams, like poor binocularity. So how does human vision affect horsemanship?

All movement is led by vision. Whether one realizes it or not, all movement or action is visualized before it happens. That “cognitive intent” initiates the visual process in the search for meaning; we look where we wish in the environment to a selected interest, and then act upon it either overtly by physical action or covertly by mental action. That means a rider will need to be able to create a mental projection of themselves and the horse (visualization) in a given space in order to move about in it in the manner they intend to. Poorly developed vision diminishes that capacity to visualize and limits our abilities. If vision is not leading then it is said to be interfering.

Vision and the ability to visualize develops from birth in very predictable stages; from mouth to hands to eyes. This developmental process helps an individual begin to catalog a vast amount of information about objects, environments and spatial awareness. Optimal vision development enhances the ability of a rider to quickly visualize themselves and their horse in an environment and form a shared intention best described in the poem “Race” by Holly Rucker; “I shall always remember the Horse and Rider that was me.”

In future articles we will explore in depth what visual skills are most important to passionate and competitive riders and how best to develop those skills.


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