Feel. You always hear people saying “she’s got a good feel” or “he has a natural feel”. Instructors ask you “can you feel that?”
After today’s teaching I think you can break ‘feel’ into different aspects or elements.
Firstly, feel is what the rider can feel from the horse. For example, the foot falls in each gait. I think it’s safe to say most people can feel this, but it depends to a certain extent on how extravagant the horse is as to whether it’s a big feeling, or more subtle, or even if the rider can feel the hind legs as much as the forelegs. The rider should also be able to feel how the horse is holding himself; if he’s tense or relaxed, and if he’s standing evenly, or resting one leg. Again, I think this is taught or explained quite early on in the learning programme. I certainly talk to all my riders about whether they feel their horse walking quickly or slowly, and if they’re rushing or dragging their heels. I also bring rhythm into the equation, in a very basic way to start off with.
The next element of ‘feel’ is more of an inbuilt one. It cannot be taught per se, but can be enhanced and improved. This is the rider responding to the horse’s way of going in a natural way. I’ll try and explain that a bit better. You teach riders the leg and rein aids at the very beginning, and to begin with it’s very much a kick/pull technique, but as the rider becomes more educated in how the horse moves or what movement they are performing their aids should become more subtle. If they have feel, that is. The aids change from black and white to a grey scale. As you progress as a rider the ability to affect the horse should become instinctive.
A good example of this was my client today, who I have been working on her feel and riding her horse as opposed to being a passenger on the flat, but we decided to go back to some jumps. While warming up I asked her to get her horse working forwards and in an active rhythm. When he started a bit lethargically I asked her how she was going to improve her trot. She just gave him a ‘big kick’ which resulted in him shooting forwards. I then explained how a transition would make him more responsive to the aids, but also if he just lacked a little bit of energy she should squeeze with her leg. Eventually we moved onto a jump. I asked her to maintain her active trot, without letting him rush, until two strides before the jump when she should squeeze her leg and relax her hand so he could adjust himself to the jump. The first time he pricked his ears and sped up, so she gave him a ‘big half halt’, then a ‘big kick’ to compensate. The second time he slowed slightly, so she gave a ‘big kick’ and he shot forwards.
It took me the rest of the lesson to try and cancel out the black and white aids, and develop a more greyscale approach, and teach her to respond more subtly, to slight changes in her horses way of going.
I came away quite frustrated unfortunately, but had come to the conclusion that she has no feel because she cannot feel the slight change in her horse and respond accordingly to help balance him. This will obviously impact her ability to learn more complicated movements like leg yield (everything’s a ‘big kick’ even when I say ‘push’ or ‘squeeze’) or medium or collected gaits.
To conclude, when instructors ask if you can feel that, they are referring to what the horse is doing, and then to a certain extent you have to remember how you rode it in order to replicate the movement. If someone says you have a natural feel, they are referring to your reactions to the horse and your ability to subtly work with the horse and create a balanced and harmonious relationship. Obviously this is open to interpretation, but I welcome everyone’s opinion.