Developing Feeling in the Rider

Beth Beukema explains a lesson she wishes she had known sooner in her dressage career.
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Great riders need more than technical proficiency; they need a feeling for the horse. After 30 years of teaching experience, helping riders to develop that feeling is still one of the more difficult, most demanding parts of my role as a dressage instructor. My approach used to focus on the horse’s performance, as many riders know; this does not always lead to results. After teaching a clinic a few months ago I had two new students thank me for focusing on them as riders, instead of just working through movements and addressing their horse’s weakness and strengths. Over the years I have come to understand how to fit more of the puzzle pieces together by developing inner awareness of movement in a rider’s body and modifying my style of teaching to include self-evaluation.

One of the first puzzle pieces is the development of body awareness. The term’ feeling’ applies to the awareness of movements of our joints and tension in our muscles during motor activity and the movement of the horse. The rider’s sense of feeling is more complex than many other athletes because of the need to process the added awareness of the horse’s reactions and performance on top of their own body awareness.

Now, when I teach a clinic, I focus on the rider before the horse, as the rider needs to develop suppleness in her body before she can truly feel what is going on under her. A rider with stiff joints is not going to get the same sense of movement from the horse. Riders are frequently unaware of their stiffness, but by increasing motion awareness they can develop their sense of feel. A rider with stiff ankles and pushed down heels will block the motion in her body and by focusing on soft ankles will open herself up to new sensations. A rider who is clamped on the horse with a tight leg does not feel the movement of the ribcage of the horse, focusing on using the leg as a soft nudge might help this rider. 

A visual example of a supple rider is to think of the rider’s joints moving within a muscular girdle of core strength. The spine is a double “S” with many joints, and must oscillate in a controlled manner along with the major joints of the hip, knee and ankle. The three dimensional movement of the horse needs to be matched by the rider so the rider can develop a sense of feeling of both how her body and the horse’s body are moving. A supple rider is able to receive intrinsic feedback more effectively.

The second piece of the puzzle is my teaching style. I solicit self –evaluation from the rider to help develop awareness and feeling. 

In developing motor skills such as riding, two kinds of feedback are important: intrinsic (internal) and extrinsic (from an outside source- the instructor). It is the internal, intrinsic feedback that develops the sense of feeling in the rider. 

As an instructor my role is to guide the student to develop this intrinsic feeling so I produce independent feeling riders. The instructor must select appropriate exercises to enhance performance and give extrinsic feedback when the rider has not selfevaluated correctly or needs encouragement. The joy of riding comes from the wonderful feelings the horse gives us and it is exciting to see riders develop inner awareness in their body movements and their horse’s performance.

Credit: Cealy Tetley

Credit: Cealy Tetley

Beth Beukema earned an M.S. in Equine Physiology and a B.S. in Animal Science from the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. She is an associate professor of Equine Studies at Johnson & Wales University where she directs the Center for Equine Studies. She is a USEF “R” dressage judge and president of the Intercollegiate Dressage Association. As a rider, she earned her USDF silver and bronze medals. As a teacher, she is a trained Eckart Meyners’ BALIMO (Balance in Motion) instructor and enjoys teaching students at all levels.

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