Centenary College coach Andrea Wells tells her students that jumping a course--whether hunter, equitation or jumper--is like driving to the market. "There's a difference between looking at the road, the other vehicles and the scenery with a 'soft' eye, and using a 'sharp' eye to accurately steer into a parking space once you arrive.
"In general, you use a soft eye until you decide to turn toward a jump. Once you've made the decision and committed to the jump, you sharpen your eye so you almost stare at the lowest midpoint of a crossrail, the middle of the top rail of a vertical, and the middle of the front rail of an oxer. If you focus on the back rail of the oxer (or look 'up' too early at any jump), you'll probably arrive too early and miss the distance, not because you don't see one, but because you see one in the trees, and that's NOT what your horse sees. Note that you never look at the ground--that's not looking where you're going or keeping your eye on the ball!"
Andrea explains her sharp eye/hard eye system with detailed exercises over fences in the December 2007 issue of Practical Horseman magazine. Here she talks you through a bonus exercise, using a serpentine line.
1. Having landed from this brush jump, Donna Hooper and Centenary College's King's Ransom have to turn left between potted plants one and two, then turn right to the vertical--a typical equitation track. She's beautifully balanced on King's back, back in the tack where she belongs, with a straight line from her elbow to his mouth. Her eye is soft at this moment, but she's already starting to track the vertical, even though her first job is to steer between the plants.
2. Donna and King are shaped nicely left on this first loop of the serpentine. She has her eye looking "out the windshield," soft enough to place King between the plants and to continue to look for the vertical instead of at it.
3. Just past the bushes on the second loop, and they're just as nicely shaped right. Because they've also started the final turn to the vertical, Donna has sharpened her eye and is now focused at the jump and the top rail.
4. And because she kept her eye sharp, they meet the jump on a perfect distance and a little bit of an angle (permissible in jumpers and equitation). Now that King has left the ground, Donna's eye is once again soft and forward. What a beautiful use of her eye all the way through! She tracked the jump with a soft eye before looking for a distance with a sharp eye--just the way it supposed to be.