Riding horses is a two-way conversation. The technical knowledge of how to talk to your horse, about what you want him to do is one part of this process. The other, even more important part consists of listening to the horse’s side of the story. It’s our willingness and ability to understand what the horse is saying to us at any given moment. This is what we call feel.
All good riding consists of three elements: feel, plus an effective seat, plus a coherent system of aids. Together, these create the alchemy we try to create: effortless harmony between horse and rider. Developing a good seat is a life-long endeavor. Learning which aids to give when, and which movements to ask for and why, takes years of studying different riding traditions along with equine anatomy and biomechanics. These two elements are what makes horsemanship so complicated. Feel is easy in comparison. Feel is the simple part of good riding, the low-hanging fruit on the tree we’re all trying to climb. It’s not rocket science. It does not take any great skill, an expensive upper-level dressage horse, some mysterious innate talent, or lessons from a famous clinician. What it does require is lots of time on and around horses, plus a set of physical and psychological conditions that allow feel to develop (much more about these in my upcoming book). One of the most important factors among these is a mental and emotional shift from asking to receiving, from doing something to the horse to simply being with the horse, open to his suggestions.
Riding with feel means listening to what our horses are telling us. It means adjusting what we do, based on the feedback we get from the horse’s behavior, body language, and expression. It means connecting to the horse’s back through our seat and tapping into the information flowing through the horse’s spine. It means feeling the horse’s body with our body, the horse’s mind with our mind.
Most of us don’t have any trouble with the active part of good horsemanship, i.e. with telling our horses what we want them to do. Doing comes more easily to us than being because our culture has conditioned us that way. We’ve been led to believe that good leadership requires talking a lot, in a loud voice, mostly in imperatives. We‘ve learned that success requires constant effort on our part, and that we will reach our goals as long as we pursue them with enough relentless determination. Because of this, it seems natural to us to do more when we’re riding if we are serious about wanting to improve our horsemanship.
I’ve taken lots of dressage lessons that seem to confirm this notion. When a horse is slow to respond to a rider’s aids, many instructors start barking phrases that begin with “More!” They want their students to use more leg, more half-halts, more contact, more effort, more seat, more everything. Riders get the idea that doing more is always the answer, especially if their horse seems sluggish or unmotivated. But if we do too much, too much of the time, we can’t feel. We deprive ourselves of the opportunity to hear the horse’s side of the conversation. The horse might say “I don’t understand.” or “I am trying, but my back hurts.” The horse might say “I am bored.” The horse might say “I am scared.” Based on this information, we can change our approach. We can add stretches and suppling exercises, or vary our routine. We can break our request down into smaller pieces and help the horse understand these separate elements before combining them again. We will very likely achieve more than we would by kicking harder, pulling harder, or becoming frustrated with the horse. But first, we have to take that pause: we have to stop and listen. It may seem counterintuitive, but often, the answer is doing less if we want to accomplish more. Many of us have to learn, or re-learn, to just be with our horses, without constantly asking for something.
Of course, just being with our horses is not enough if we want them to become balanced, confident riding partners. Of course, we need to give our horses direction and guidance. Horses like clarity. But we also need to adjust what we tell them, according to what they tell us. The tricky part of becoming a rider with feel is to shift back and forth between feeling and aiding, between listening and talking, between passively absorbing and actively suggesting. The tricky part is to shift back and forth between doing and being. We tend to get stuck in our doing mode, which keeps us from feeling. Let’s try to build those pauses of being and listening into our horse time. Let’s try to be more and do less. Our horses will thank us for letting them join the conversation.