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25Nov 16

The eye of the horse

Even if you don't feel like reading my whole blog, would you please read the last paragraph?

When I was very young I so hated that I did not (yet) understand the eye of my pony Ansje. When I would look at our family dog I would always know how it felt, but the eyes of little Ansje always seemed to look the same. I was probably no more than eight or nine at the time and, other than a swift brush, preferred to spend my time on top.

It was only when I started to learn how to lunge that I had the chance to see whether I could spot the change in the eye and even then it was difficult to study it for longer spells of time. There is so much going on and to watch. Also, the whole idea is NOT to look into the horse's eye when it is sufficiently forward; only when it needs to go more forward or is crawling closer, inside the desired lunging distance, eye contact should be made. It is their language and it works.

Of course trainers and instructors get lots of chances to study the eye during their lessons and it was only then that I properly learned the language of the eye of the horse, because it really is a language; giving so much information about how to approach the different phases of the lesson.

The 'sleepy' eye I don't like at all. It tends to go together with the backward horse and when I don't know the horse that well yet, I prefer to lunge it first because it often will nap when told to get on with the job. I don't use side-reins at that point because I will want to be able to chase the horse around if necessary and in that situation the last thing I want is to put pressure on the mouth. Some naps are fairly innocent but to be on the safe side it is so much better to get the respect from the ground and transfer it to on-top.

The younger horse very often looks in a kind of wishful-thinking way out of the arena when passing the entrance. It knows where it came from and still needs to learn to accept that a little bit of work has never hurt anybody. As soon as it realizes that it is safe in the school and is starting to enjoy the work, it will stop doing that and turn into the eye I like so very much, a relaxed and 'soft' eye. The same softness us riders should have when we're 'in the zone'.

The soft eye is an eye which is able to concentrate without over-focusing. In her book 'Centered Riding' Sally Swift explains this so very well for the riders. But it is really no different for the horse.

Have you ever watched the eye of a show-jumper change during a jumping round? There is complete focus and a bit of fire in the eye when approaching the fence, but over the jump the eye goes soft again. The same for a horse going x-country. Kate Rowe's horse Harry shows this really well in this picture.

Only very few times I have seen the eye turn deep black. They were always very tricky characters combined with a very tight poll. It is a strange and scary sight, as if the eye has died and certainly time to take the pressure off immediately, if not to be avoided all together. I call it the 'ice-cream headache, my way of visualizing it.

Some years ago I went with a pupil-friend to see a horse. She had not long before lost her old horse and had not really got over it. I only had to take one look at the horse and my immediate thought was: 'I do hope this horse suits her because she will want it.' It had exactly the same eye as her old horse and it was love at first sight.

And then there is the tired eye. Very important for the trainer to recognize: it is probably time to call it a day and certainly not the time to start something new. When sessions finish at the right moment, the horse pleasantly tired but still having plenty left for an energetic last trot on a long rein; that is such a great feeling for both horse and rider.

The eye of the horse: don't underestimate it. It tells you about its character, it tells you about its mood and all of this is important information we do not want to miss out on. 

Sadly, the idea for this blog is because of this picture I saw on Facebook of a horse in a lorry. An eye that tells us it doesn't know what's next, tired but still trying to stay alert. The picture came from the website of the charity 'World Horse Welfare' about the terrible practice of long-distance horse transports across Europe, only to be slaughtered and probably not in the best-run slaughterhouses, either. 

It is one of the charities I support, rather than giving Christmas presents. Because I love horses, not just my own horse. Hopefully you do, too...


Dressage Training

Dressage training needs variety, including pole work

Dressage Training

Dressage training needs variety, including pole work

About Liz Barclay

Her love for horses together with her dedication made her into the trainer and dressage rider she is, today. She is versatile and inventive and likes a challenge; whether it is a technical training question, a confidence issue or a problem involving the management of the horse or pony.


My book 'THE FARMER, THE COAL MERCHANT, THE BAKER...' with the subtitle 'A Personal Impression of the Development of the Gelderland Horse World' has been received with more enthusiasm than I possibly could have hoped for. Click here to contact me and I will send you a copy. £7.50 + postage, or click here to order from Amazon.