Article by Gilead Friedman, with Alexis Bennett
Learn why looking up is more than a riding cue; it’s a mindset.
Courtesy of the NRHA Reiner Magazine - December 2023
“Pick up your eyes!” your trainer hollers from across the arena. “Don’t forget to look where you’re going,” a well-meaning friend says as you walk into the show pen. “Oh, man,” you think as you review the video of your run. “I was looking down the whole time.”
It doesn’t matter how much riding experience you have, just about everyone has been coached to look up. It’s arguably the most common riding cue. While you know looking up is correct, you may not fully understand why. You might be thinking: I haven’t hit a wall, my horse knows what it’s doing, and we do well at shows.
What’s the big deal?
Well, you’re right. Reining is one of the few sports where you don’t pay an immediate price if you don’t pick up your eyes. You’re not going to get hit with a ball as you would in baseball, for example. But in reality ,you do pay.
Your eye position is a reflection of your mindset and your confidence. Your vision also tells you where you are in space, which allows you to ride effectively.
Here, I’ll explain why keeping your eyes up is so important and give you reasons to make it a new habit when you’re in the saddle.
Vision helps you gather information about your surroundings so you can move through space. It’s also a reflection of your state of mind — positive or negative, confident or insecure. If you can control your eyes and where you look, you can improve your mindset.
Try this exercise to test your eyes’ plane of vision. Sit or stand in place. With your head level, turn your head and look over your shoulder to the right. Slowly scan, moving your head from right to left in an even plane, ending at your left shoulder.
What did you see? Was there a spot on the wall, something moving outside your window or perhaps a painting you enjoy?
Whether you’re playing a sport or just walking from room to room, you rely on your vision to see where you’re going, to avoid running into things or, in the case of baseball or soccer, to watch a ball make contact with your bat or foot. Seeing helps you stay oriented in space to perform a task.
Now, think about conversations or new situations. Where your eyes go in these circumstances reflects your comfort level. If you’re having a difficult conversation with your coach, spouse, friend or co-worker, you might notice yourself looking down or away. In a new situation, you might find a distraction to set your eyes on — a drink or hors d’oeuvres, for example.
When you’re comfortable, on the other hand, you make eye contact or scan the room. You keep your eyes up.
These concepts translate to your riding. When you keep your eyes on your horse instead of looking up and ahead, you eliminate a valuable source of information-gathering to orient you in space. You also reflect an image that you aren’t confident or comfortable enough to look ahead, whether or not that’s true.
Create a Habit
Forcing yourself to look up and ahead isn’t just about appearances or painting a nice picture for the judges, buyers or others watching you ride. Keeping your eyes up also sends a message to yourself as a rider, your horse and to others.
Where you choose to focus can either develop or diminish trust, accuracy and focus — all things that impact your riding.
Trust. When you look down at your horse, you’ve consciously or unconsciously decided you don’t trust what you feel. You need visual confirmation that what you feel your horse doing is what they’re actually doing. Or, maybe you don’t feel anything at all, so you rely on your eyes to tell you what’s happening.
When you do this, you’re choosing not to rely on the other tools you have to communicate with your horse — namely body language and feel. (Read more about developing feel in “Fit Reiner” on page 126 of your November 2021 Reiner.)
Often, simply lifting your eyes will give you a fresh perspective of what’s happening beneath you. When you’re looking at your horse’s neck, it may seem like your horse is out of control or not rating. Then, when you look ahead, you realize you’re not moving as quickly as you thought, and your horse is just moving freely, not charging.
Accuracy. Reining isn’t necessarily about speed. It’s mostly about accuracy.
Accuracy comes from communication. To be able to cue your horse at the right time, you need to know where you are in the arena.
Simple deviations from the written pattern, such as not changing leads exactly in the center, stopping short of the correct marker or not differentiating your small, slow from your large, fast circles can result in point deductions.
The only way to orient yourself in space is to use your eyes. If you can see the marker as you approach it, you can better plan your cues to ensure you go past it. Or, if you know you’ll need to stop and spin after your circles to the left, looking up will help you hit your center and complete your turnarounds in the right spot.
Simply put, looking up allows you to plan, which improves communication and accuracy.
Focus. If you’ve ever tried to meditate or fall asleep after a busy day, you know how challenging it can be to remain present and focused once your eyes close. As soon as you shut your eyes, your mind wanders.
The same thing happens when you look down at your horse while riding. Instead of being present, your mind wanders. You start thinking about lunch, the spectators or the rider next to you rather than focusing on your horse, your goal and what you’re trying to achieve during the ride.
Your eyesight is one of the dominant tools to engage your focus. Like a football player trying to catch a ball or a tennis player trying to make a volley back to their opponent, you must keep your eyes “on the ball.” In these examples and in your riding, focusing “on the ball” is not done idly. You can’t force yourself to focus through willpower alone. You can stay engaged and attentive to your riding by keeping your eyes up, gathering information from your surroundings and trusting what you feel.
A helpful, imaginative solution you can use is called “chase the rabbit.” Find something to follow as you ride. It can be the horse in front of you or a pretend rabbit you imagine just ahead of you, following the same path you need to take. This technique gives you something to focus on so you stay present, and ensures your eyes are up and looking ahead.
There’s a reason your coach or trainer tells you to look up. It’s not for appearances; it’s so you can be the most confident and effective rider you can possibly be.
Gilead “Gil” Friedman of Mental Athletics specializes in the mental
game that accompanies competition. The NRHA Professional, who grew up riding performance horses, worked with NRHA Professionals Dan Huss and Bob LaPorta in the United States. Now based out of the KPH Performance Horses facility in Kfar Netter, Israel, he works in person and virtually with trainers, non pros and amateurs worldwide, sharing his ﬁ rsthand knowledge of performance psychology to help riders step up
their mental strength in a competitive environment. Learn more at