Developing "Feel" in the Saddle
By Paul Kathen © 2005
Once upon a time all riders sat alike. They were perfectly straight head to heel, ankles stiff, knees stiff, hips stiff, shoulders stiff, neck stiff. They were a royal pain in the horse’s back. Their saddles were designed so they had no option but to sit that way. Ample cushioning made it bearable for the riders. Since such stiffness and immobility made it difficult for the riders to influence their horses to any degree with their seat and legs, the controls were mostly in the riders’ hands. That created another pain for the horse. Such a seat also did not allow the rider a great amount of feel for the horse. Fortunately at about the time of the classics we changed our ways and no longer sit like that on a horse. Our saddles are designed to give the rider much more freedom for seat and legs to be able to feel the horse’s movement and to better communicate with him.
At this point it may be a good idea to read my article about the “Independent Seat” again. You can find it in the July 2004, HDS Newsletter or go to my website, www.tex-overfarms.com and look under, “Articles.” In that writing I describe how our seat can best become independent of hands and legs so that we can use them to express our commands to the horse. In today’s article I want to go one step farther and explore how to develop the seat to the point that we cannot only use it to speak to the horse but also to listen to him through our sense of feel.
When you were a beginner rider you were not sure what your horse was doing until it became very obvious. Then through experience you learned to realize what your horse was up to at the second he did it and his actions no longer caused you much of a struggle to maintain your seat in such moments. You even knew how to correct it. Your instructor now considered you an intermediate rider and you were beginning to dream of your own horse. The step to the advanced rider is the most difficult one because now you are expected to feel what the horse may plan and, should it not be what is expected of him, you must be able to prevent it from happening. That takes a great deal of awareness about what is happening underneath you.
We are a visually oriented people. Next to vision we perceive a great deal of our environment through hearing. Feeling arrives as a distant third with taste and smell following it. The reason I mention this is that we are not all that skilled at feeling since we do not rely on it much of the time but would rather use our senses of sight and hearing to collect data. That, in my opinion, is the reason we found it so hard not to constantly look at the horse’s neck when we first started riding. Our eyes told us what the horse was doing and whether he was doing it right. Naturally everything that happened behind our sight escaped our notice until it was too late and we had to make rather coarse corrections to get back on track. Our goal, however, is to ride with invisible aids.
Blind people have an extraordinarily well developed sense of feeling, even those who were not born blind. That would mean that they had the capacity for a great sense of feel before they became blind. In other words you and I also have this ability to feel well beyond what we can feel now if we only used that sense more often. Handicapped people have no option and, therefore, develop the sense their handicap forces them to use to a much greater extent than they would have otherwise. It seems that our brain first selects the tool it already uses the most to accomplish a task. Because in our daily lives we rely on our eyes so much we automatically want to employ our vision even when it is not the best of our senses for the job. We are creatures of habit and it takes a great deal of willpower and concentration to overcome the brain’s natural tendency to stay with the same tool to gather information.
Let me tell you a little story that I experienced yesterday in a lesson. My student and I had agreed that her work on the half passes needed polishing. Her problem was that she allowed her horse to lead with the hindquarters moving to the right. She rode it very well as long as she was corrected on that particular point, so I told her that she needed to work on developing a feel for the correct position of the horse’s hindquarters. “How am I going to do that?” was her reply. The arena we were working in had a beautiful mirror all the way along its short side so I asked her to ride a half pass towards the mirror and correct the exercise herself according to what she saw in the mirror. At the same time she was to listen to the difference in feeling when the horse moved correctly compared to when he moved the hindquarters in. The people watching the lesson and I had a laugh at her expense when she could not keep her eye on the mirror but every other step she had to look down at her horse and then she stayed focused on his neck until she was reminded to watch her horse in the mirror. My laughter stopped when this situation reminded me of a problem I had experienced myself in my typing. Ms. Mavis, my computer typing instructor, kept on telling me not to worry about speed, but to keep my eyes on the screen instead of looking at the keyboard. My computer does not spell very well and by looking down I often did not notice when it misspelled a word and I had to scroll back to correct it. That is time consuming and frustrating. Here I am trying to type without looking down and I must admit that concentrating on not looking at the keys slows my speed down considerably. However, I do catch my computer’s mistakes right away and make up for lost time that way. Have you ever wondered why the computer highlights its own mistakes?
Riding is a dialogue between horse and rider. In a dialogue both partners are speaking and should also be listening. It works best if one listens while the other speaks and then gives the other a chance to speak in turn. What a wonderful world it would be if the speaking party really said what she meant and the listening party paid attention to what is told to her instead of using that time to think of what she wants to say next. Fortunately that kind of dialogue will not work in riding. Horses, one more time, prove themselves incapable of deception. They do what you say, not what they think you really were saying, and what you hear from them is exactly what they mean. The wise rider pays attention to what her horse is telling her, takes it at face value, and reacts to it immediately.
The language of the horse, of course, is silent. His actions talk to you. You can see them, sometimes hear them, and you can feel them. In the saddle feeling is the much better sense to use than seeing or hearing because you can feel every part of your horse and your eyes should be on the road to be accurate and safe in your riding. There are actually three ways in which you can perceive your horse’s message through feeling. One is your skin, another would be your muscles, joints and tendons, and then there is the mechanism that keeps you upright, your sense of balance. This mechanism works automatically and you have little control over it. It keeps you balanced on horseback just as it does while you are walking or running but proves to be woefully inadequate when the base of support moves unexpectedly and fast.
The feeling with your skin seems so obvious that one might think it needs no further explanation. The main areas of your body where touch allows you to feel your own as well as your horse’s movement are your seat, the inside of your legs, and the part of your finger that is touched by the reins. Of these the fingers are the most sensitive, with the seat bringing up the rear. Any change of your position relative to the horse is also noticed by receptors in your muscles, tendons, and joints and immediately sent to your brain so that it can deal with the situation. Since this is the fastest transmission of information to the brain, feel becomes the number one sense to rely on while on horseback. This does not mean, however, that it is the only sense you should use to determine where you are on the back of the horse and how well you are moving, both as individuals and as a team. The eyes are very helpful in telling us where we are in the arena and the ears can assist in telling us about irregularities in the gait or the heaviness of a horse moving on the forehand. Should you ride to music the ears also help to determine whether your horse is dancing to that tune. This means that while eliminating other senses like sight will enhance our ability to feel, it is not true that it will improve our total awareness of our situation on horseback. The more information we absorb with all our senses and the better we can analyze this information, the better informed we are. That in turn means that we are going to make better corrections to pass on to our horse.
None of your senses can tell you more about the correctness and the quality of your horse’s movement and the harmony between you and your horse than your sense of feeling. Since from lack of use our ability to feel is somewhat underdeveloped we must give it a leg up by deliberately emphasizing it in our daily lives, especially when riding. You cannot do it sitting on a chair so step on your horse and start feeling.
You just sat upright and everything felt good but I have to stop you already because what you felt might not be what is. In case I sound like a politician please do not worry, I really mean what I said. In order to simplify our life our brain has the ability to compensate for imbalances in our bodies. We all are to an extent built uneven and so the brain accepts this unevenness as correct and tells us, “This feeling is normal and balanced.” In reality we are sitting crooked. This also means that if we were to be corrected and made to sit in balance, we would perceive it as being off balance. Our horse feels us as being in balance when we are correct so clearly it is we who need to re-learn what our balance is.
How do we best go about improving our moving and balancing? This is the area of expertise of the Sports Physiologists. My source for exercises is Eckart Meyners. He has written several books specializing in the needs of the rider (see last month’s article, “Teaching Riding and Learning to Ride a Dialogue Between Instructor and Student.” Some of his sources are Feldenkrais and Alexander. Yoga and Pilates are also good systems of exercises to improve our bodies and the way we use them. One way to deal with the, “This is the way I always sit and it feels comfortable,” unbalanced seat is to exaggerate imbalance like leaning way over to the right and then to the left. For good measure fold forward and lean back. In between, sit up straight. This way you sensitize your feeling for balance. You break the old habit by creating new impulses. Another kind of change would be different length of stirrups, riding without stirrups or the two point seat for the dressage rider. Try this with the stirrups at uneven lengths (four holes or more difference.) It is my hope that by reading this you will feel motivated to find out your imbalances and look for ways to correct them. It would be a waste of your time and it would leave me frustrated to know that you enjoyed reading this article and agreed with me about the problems riders have to deal with and then not immediately seek ways to solve your own.
There are warm-up exercises before you ride and work outs you can do at home. Your instructor will be delighted to hear you ask about exercises you would like to try while riding. She will enjoy your renewed motivation and your willingness to eliminate riding problems by improving the basics. Please do not sabotage yourself in this process by becoming so focused and tight to the point of setting your jaw and staring, that you totally lose your ability to feel anything. Be focused but stay relaxed and take pleasure in your body moving and your harmony with your horse. Wipe any negative thoughts out of your mind. You are hard at work to improve, not to prove that you are already perfect. If you or your horse make a mistake, or the execution of an exercise was not quite stellar, do not let it steal your joy. In case you feel negative vibes from your instructor do not let her influence you, instead you cheer her up.
Speaking as an instructor to the student, let me tell you that the moments in which I become most frustrated are when my students express a clear displeasure about how they are doing at that moment. For as sure as day follows night, if I cannot turn her attitude around, she will get down on either herself or her horse. Listening to whining is not much fun and I know that at this point learning does not take place.
As an instructor to those who also teach I would advise you to listen to that student. She is asking for help. Find an answer for her and work toward that goal. This way, hopefully, she will think positively again and both of you will enjoy the lesson and learning can take place.
My students often hear me say, “It is all in the preparation.” Usually what I mean by that is that an exercise properly prepared is usually also executed well. In this article we talk about learning to feel. The fact is that when we think a great deal about what we are doing our sense of feeling is not operating very well. The head has taken over and the seat loses our attention. Instead let us prepare with our head and ride with our seat. Here is my suggestion how best to proceed. First, know exactly what exercise you want to ride, where you are going to start, how to prepare your horse, and what your most likely problems are going to be. Think about every step in detail. Then execute that plan and allow your seat to do the riding. If it went well, that’s great. If it did not, stop and think about how to improve the next try. Listen to your seat again and hear it telling you where things went wrong. Talk to your instructor about what you felt and how you think you can improve the next trip. If she agrees with you, ride again, listen to your seat, and correct your horse when your seat tells you to. If she does not agree, she may or may not say so but let you try again anyway. It is often a good strategy to let the student experiment and find the mistakes and their corrections for herself. This way the student becomes independent of the instructor. In most cases I do this by telling the student what I want them to work on and that I am going to just observe, then we will talk about how she dealt with the situation later.
You may have noticed that I have made the seat the focal point for feeling. I am not ignoring the other sources of information through feeling but your seat is sitting right on top of the horse’s center of movement and right under your center of gravity and thus is the most important part of your body for listening to your movement and the movement of your horse. Often you will also hear or read about, “looking to your inside,” or your “inner eye,” when the author or speaker is talking about your sense of feeling. I prefer to ask my students to listen to their seat in order to feel the horse. I do not know why I have this preference, it just feels natural. I also at one time had a student who would cock her head every time I asked her to feel her horse. It appeared like she was trying real hard to listen to her seat. I believe that both images, eye and ear, will work.
Once again let me emphasize that the dialogue between horse and rider is a two way street. Information flows both ways, hopefully uninterrupted. So far we have talked a great deal about sensitizing ourselves to improve our sense of feeling. Our horse also must undergo training to enhance his ability to feel. The trainer must address both the horse’s body and his mind. It often happens that your horse hears (feels) you but does not respond because he can’t. He may be so badly off balance that it is impossible for him to obey right away. The green horse may be very sensitive and hear you but does not understand you. Then there is the heavy horse. He just loves to use his rider as a fifth wheel. Imagine yourself riding a horse that is well balanced and light in your hand. You feel about two ounces of weight in each hand. Now you ride a lugger and he has you holding fifty pounds of his weight in your hands. Both horses decide to move a bit more onto the forehand and add a pound to the reins. Which one would be easier for you to detect? A more difficult situation presents itself for the rider when the horse decides that he does not like what he heard and ignores it. Except for the light horse none of these horses is suitable to teach a student to become light and sensitive.
So, dear trainer, it is time to mount up, teach the youngster our language, help him find his balance under the rider, motivate him to carry himself and explain to him that ignoring the rider is not an option. All of this must, of course, be done in such a way that the horse is going to want harmony with his rider at all times. I believe that this desire for harmony in horse and rider is the best condition for sensitivity between them.
Are you aware of a study that was done at one of our major universities to find out the effect of visualizing on a person’s performance of a task? They took the school’s basketball team and split it into three groups. The first group was given an amount of time to not practice free throws. The second group was told to, during the same period, spend a certain amount of time a day to practice their skills at free throws. The third group was not allowed to touch a basketball during that time, but was asked to imagine free throw practice just like they were actually doing it. This process is called visualizing. They were to sit down, close their eyes, and in their mind seeing themselves successfully scoring points from the free throw line. Of course these were experienced players with well established averages. The result was amazing to me when I first heard about it. The first group as expected did not improve at all. The second group also performed as anticipated; they improved a great deal. What surprised me was that the third group improved to almost the same degree as the second one. This means that we can take a known pattern of muscle use and deepen it by repeatedly imagining that pattern as we do by actually using the muscles in that pattern. How can we take advantage of this as riders? We do not see ourselves ride. Watching others ride does not fulfill the condition necessary to allow visualization to work. Our own muscles must have successfully executed the pattern to have a memory of it so that the mind can work our muscles along its memory of that pattern.
It seems such a shame not to be able to use this tool to improve our riding while we are unable to sit on our horse for whatever reason. Maybe we can. Remember in the beginning of this article we talked about the need to feel the horse since we cannot see much of it while we are riding. We can feel all of it and we can feel all of ourselves. The basketball players used their muscles in a known pattern and in their mind visualized the ball arc through the air and fall through the net. While their muscles actually did nothing, their mind deepened a muscle memory that they called upon at game time to score the point. Riders cannot see the result of a perfect half halt but they can feel it. So feelalize away. The player watched the effect of his muscle action on the ball. You feel the effect of your muscle action on the horse. How boring visualizing must be for the player, the same hoop in the same place, the same ball and always perfect conditions. Imagine what all you can do. Think of the various purposes of the half halt, the many personalities you have encountered on horseback, the footing will change the half halt to achieve the same result. The number of different muscle patterns it will take to practice to create a muscle memory for all possible situations is staggering and that is why most of us are so deeply hooked on riding. You hardly ever encounter the same situation twice. Since feelalizing is just a different word for visualizing it is subject to the same laws. The rider must have executed that particular muscle pattern successfully before.
This is my challenge to you. Ride your horse and practice half halts. Feel the ones that succeeded and repeat the muscle pattern that made the horse respond correctly. It is now in your brain under the heading of muscle memory. Tonight at home find a quiet place, close your eyes and repeat the pattern for the half halt several times and in your mind feel your horse respond. Tomorrow try the half halts again and feel the results. You might already notice that your coordination has improved and you did not have to think as much about how to apply the aids. Your horse is probably going to be in a different mood and so he may react differently. Riding is a sport for people who like to think. Vary your half halt and try again. While you experiment like this be guided by the idea that you want to do as little as possible but enough to have the horse respond as you wish. If your horse’s response to you yesterday is what you wanted, try to have him behave the same way today. Remember what you did that caused your horse to improve and practice that tonight. Now you have two muscle patterns in your memory file.
Let me stretch that a little farther and tell you that soon you do not consciously search for the files anymore. Your subconscious mind will do that for you. It is obvious that the larger your memory the better your riding, so get busy feelalizing and make sure that you put only that which works into your files. In my case, I remember much better those things I figured out for myself. So become independent, explore your horse and do not worry about mistakes as long as you do not become rough or repeat the mistake. That is why it is important to have an experienced person around to help in case you cannot find the answer yourself.