Feel is one of the most important aspects in a rider’s development. A feeling rider can sense where each of the horse’s legs and his body are at any given moment and allows communication through the language of the aids. When the rider can communicate in this harmonious way with her horse, she becomes able to develop that special partnership in which the aids look effortless and the horse appears to perform on his own. These are the magic moments we all strive for.
What is Feel?
Feel is the invisible quality in every good rider who is communicating with her horse in harmony. She can perceive where the horse is during every step because he accepts the rider’s seat, leg and rein aids through the connection. The rider can then communicate with the horse in a stable, sensitive and relaxed manner. Some riders have a talent for this, but any rider can improve her feel through education about dressage theory and time in the saddle. In other words, the rider must learn to become aware of the horse’s body and feel his movement underneath her.
Beyond the physical connection between horse and rider, feel also requires an emotional connection. The horse and rider understand each other and become of one mind. The emotional connection is key in the harmonious partnership. A feeling rider is a more effective rider. She is always attentive to what aids the horse needs, why he needs them and when to apply them, allowing her to bring out his best performance. She can use the right aids at the right time with the right strength and for the right duration.
A rider who seeks feel and harmony should learn about dressage theory. Learning about the Pyramid of Training and the rider’s seat and use of the aids give her a basis of knowledge she can use while mounted. Then, the rider knows how the aids affect the horse, what the correct timing is and why it is important for the progression of training. Additionally, I encourage students to learn some basic horse psychology. A rider must learn to think like a horse to develop her feel and experience more success.
The horse must have rhythmic gaits for the rider to develop feel. He must be supple and relaxed so the rider can develop the connection required for her to feel his movement.
A rider must develop her seat to develop her feel. When she is balanced, she is in the best position to feel the horse’s back and hind legs and to apply the correct aids to the horse. Her head must be aligned vertically over her shoulders, hips and heels when viewed from the side and she should be balanced evenly from left to right so she looks symmetrical when viewed from the back. The rider must sit her weight down into her seat in a supple and soft way. She also must possess independent aids, meaning she can, for example, use the rein aid without accidently tightening the seat. I have met many Adult Amateurs who have the mistaken notion that because they are adults, they cannot improve their position. One of the wonderful aspects of dressage is that all of us can improve our position every day until we stop riding.
The rider learns to feel the horse’s hind legs by relating the feeling in her seat with movement under the saddle and the phases of the hind legs. The reaching phase of the hind leg is when the leg is swinging forward under the horse’s belly. To ask the horse to step sideways, this is the moment to use your leg. Then there is the grounded phase, when the leg is on the ground. This is the correct time to apply your leg to improve engagement. Also, the rider’s lower leg can learn to discern how the horse’s belly and rib cage undulate during each stride. With the thigh and knee, the rider learns to feel the movement and placement of the shoulder. Her arms and hands feel the placement of the poll and the quality of the contact with the bit.
From the correct position, riders should learn the correct aids for each movement. Then, the rider refines the aids and applies them in the right place at the right time. Once these technical aspects are in place, the rider can develop her feel for the horse. She hones her sense of the horse physically and emotionally. She transcends the mechanical, technical aspect of riding and develops the harmony and partnership that add that magical quality.
Exercises to Develop Feel
You can develop feel by doing some simple exercises. In the walk, place your hand behind the saddle on the croup of the horse (only if the horse accepts this). Learn the corresponding movement in the horse’s hind legs. Look in the mirror or ask someone on the ground to tell you the phases of the hind legs as you feel the rise and fall of the croup with your hand. Likewise, the rider can place a hand on the horse’s shoulder and feel the forward and back motion of the scapula and the front leg. Then, try to feel the horse’s leg movements without using your hand. When that is easy, close your eyes for several strides and see if you can still feel each individual
When you have a feel for where the horse’s legs are, ride a transition to canter from the trot. Start on a 20-meter circle tracking left. The horse goes from the two-beat trot to the three-beat canter. As the diagonal pair of the inside (left) front and the outside (right) hind leg are grounded, ask for the canter so the horse can respond as the outside hind leg reaches forward and then pushes the horse into the new rhythm. Repeat the transition several times and see if you can find the perfect timing so the horse can react smoothly. Practice the transition in both directions.
Once you understand the timing, you’ll notice that you feel where the horse’s legs are more often. You are developing better feel.
As a rider at any level, you become empowered when you are in control of yourself and in control of the horse. Therefore, feel is a key aspect in becoming an empowered rider. Study the theory and skills you need to develop your feel and become more effective and successful in your riding. Success builds confidence and confidence leads to more success. The result is that you can enjoy your time in the saddle even more.
Sarah Geikie is an FEI 4* dressage judge. She also serves as an FEI mentor judge, is a faculty member and examiner for the USDF Instructor/Trainer Program and serves on the USDF Instructor/Trainer Committee. Geikie is also a member of the USDF Freestyle Committee and the Judge’s Committee. Based in Lebanon, Connecticut, she judges worldwide and conducts clinics throughout the U.S.