The mammalian visual cortex massively innervates the brainstem, a phylogenetically older structure, via cortico-fugal axonal projections1. Many cortico-fugal projections target brainstem nuclei that mediate innate motor behaviours, but the function of these projections remains poorly understood1,2,3,4. A prime example of such behaviours is the optokinetic reflex (OKR), an innate eye movement mediated by the brainstem accessory optic system3,5,6, that stabilizes images on the retina as the animal moves through the environment and is thus crucial for vision5. The OKR is plastic, allowing the amplitude of this reflex to be adaptively adjusted relative to other oculomotor reflexes and thereby ensuring image stability throughout life7,8,9,10,11. Although the plasticity of the OKR is thought to involve subcortical structures such as the cerebellum and vestibular nuclei10,11,12,13, cortical lesions have suggested that the visual cortex might also be involved9,14,15. Here we show that projections from the mouse visual cortex to the accessory optic system promote the adaptive plasticity of the OKR. OKR potentiation, a compensatory plastic increase in the amplitude of the OKR in response to vestibular impairment11,16,17,18, is diminished by silencing visual cortex. Furthermore, targeted ablation of a sparse population of cortico-fugal neurons that specifically project to the accessory optic system severely impairs OKR potentiation. Finally, OKR potentiation results from an enhanced drive exerted by the visual cortex onto the accessory optic system. Thus, cortico-fugal projections to the brainstem enable the visual cortex, an area that has been principally studied for its sensory processing function19, to plastically adapt the execution of innate motor behaviours.