The most common answer we used to get from horse riding coaches around the world is a big fat “No”!! The common belief used to be “You either have it or you don’t!” Although these days, I am seeing more and more of a shift in coaching, to find ways to help riders develop a seemingly natural connection and feel.
What is ‘feel’? Well, I describe it as a balance of pressure and timing of the horse riders aids, executed more as a reflex within the subconscious, than an actual thought put into action! I think that is why ‘feel’ has been so universally hard to coach, because the coach has to actually stop and think about what they did, when they did it and why. Then they need to translate their actions in a way that the student in front of them will understand. Every student will interpret the information differently, which requires the coach to come up with multiple ways to describe something that is more often than not, to them, a natural reflex.
Natural feel is often present in those who would be described as talented! Horse riding is hugely different to any other sport as it’s not only the horse rider training their muscle memory but its the horse’s muscle memory and response being trained too. BUT on the other hand, it’s NOT that different from every other sport as it still requires practice, repetition and precision of timing to be as close to perfect as we can be. In that sense, it is no different to a tennis player subconsciously knowing how hard, how fast, on what angle and at what time to hit the ball to gain the advantage point! (Just the tennis racket or ball doesn’t have its own opinion).
In the last three years over 3000 horse riders from every discipline, beginners to Grand Prix, ranging in age from 5 to 83 have attended my clinics, booked in private lessons, sent me horses for schooling and ordered programs through me. The experience and knowledge these riders have given me by attending my clinics, booking in their private lessons, sending me their videos and trusting me with their horses, is something money just cant buy! I am forever grateful to each and every one of them. I am constantly trying to pass on that knowledge and help more equestrians find their connection with their horses and develop their feel.
When I started coaching small poles classes for Adult Rider clubs it was really to give some of the riders who were too nervous to jump, a little bit of fun, with a cross-training technique. I found a lot of these riders to be unbalanced, not particularly pro-active with their riding and with heads full of noise from their generally busy lives. I decided to set up some more challenging exercises that would not only cause them to focus on the exercise but cause them to use their bodies properly to successfully complete the poles pattern.
This was the start of my technique to teach feel! I discovered that when I set up certain types of exercises the riders began to fix their position and execute their aids with the right amount of pressure, at the right time, BEFORE I could get the words out of my mouth, to coach them through. You see, that is the big problem with teaching feel. By the time a coach gets the words out to try and divert the rider from error, the moment has passed and it is too late. Usually the coach will ask the rider to repeat the exercise and try to tell them what to do for a successful outcome. However, with horses, the pressure you need to use with your aids and the timing those aids need to be applied with, can change with every attempt, so the coach may explain how to repeat the exercise based on the previous effort. This may not be entirely correct for how the horse performs in the following effort unless your coach is phenomenally good and can read what the horse will do next. When the rider is in the moment, they have to be able to almost ‘sense’ the pressure and timing of aids required to get the exercise right. Hence why feel is such a hard thing to coach.
Ok, back to the poles exercises. I found the more technical I designed my poles patterns the more the riders improved within the one hour lesson. I witnessed riders start a lesson completely unbalanced, nervous, thinking of everything that could go wrong, start to transform within 20 minutes into each class. I would watch their position improve as they needed to be more effective with their aids and their confidence grow as they focused on the large layouts with no room in their head for any of everyday life’s noise! I also watched some very experienced riders, soft, sympathetic, confident riders have light bulb moments as they figured out the missing link in their training. Feeling how an exercise could mobilize their horse in a certain way they had not been able to ‘feel’ in their general training.
I have a few clients who are highly intelligent, academic leaders in their fields. They are extreme perfectionists, way TOO pro-active in their thinking and actually need to slow down and stop thinking so much to allow their connection with their horse to grow. I adore these ladies, they are all incredible humans who I am blessed to know and have on their own, taught me an entirely different set of skills as a coach. Generally speaking I’m the type of coach who never really shuts up. I will walk next to you, talking to your constantly guiding your every move, predicting your horses behavior and correcting your riding before you make a mistake. BUT… my group of academics.. they taught me how to be a quiet coach, how to think of exercises that challenge them mentally and put their bodies into a position where they start to adjust the pressure and timing of their aids without me really saying too much. Instead of telling them how to correct themselves, I create and exercise incorporating a poles pattern and tell them how its meant to be ridden. Then I let them go and watch them work through each attempt adjusting their skills every time. It’s magic to watch them figure out their own personal puzzles.
I have one friend who has one of the most intense, fierce minds I’ve ever known. Having competed at an elite level in a previous extreme sport her intensity and dedication when training as an equestrian can be quite electric. Any of you reading this blog, who know her, will know who I’m talking about. I have nothing but respect for this friend of mine as she is SO hard on herself and any time she attends one of my poles classes she is deadly quiet with a fierce mindset on what she wants to achieve. I have learnt to just give her the pattern, tell her how its meant to feel and let her go with a few little pointers here and there if she gets stuck. These days she nails it every time and her once rigid, military type of execution has softened. A huge amount to do with her dressage coach and an expert breaker who helped her create a few safety buttons with her firecracker little mare. These two are going from strength to strength and the proof a rider CAN learn ‘feel’ is shown by her ability to navigate her hot little mare with precision through a 36 pole exercise and barely ten words from me, the coach.
SO…YES! YES, coaches CAN teach feel! I personally have found the best method for me as a coach to teach feel is via the poles exercises for horses but there are a few other methods out there. Some have been around since humans started riding horses and some are new.
Other ways you can help develop your feel is to ride bareback for a little while. There is something about riding bareback and having that direct connection to the horse that slices into our subconscious giving us that divine connection with our horses. That connection where you truly feel as one and can almost feel what each other is thinking. (Just a warning, if your horse hasn’t been ridden bareback before try starting in a round yard, some don’t like it at first!)
If you are a rider with a loose lower leg, or you balance and push off your toes, take your stirrups off for ten minutes a ride and rise trot for as long as you can. You will be surprised how much this can correct your position and develop your feel. Basically if you don’t you will fall off. Most humans have self preservation so will naturally try ten times harder to avoid falling off.
Another way is to use Physio Bands. These are like Pilates bands but designed for horses riders. They were developed in New Zealand by a physiotherapist who works on improving rider position. They’re basically a form of resistance training on horseback that cause the rider to become steadier in the carriage of their hands and more balanced in their overall position. I have used one of the bands that go around the horse riders wrists to help steady their hands. I found them to be really effective. There are a few other gadgets and tricks all created to adjust your position back to where it is supposed to be, so your balance improves allowing your ‘feel’ to develop.
Each method works more or less for each individual horse and rider combination. The only unsuccessful riders to have attended my poles clinics were those who had sore or unsound horses. Every other horse rider who has attended has made a huge improvement in their one hour lesson. LOTS have messaged me the following day informing me how sore they are and that they had never used muscles like that while horse riding before. A BIG THANK YOU to all of you who have attended my poles clinics over the last few years, you have taught me as much as I have taught you!
Happy Riding Everyone..