How Do You Develop ‘Feel’ in Horseback Riding?

Finding feel

By three methods we may learn wisdom:

First, by reflection, which is noblest;

Second, by imitation, which is easiest;

and third by experience, which is the bitterest. 

~Confucius

Confucius might well have been writing about “feel” in his quote above. Just replace the word ‘wisdom’ with ‘feel’ and you will get a generally good idea of the path.

Born to feel?

Many people say that it is impossible to learn how to ‘feel’ in riding. They say either you have it, or you don’t. They insist that people who can ‘feel’ are essentially born with it, and others will never find it regardless of their attempts.

But you know this can not possibly be true. You have likely watched as people improved their riding skills over time and witnessed for yourself that (correct) practice DOES make perfect (or at the very least, significant improvement).

Of course, certain requirements have to be in place:

- you need regular instruction.

- you must commit to consistent practice.

- you must be willing to hear and respond to repeated feedback.

- you must have the intrinsic motivation to strive for more at all times.

Most importantly, you need to have the openness of heart and mind to ‘find’ that feel – especially during the first time, since you will not particularly know what the feel feels like!

How to find ‘feel’?

Do like Confucius said!

First, you must start with an idea. Before you will even know what to feel for, you must get some input from a more experienced source. Perhaps you have an instructor that puts emphasis on describing the feel for you. Maybe you can read about the feel from an expertly written book or article.

The difficulty about this stage is that you don’t know what you don’t know… and to break the cycle, you need to reach out to someone who does know. The road to knowing (or feeling, in this case), is trusting that there is something “out there” that you don’t even know exists! Then you need the teaser idea to get you started, to start (figuratively) groping around to find that feel.

Second, watch, learn and do. There is no learning that is more successful than having a chance to watch someone ride, and then trying it yourself. Imitate! Ideally, you would be able to ride in the company of other experienced riders and try to mimic their actions. Even better, ride with your instructor and listen to her as she explains what she is doing, what she is feeling, and what the end result looks like in the horse.

Then it is your turn to try and search for the feeling that will produce the final result. Unfortunately, you will have to get it wrong many times before you get the first taste of correct feel. At long last, after your instructor explained the skills, and then the feel, you might get a brief moment when it all falls together – and you FEEL!

Then, it all falls apart again!

Now you need to develop experience. After you get it that one time, you might not get it again for a while. You have to trouble-shoot – hit and miss – until you find the feel the second time. Each time, it gets easier to repeat, and you can duplicate the feel sooner and more frequently. Sometimes, you will go through a stage where you simply cannot reproduce the feel (and result) without your instructor’s steady guidance from the ground. You might be successful for the last twenty minutes of the lesson, but not be able to reproduce the skill on your own.

It WILL get worse before it gets better. As Confucius indicates, learning through experience is “bitterest!”

Be patient. Getting to a point where the feel becomes part of your blueprint takes time and repetition. Persist through the uncoordinated moments, try again, and keep searching for that evasive feel. It really does get easier with time and practice.

If you can ride with feel, you will be able to respond immediately to your horse’s needs, be able to avoid problems before they occur, and be present in the ride but out of your horse’s way at the same time. And, to top it off, your horse will thank you for it!

How did you, or are you, developing ‘feel’ in horse riding?

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Related articles:

6 Ways to Unleash the Power of Your Riding Seat: We all talk about riding with the ‘seat’, but how do you go about developing that elusive skill?

What You Ought to Know About Instant Gratification in Horse Riding: There is no such thing! Stay in for the long haul or get off!

Top Nine Ways to Prevent Your Horse From Finding His “Happy Place” in Riding: A (mild) rant about the many reasons why horses might not perform to our expectations.

Too Good To Be True? Finding Your Horse’s “Happy Place”:  A follow-up to the above post, this time focusing on what TO do to improve your horse’s performance.

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Posted on January 10, 2012, in horses, philosophizing and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Siiiiiigh! Feeling! Allowing yourself to receive (listen) information from your horse instead of giving it. I agree with your statement about not knowing that you don’t know and in this case, innocence is not bliss. To improve your riding nothing can replace a knowledgeable instructor, better yet a mentor, with whom you hopefully establish a long term relationship. Time spent listening and observing other great riders and coaches is most valuable.

  2. I really enjoyed your article. I think that our best teacher when we want more feel with our riding is our horse :-) cheers Paulette

  3. I’ve been watching my Buck Brannaman 7 clinics dvd’s and he constantly refers to soft feel….watching and listening to him, along with my instructor is starting to get it “sunk in” :)

  4. I found it really helped to have a lunge lesson. If you can close your eyes even better. I did a lot of sitting trot work, leg yields and by taking my hands out of the game so I couldn’t rely on them for balance. This works great over small cross rails too. You really start to feel the horse under you and get a sense of how their body moves at different gaits. Lunge lessons really helped improve my seat, balance and “feel”. Every time I get stuck in a lesson or just feel like I’m not getting it, I have my instructor put me on the lunge, drop my stirrups and just focus on the “feel” until it comes back to me. Then I go back to my lesson and see a huge improvement. For me it’s kind of like “rebalancing” myself. I really don’t think you can get the “feel” of anything if you’re off balance so this is key to achieving the correct feel of your horse. I’m still a work in progress, but those “ah-ha” moments are priceless!

  5. I found it really helped to have a lunge lesson. If you can close your eyes even better. I did a lot of sitting trot work, leg yields and by taking my hands out of the game so I couldn’t rely on them for balance. This works great over small cross rails too. You really start to feel the horse under you and get a sense of how their body moves at different gaits. Lunge lessons really helped improve my seat, balance and “feel”. Every time I get stuck in a lesson or just feel like I’m not getting it, I have my instructor put me on the lunge, drop my stirrups and just focus on the “feel” until it comes back to me. Then I go back to my lesson and see a huge improvement. For me it’s kind of like “rebalancing” myself. I really don’t think you can get the “feel” of anything if you’re off balance so this is key to achieving the correct feel of your horse. I’m still a work in progress, but those “ah-ha” moments are priceless!

  1. Pingback: How Do You Develop ‘Feel’ in Horseback Riding? | Ultimate Horsemanship | Scoop.it

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