Should we always believe our eyes?

I often see comments or discussions on the internet which seem completely bizarre to me. Recently, for example, someone commented on some very old video footage of Taine, the horse of Colonel Lesage in 1932, and stated that he had a better way of going than current top-level horses…

Ok, so in this case, maybe we can say that we each have different criteria… But what about a recent video, such as that of the Edward Gal clinic in Provence (to use a precise example), where someone says that they see a stiff back and disengaged hindlegs, whereas on a video of a horse that I consider hollow and blocked, this same person sees a horse beautifully relaxed, with perfectly engaged hindlegs.

Clearly, we are not seeing things in the same way! It is almost as though we are looking at totally different images.

In fact, our brain interprets what our eye sees in an entirely arbitrary fashion.

Look at the image below.


Can you see the squares marked A and B? You can clearly see that they are different colours… well, actually, they are the same colour! This is a test which is called “Adelson’s Chessboard” and is supposed to show how our brain interprets reality. Our brain is fooled by the green cylinder which projects a shadow over the board and by its desire that the chessboard conforms to the brain’s expectations, which is that the light and dark squares alternate.

Even if, knowing this, you try to see the squares as the same colour, your brain will not admit that it has wrongly interpreted the colours of the squares! There is a solution to persuade the brain: copy and paste the colour from square A, then square B, and put them side to side (see image below). By following with your eyes the colour band between the two, you can see that the squares are actually the same colour. But as soon as you cover up this colour band, the illusion reappears!


What does this show us? First of all, it proves that we only see things through a filter. Regarding dressage, this filter is formed by our experiences, what we have learnt, what we have read, the variety and quality of what we see on a regular basis, what we are told to see…

It is therefore totally normal that someone involved in horses who has a particular aptitude level cannot objectively see the techniques used by people of a different aptitude level.


This explains why it can be quite difficult for two people with very different technical aptitude to communicate about certain techniques, unless, of course, both people have an open mind and curiousity, in which case their eyes can see biomechanical possibilities other than what they were expecting.

It’s a little bit like when I watch a game of tennis – having very little technical understanding, although I can see from videos that the game in general has changed over the last 50 years, I cannot see the subtle differences between two players unless someone tells me what to look for.

So, when someone seriously sees a tense horse in the Edward Gal clinic in Provence video, this person probably has an in-built interpretation that “poll at the highest point + neck raised = relaxation”, while “head behind the vertical, no matter what the height of the neck and the placement of the withers = tension”.

Of course, that is just as wrong as stating the opposite, and the only thing to do is to always continue to doubt the truth of what your eye sees so as not to close off learning. We must inform ourselves by carrying out independent inquiries, and not just believe what people say unless it has been proven. And I do mean “proven”, and not simply “affirmed”.

In many books which are held above any questioning, people “affirm” their beliefs without quoting concrete scientific findings.

For example, at page 124 of “Twisted Truths of Modern Dresssage”, P. Karl states that a magazine carried out a study proving that the champion western rider Grischa Ludwig stopped her horse from canter with 2.7kg weight in the reins (which actually surprises me, given that I have seen western riders stop from canter simply by putting a finger on the reins), while a dressage rider puts 8 to 12kg of weight in the reins during the same request. This is an example of a study which could convince a reader, at first glance, of the lack of technical ability of dressage riders! But who is the “dressage champion” who participated in this study? Why was his or her name not cited? What conditions were this study run under? Did it involve horses trained by the riders themselves or not? I never trust the results of a study unless I have access to the study conditions. The interpretation of a study comes from the same place as the interpretation of what our eye sees…

You can access studies on this topic by reading the reports from ISES (International Society for Equitation Science), available on their website

Translation from Clara Mehel (Australia)