If there is one trend that I see reflected in social media, it’s that too many people think too hard about working with horses. Whether it is the positive reinforcement folks who obsess over every aspect of a horse’s life that might be experienced as an aversive or the Dressage riders obsessing over which muscles are used in a specific movement, too many people see riding as a scientific pursuit. I love science, but in the realm of horse training, science is still taking baby steps. It is good to stay informed, but too many miss the most important aspect of training – it’s all about feeling.
Growing up around the arts, I heard over and over the admonition to not over think what you are doing. Even the scientists I knew growing up would say that a certain amount of their success came from intuition and feeling. Think about it this way – if you could think your way to a scientific discovery, it would likely have already been discovered. Even those areas requiring deep thought and logic only move forward when someone takes a risk based upon feeling and intuition. And that’s just talking about working with items in a lab. We are working with sentient beings who live very emotional lives and are trying to adapt to life in a relationship with a member of a different species.
When we talk about ‘feel’ with regard to riding we are talking about two different aspects: physical/mechanical feel, and mental/emotional feel. Both of these elements exist in the best of horsemen. I am not referring to competitively successful riders, who often lack feel in both areas and ride ‘through’ their horse. I am speaking of those who seem to perform magic in calming a tense horse, or who gain such trust that their horses perform beyond all expectation. Common wisdom has always been that ‘feel’ is one of the most difficult things to teach – it is a talent held by those ‘natural’ riders. There are those who seem to possess natural feel in either the physical or mental realm; however, in my experience you can certainly learn more feel, though it takes patience, focus, and some assistance from the ground.
You: Can you tell when you are sitting upright, leaning forward, or leaning back? Can you tell if your shoulders are square and even? Do you feel your legs moving, or your hand bouncing? Your balanced position is the first requisite for feeling what is going on with your horse. It’s not about perfect equitation, it’s about balance, function, and communication. If you cannot feel where your own body parts are, it’s the same as having a bad connection on your phone – any signal you send to your horse will get muddled.
How to improve: Improving the feel of your position requires help. Professional help is preferable, but it can be hard to find good professionals near you. If that is your challenge, grab a willing friend or relative to be your eyes on the ground. Hand them a diagram, such as the one to the right from Riding Logic, and ask them how closely your position aligns with it. If they suggest you lean forward or back a bit, note how that feels. Have them check if your shoulders are aligned – same height, squared beneath your ears. If they suggest an alignment, feel the difference when they say you are aligned. Have them check additional things (one at a time, so you can focus) such as whether your hands or feet move as you ride. Practice whenever you can, until there are fewer needed adjustments.
Your horse: Can you feel when your horse leaves a hind foot behind in a halt? Can you feel when a hind foot is stepping to the inside on a circle? Can you tell a soft swinging back from a stiff tense one? Many riders struggle with transitions and lateral work, often spending a lot of time drilling them in the hope that practice will make perfect. It is not practice that makes perfect, but perfect practice that makes perfect. Not feeling the issue or making a correction to it will all but ensure continued struggle.
How to improve: First, as you are walking your horse, after having just mounted, how do his steps feel under your seat? Is there a nice swing to them? Or is there little movement under your seat? Does that change as you walk on for several minutes? If you walk over different surfaces?
Your friend on the ground can help you out here as well. Start from a halt. Sit quietly and feel the balance. Does one side feel slightly dropped under your seat? Tell your friend where you think the feet are. Try this several times. When you move out of the halt, concentrate on how it feels. Did it feel completely straight (even) in the steps? Did you feel any crookedness at all? Shoulders or haunches? What did your friend think?
You can do this sort of slow practice on any movement. It’s worth taking the time to step back, slow down, and try to feel the missing pieces before the movement. It is much easier to make a correction before a movement than while you are in it. Improving your feel requires time for you to register and process the sensations – that is much easier in a couple of walking steps of shoulder-in than trying to trot a full long side. Even if you are confident in your abilities, when you run into trouble it’s worth stepping back to simpler things. I once had a struggle with haunches-in with Nash. I could not figure out why I was having so much trouble, so I went back to some basic walk work and realized that he was not stretching into the outside rein. After some work on that simple issue, using more basic exercises, we returned successfully to haunches-in.
This is perhaps the most challenging, and most ignored, aspect of feel.
You: Where you are emotionally is critical to your relationship with your horse. It may be a bad day at work, or it may be that you are worried about conquering that particular movement or jump combination. Whatever the cause, tension, stress, anxiety, and other negative mental states are easily detected by your horse. Try as you might to mask it, there is an effect throughout your body – mechanical and chemical – that horses can easily detect. When things go wrong, do you check to see if you might be the cause?
How to improve: Every time you go to work with your horse, take a mental inventory. If you’ve had a bad day, can you check it at the door? Maybe it’s a day to just take a stroll down the road, or find a nice patch of grass for your horse to nibble while you relax to the rhythmic munching. Give yourself permission to change your plan and not “push through” your bad days – even stopping in the middle if it’s going badly. Do not worry that you will lose progress – you risk your progress more by ending up in a conflict because of a poor emotional state. You will find that the more often you make that choice, and change your plans on a bad day, the fewer days you’ll actually have to make it. When you ensure that you are in your best mental state any time you are schooling, it increases trust with your horse and leads to more frequent success. And that eventually leads to riding your horse actually becoming the cure for a bad day.
Your horse: To my mind this is the biggest area that needs improvement across the equestrian world. From competition to home-based positive reinforcement trainers, I have seen both happy and unhappy horses. Can you tell how your horse feels about your interactions? Can you read his expressions? Does he enjoy the activity you have chosen? When you ask for something new, or slightly more advanced, what is his reaction? We are dealing with highly sensitive animals who nature provided with a strong flight response, and man has bred for tolerance of misuse. It is incumbent upon us to learn to read their mental and emotional state. He can only learn when calm – adrenaline kills learning. You are the senior partner in this relationship, so you have to ensure you are listening to your junior partner – or it is no partnership at all.
How to improve: Take the time to observe your horse when in a relaxed situation. That may be out in the field with friends, or when hand-grazing in familiar territory. Try to make note of everything from the expression in his eyes, the movement of his ears and tail, and the overall tone of his muscles. If you aren’t familiar with expressions of pain, discomfort, or stress, find resources that will help you. If you notice an unusual reaction to something you’ve asked of him, take the time to figure it out. If there are signs of stress, take a step back to something you know is comfortable, then approach the new thing in a new way. It may mean taking smaller steps in teaching the new skill; or it may mean waiting for a day when you are both in a better place to tackle it.
Pushing through when your horse is uncomfortable can establish an association that you may struggle with for a long time. It is always better to rethink, check your foundational responses (stop, go, sideways, etc.), and look for another approach. In spite of popular belief, your horse is not trying to win any battles with you. Negative attitudes and behaviors come from pain, fear, confusion, and other negative emotional states – they are not a challenge to you, except to your ability to be creative and empathetic.
Learning to ride with more feel and less thinking will benefit both of you. Of course knowledge is important – but real application of knowledge at the level I described in the beginning requires many years of in-depth study. If that pursuit interests you, then make it a parallel learning track to the actual work with your horse. In most cases when I see in-depth discussion of such expert details evidence suggests that this is where many people are starting in their learning journey. As adults we tend to focus on the intellectual aspect of our pursuits, which can actually get in the way of our learning process. There are good reasons why kids are better at learning riding, music, or foreign languages! Creativity and feel come when you are willing to lose yourself in the activity and not over-think everything.
Riding should be first and foremost about creating a relationship. That can only be done if you are both sensitive to your role and how you are carrying it out, as well as to how your interactions are being received by your partner. This can be learned – but never from a book. It must be experienced, and you have to be able to set aside your ego, insecurities, and other emotional states that may block your ability to feel what the horse is telling you. Unfortunately, the equestrian world is not always supportive of this approach, so you may also have to go slightly against the tide to focus on feel and your relationship. I guarantee you it is worth the effort!