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A common habit I see amongst newer drivers in a pleasure driving show is the tendency to be watching the horse through virtually the whole class. They have been taught that the horse’s “head set” is very important (that’s a completely different article), and therefore they need to make sure that the horse keeps its head in the correct position. They want to see if the horse is going in the right direction, and if he is performing his gaits correctly. Unfortunately, that tends to create challenges for the driver. When the driver is focused on the horse, they are missing a bunch of other things that are happening in the arena. I’ve seen drivers miss directions from the ring steward, miss marks during reinsmanship tests (and be halfway around the ring before they realize it), and have near collisions with other drivers because they were too busy staring at their horse’s ears. It’s like driving a car while focusing on the hood ornament instead of the road ahead.
Another detrimental aspect of watching the “hood ornament” is that it may not only drop your eyes, but drop your head as well. That tilt of the head can contribute to a stooped posture on the box seat, and since good posture is one of the aspects included in the reinsmanship judging criteria, dropping your head is not going to give you any points.
The horse’s head position and way of going needs to be managed during at-home training sessions. Once you are “connected” with the horse, you can know by instinct when the horse is out of position. You can use your peripheral vision to keep an eye on the horse while maintaining the best possible ring position to show the horse to its best advantage. Eventually, the driver needs to develop “feel” of the horse and quit staring at his ears. I’ve had judges tell me that my students and I have won good sized reinsmanship classes specifically because we were looking around the ring at the traffic, avoiding collisions, driving the horse and not the tack, and not staring at our horse’s ears. This good driving carries over into all the other classes besides Reinsmanship, as again, you are putting the horse in the best position in the ring for the benefit of the horse and your turnout.
How can you practice not driving the hood ornament? One really good way is to put obstacles in your way in your training arena. I have an entire article about driving with cones, and how we practice obstacle driving even when doing rail work. Obstacle driving should really not be practiced much differently than any other driving, as good obstacle driving still requires that the horse bend appropriately, push from the hind end, and thus be on the bit ultimately putting his head in the correct position (again, different article). We work on dressage tests and reinsmanship movements with sets of cones in the route of the pattern. The horse learns to be responsive to our commands and not just focus on the rail, but learns to be ready to move off the rail if necessary. Meanwhile, the driver learns to pick up his eyes and head to look where he is going. There are more strategies for learning how to avoid driving the hood ornament, but you’ll have to schedule a lesson with a good instructor to find out.
So look up! Look around. Quit staring at your horse's ears. Drive your horse like you are driving a car...looking where you are going, not at the hood ornament. And don't forget to smile!