What makes one rider able to learn more quickly than another? I believe the answer relates to the ability of the rider to be trained by her horse. When I say that people laugh, and I laugh with them, but I believe in it, too. I think this is what some people mean when they say a rider has “feel.” Feel is understood as the rider’s ability to experience through her body what the horse is doing with his body. Many trainers don’t believe feel can be taught. When a rider with feel gives an aid she takes feedback from the horse as to whether that aid was helpful or not. One would think every rider would do this intuitively, but it actually doesn’t happen as much as one would think. One reason is that the responses of the horse can be extremely subtle and even advanced riders aren’t always attentive to them. Another reason is that most riders are consumed by insecurities about their riding abilities, and this causes them to focus on themselves instead of the horse. I have found that when a rider learns how to attend to the subtle reactions of the horse instead of to negative thoughts related to her riding abilities, she is able to progress rapidly. In this way, feel can be taught. Here are five steps to letting your horse train you:
Step 1. Explore Your Aids
This does not include any aid that is cruel or causes pain. Often I will ask a rider to flex her horse or put her leg on or tap with the whip, and I don’t see her do anything. I will repeat my instruction, often many times, and I still won’t see anything change in her body. Of course, the horse doesn’t change what he is doing either. Most of the time the rider thinks she is doing a lot because her proprioception (her sense of her body in space and time) tells her she is, but she isn’t. (Sometimes the rider doesn’t agree with my instruction and doesn’t do it, but that is a topic for a different article.) When this happens, I will often explain to the rider that she is actually not changing her body enough to create bend or giving an aid that tells the horse to move forward. The reason I have to explain that the horse is not changing is because she is not paying enough attention to her horse. She is caught in her concerns about her own body and mind. It is likely that she is trying not to make a mistake, worried about her riding abilities, and so she is unable to feel that her horse isn’t doing what she is asking. I’ll ask this type of rider to exaggerate her aids until she gets the desired response from the horse—even if the response is small. When the horse responds positively, the rider gets the reward of that response much like a dog gets a cookie when he learns to sit on command: The horse rewards the rider with a correct bend, more impulsion, more stretch over the back, etc., depending on what the rider is asking for. These rewards, when they are attended to, train the rider to use aids that are effective.
Step 2. Be Aware of Your Negative Thoughts
Be aware of your negative thoughts and let them flow out. The most fundamental barrier to listening to one’s horse is negative thinking about oneself or one’s horse. Almost everyone experiences this at one time or another. One of the biggest differences between professionals and amateurs is that the professional has trained so many horses that she has faith in the process of training. The seasoned trainer understands that just because an aid didn’t work doesn’t mean that it was the wrong aid. It was just the wrong aid for that horse or perhaps the wrong timing. The trainer will continue explaining what she is looking for from the horse in a methodical way. If certain aids are not making sense to the horse, the trainer will gather that the horse needs a different form of explanation. A good trainer will always look for small steps that are doable and understandable to the specific horse she’s training. She will have many solutions to a problem and will present it to the horse in a way that builds his confidence. That is, she lets the horse teach her what aids work and what is confusing. In contrast, the amateur or less experienced rider will often get upset with herself or her horse when the horse does not understand. The negative thoughts will begin to build when this happens and those thoughts tend to make our rides ineffective, emotionally challenging and, at worst, abusive to both horse and rider. If the rider can let go of negative, self-deprecating and critical thoughts about herself and her horse, she will have a better chance of figuring out how her horse is confused and finding a way to explain to her horse what she wants. When the rider lets these thoughts flow in and out like a practiced meditator, only then can she truly pay attention to her horse and what her body is saying to him.
Step 3. Don’t Allow Negative Thoughts to Take Over
If we can’t succeed in letting our negative thoughts flow through our mind, they will become our puppeteers: Negative thoughts are powerful manipulators. They can not only close us off to what our horses are saying, they can make our horses say negative things back to us. When we feel tension in our bodies and react with aggression instead of patience or defeat instead of curiosity, we let our negative thoughts train us. And they are bad trainers. They will cause confusion, tension and unwarranted discomfort in both rider and horse. Even if you can’t rid yourself of these damaging thoughts, you need to teach your body to pretend you are feeling positive about yourself and your horse. Learn and memorize what your body feels like during your best ride and bring that back into your muscles when things are going badly. If you can do this, you will likely either change the nature of the negative ride you are having or you will unbar the gateway to your horse and find out that he is hurting in some way and can’t answer you properly even though he wants to.
Step 4. Allow Your Horse to Make Mistakes
Some riders, especially the very talented ones, actually do too much when they ride. They are very skilled at making their horse look good enough, preventing mistakes and getting by in a test—even winning. However, this sort of riding makes it difficult to create true self-carriage in the horse. Often these horses are held together by the rider. The horses are either being pushed through negative tension to be more expressive or they are not expressing their gaits to the level they are capable of. When riders are guided to let go of their horse, let their horse make mistakes, and learn how to follow his natural energy, they can tap into the full strength and beauty of their mount. Again, the reason these riders don’t feel the tension they are creating in their horses is because they are preoccupied with themselves as riders. They want the horse to be overly expressive and not make mistakes because they feel the horse is as a direct reflection of their riding skills. When a horse wins through this method of training it does damage to him, the sport and ultimately the rider because on some level these riders understand they don’t have a harmonious relationship built through mutual respect. Most riders want that feeling of harmony and mutual respect with their horse. But we need to allow mistakes to happen to experience this. It is important to experiment with how light one’s aids can be, let the horse make mistakes and let go to find out if he is in self-carriage or if he simply falls out of the work once the strong aids are released. Things might look horrible for a while. But in the end our aids can be light, subtle and respectful and our horses will reward us for it.
Step 5. Allow Your Horse to Answer You
Allow yourself to be open to even the most subtle of answers from your horse. This subtlety of aids can happen because of the sensitive nature of the horse. If we created a superhero based off the gifts of a horse she would not only be graceful and powerful, but she would also be telepathic. Humans comparatively are not so sensitive. Often our gross expression is very loud for the well-tuned sensory world of a horse. At best, a horse will overreact to our clumsy language. At worst, he will feel so overwhelmed he will shut down to our aids. In both of these circumstances our interpretation is that the horse is resistant. Often that thought creates even stronger aids. Amateurs often don’t feel when their horse is responding so they don’t give him a reward when they get a small reaction. If they did, the horse would give them more and more of what they are looking for. In this case, their human would be well trained. In addition, seasoned riders often don’t find out how light their aids can be. They think the aid has to be stronger than it actually does. A stronger, more pressured aid can work, but a rider can be so accustomed to giving “louder” aids that she doesn’t know that a small percentage of that aid can still be heard. In fact, often when the aid is lighter it allows more freedom of movement and more expression. And lighter aids can be more fun because it is an incredible feeling to experience a horse almost reading our minds through the lightest and most subtle of body changes.
The Moral of the Story
As long as we are preoccupied with how others perceive us we can’t truly listen to our horse. That seems true for our relationships with people, too. Instead, we ride in a bubble, letting our negative thoughts attempt to train the horse. Inside of this bubble our aids are too soft or too loud and almost always unclear to the horse. Outside of this bubble we can hear the horse, let him tell us if we’re doing it right and allow him to train us to be sensitive, empathetic and effective students.
Jane Karol is a USDF bronze, silver and gold medalist and has trained eight horses to Grand Prix. She has worked with many of the top clinicians in the world, including Gerrit-Claes Bierenbroodspot, Lendon Gray, Rien van der Schaft and Scott Hassler. A doctoral level psychotherapist, Jane owns Bear Spot Farm in Concord, Massachusetts, where she offers dressage training programs and works with children and adults in Equine Facilitated Psychotherapy. She established The Bear Spot Foundation for the Benefit of Equine Assisted Psychotherapy in 2004.