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CAN COACHES TEACH EQUESTRIANS THE ELUSIVE SKILL OF ‘FEEL’ ….?

Photo Credit – Lucy Morton Rider – Alex Medved

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).

Rider – Paula Heffernan-Pelly

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.

Rider – Alison Gunther

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..

Cheers,

Amanda!

Rider – Joanna Barry
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TRAINING PROGRAMS FOR HORSES & HORSE RIDERS

Not surprisingly due to Covid and a lot of horse riders confined to riding at home, I have received a lot of inquiries about my training programs.  I offer single poles training programs which have a poles pattern and a detailed document that coaches the rider through a progressive gymnastic training program.  Set up instructions with distances are also included.  These are hugely popular and while there is a lot of free information out there on various poles exercises mine are a little different.  My poles programs are exactly that… a ‘program’.  Not just a pattern with a line of arrows but a set program with describing the aim and benefits of each pattern along with coaching on how to achieve them.  All of my poles programs are designed to improve accuracy, balance, connection, strength, mobility and the riders ‘feel’.  They differ in their levels of technicality and intensity with options to scale each exercise to a more difficult session. The 12 pole program is the only one that incorporates an in-hand program as well as a ridden program but all can be broken down into sections and worked through in-hand first, if the rider desires. 

Providing five day programs have kept me busy as I tailor them to the individual.  These can be tailored for a rider wanting to improve their balance, or increase their horse’s stride, to help build top line on their horse or to create even muscle development after incurring an injury.  The training programs for the kids who are competing are also popular as it gives them something to focus on and stops them flopping around on endless circles when not under instruction. My programs set the rider up with achievable goals, what they need to do to action those goals and various methods to problem solve an issue along the way.  The video critique is a huge advantage to these programs as it allows the rider to see what they are doing on the play back with my comments on how to improve that component of their riding. 

To give a bit of a better picture on how my programs work I thought I would take you through the process with my little ambassador Jorja Clarke.  Jorja is 14 years old and competing 1* Eventing on her green Warmblood cross Thoroughbred (aka Buzz).  Jorja also has a Thoroughbred mare she events but I primarily help her with Buzz. 

Jorja’s mum has recently bought a Pivo so training sessions can be video recorded.  This makes writing Jorja’s training programs so much easier and her understanding of the critique is clearer due to it being visual.

Below is a screen shot of a video Jorja has sent me and my comment in correlation with the time of the video.  For each rider undergoing this form of training I set up a Drop Box folder and they download their videos to their folder for me to critique.  Not only does this allow the rider to see exactly what they are doing in relation to my comments but it allows me to write a very specific and tailored program to suit.  At this point in the video Jorja is about four strides away from a canter transition. The transition was rushed and hollow, so I am able to take her back to the point where it started to go wrong and write/coach how to improve the transition and the point of preparation. Jorja is a great student and why I made her an ambassador for AML as once she is corrected on something, she will always make the next attempt so much better!

I generally try to get clients to send me through about half an hour of video to critique. That gives me enough footage to really pin point what the main issues are and the basis of the next training program. A five day training program can take me around 3 hours to write, depending on the client and their level of understanding with how I communicate. I always encourage my clients to ask plenty of questions. I generally have about five different ways to say the same thing, so if one way isn’t understood by the rider I can generally find a way that they can. The programs get emailed to the client in the form of a PDF and can be printed out or read straight off a screen. I have had one client ask for her programs to be sent through in an eBook file such as epub which worked a treat too and allowed her to read the program straight from her tablet. I originally thought these programs worked best for analytical people but they are proving to work well for the visual learners too when the video critique is matched to the program. Below is screenshot of one of the exercises I had written up for Jorja in an earlier program.

Jorja is an extremely busy little rider with two eventers of her own and a string of client horses coming and going for schooling through school holidays. Training other peoples horses is how Jorja pays for her own two. Jorja’s long term coach, Leah Simmons coaches Jorja in person on a weekly basis.  Leah and I are from the same school of training and often liaise on what Jorja needs to focus on so I can write it into her programs.  Not all kids are as lucky as Jorja to have two coaches helping them along the way, but most kids don’t have up to 8 horses in for training which is way more than either Leah or myself could help her with on her own. This method has proven to be a very effective system which had improved Jorja’s scores and placings after six weeks into using the programs.

Ultimately, it is up to the rider to put in the training but having someone more experienced set out a program and another set of experienced eyes to keep you on track rapidly improves the rider and horses skill set. 

I have other riders who are not lucky enough to have Leah or any other coach to drop in once a week for a private lesson.  These ladies and young riders live remotely and don’t have access to qualified regular coaching, so the training programs have been well received by this crew of mine.  I realized over time that my clients who were following the written training programs were progressing faster than the clients who were undergoing a weekly lesson.  As Covid has prevented us from being able to get out and coach in person I have transferred a few of my private lessons over to the five-day programs as they could afford it.  The five-day programs with video critique cost $150 with each program used by the rider for between two weeks to a month to be able to achieve the desired result.  Broken down weekly it is no more expensive than a weekly private lesson, so if you need that bit of extra help, especially through this restrictive time of Covid, then send me a message and we’ll have a chat about what you’d like help with.

Otherwise, if you just want some fun training ideas that will not only improve your riding but increase your horses mobility and strength, download a poles program off my site or head to your App store and download my AML Equestrian Coaching App which currently contains 18 poles exercises and 2 jumping exercises. The App is now linked to my Youtube channel so I can start uploading more demo videos and give my riders a direct link to a more visual form of knowledge.  There are various levels of patterns in the App, but they will all test you and keep you more than occupied with your training.

Happy riding everyone!

To download the App head to your App store or hit one of these links –

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HACKING OUT…

Time To Unwind Or An Adventure Sport For Adrenaline Junkies??

A beautiful day, blue skies, no wind and you’ve been training hard in the arena all week!  You decide it is the perfect type of day to go for a casual hack out around the local trails and unwind.  As you saddle up, your mind relaxes and you switch off from the busy work week, running kids around or whatever it is that makes your life busy!

OR; you haven’t had time to ride this week, you are more of a pleasure rider and you feel it would be nice for both you and your horse to have a casual stroll around the countryside….

(13 year old me *cough..a LONG time ago* on my 5 year old Thoroughbred who carted me around the hills of the Yarra Valley in every spare moment I had..)

Horse riders and equestrians alike tend to have a romantic and emotional nature where we fantasize about a love and unquestionable friendship with our horses as depicted in block buster movies.  You know the ones?  Where the horse’s loyalty to their human is more akin to that of a working dog, protecting them from all danger and where they gallop up the paddock to greet their human!  The movies where the rider climbs aboard bareback, no helmet and gallop through the green rolling hills or white sandy beaches with not a care in the world exhibiting a freedom that is intoxicating to witness (along with the romantic music the producers pair these scenes with) and a freedom all of us in our repetitive lives crave! Check out the original Black Beauty, National Velvet or even our own Australian The Man From Snowy River to see what I’m talking about…

However, the TRUTH about the relationships we have with our horses is generally a far cry from the romance and loyalty depicted by the likes of good old Warner Brothers!  

Let’s return to our example riders above… with the first one having spent the week schooling in the arena, she tacks up in the beautiful sunshine, not a breath of wind and her horse waits patiently, content in an environment he knows well, where there is nothing new, nothing to be on alert about and a place he trusts no predator will jump out to harm him.  Our dedicated equestrian is lulled into a false sense of security, sinking into a relaxed state as her horse emanates peace and tranquility.  She thinks to herself, “This is exactly what we both needed, some down time to unwind and stretch out the kinks.”  She throws a leg over and heads towards the gate to leave the confines of their everyday familiarity.

About ten meters from the gate our dedicated equestrian feels her beloved equine friend become a little tense and drop behind the leg, resisting her request to keep a steady march on a nice loose rein.  She picks up her reins in anticipation of requiring a little more control as the euphoric sense of love and peace is replaced with slight tension and apprehension… 

The further she gets down the road and onto the trail, the further away from the comfort and familiarity of home she takes her horse, the more electrified he becomes.  Our rider talks out loud (as most of us do to our horses) “Come on, what is wrong with you?  Don’t you want to have a nice day out of the arena and see the sights!?”  At this very moment she feels her body get whiplashed like a crash test dummy as her horse leaps twelve feet sideways with a speed to rival that of his racing cousins launching out of the start gates!  He hasn’t intentionally tried to dislodge his human or make her feel like her hips are no longer aligned with her spine… BUT he did need to tell her how that slightly different colored blade of grass that he’d never seen before was surely going to eat him and best he escape the danger as fast as possible!

Regaining her composure our equestrian is driven by her frustration at her horse’s reluctance to relax on a nice casual, low intensity hack out!  She gathers her reins, grits her teeth and decides he obviously needs to burn off some energy before he can relax.  Pushing him into a very tense frame and driving him forward with the force of power squats from her seat and legs, our determined equestrian fills with adrenaline ready for the next giant, dramatic and unsubstantiated spook her beloved horse might feel is required!

They proceed along the thin dirt trail that runs alongside the road, at a cracking trot, full of determination, power and intensity.  The horse’s eyes are bulging as he tries to take in all of the new scenery at the current speed… his own adrenaline is continuously building as the pace they’re travelling doesn’t allow him to assess each potential danger and give it the distance he believes is required to stay safe.

Our dedicated equestrian can hear the rumblings of a large truck barreling down the road towards them.  She takes up an extra tight rein in anticipation her beloved equine friend may take offence to the speed, size and sound of the truck.

The horse feels his rider take a stronger hold with her energy intensifying.  To him she is clearly stating loud and that danger is on the way… he can hear the rumblings of what is surely a sky monster swooping down to eat the pair of them.  Clearly his rider has lost her mind and is no longer capable of making sound decisions to keep them both safe… it is up to him, the horse alone to get himself and his rider out of this madness…this extremely dangerous situation his rider has put him in where they are both surely going to die and be eaten.. 

The rider feels her beloved equine friend turn into what can only be described as an electrified piece of concrete, so she takes an even stronger hold, yells at him and kicks him hard to get going.  At this moment the truck with all its loud rumbling, rattling and shadowing size aligns with our dedicated equestrian and her beloved equine friend, for a mere moment, as it passes on the road next to them.

The horse fully believes his rider has completely lost her marbles as she holds him tight to stop but kicks and yells at him to go.  Both of their hearts are racing like they’re in a sprint race and he decides he must act, it is now or never and they will both surely die if he doesn’t rectify the situation…  Rearing high, standing on his back legs to force his rider to release the pressure on his mouth and give him the length of rein required to turn and bolt for home is his first move..

Our dedicated equestrian is smacked in the face by her beloved equine friends neck, slightly concussed and a bit wobbly she releases the tension on her rein.  Suddenly all four feet are back on the ground and they are travelling at a gear of speed she had never before discovered her beloved equine friend to possess.  Realizing she was no longer in charge and was now being charioted towards home by a 600 kilogram wilder beast she had not met until now, she regathers her reins, jams her heels down and attempts to regain some form of control over her ‘beloved equine friend’. 

The horse now blinded with fear and convinced the rumbling, rattling shadowy monster will return to catch the prey lucky to escape the first time, completely ignores the tugging and weird noise of “whoooooahhhh woooaaahhhh” coming from his rider at an octave he’d only ever heard excited birds in spring exhibit.. 

As the gate to home nears our dedicated equestrian breathes a sigh of relief knowing her beloved equine friend will start to slow down.  The horse does not really want to slow down until he is safely back in his paddock where his fences will protect him from any monsters but he starts to entertain the constant tugging from his rider and adjusts his speed to a slow canter and eventually a trot. 

Our dedicated equestrian and her beloved equine friend enter the gates and the security of home with all its familiarity.  Instantly the horse drops to a walk as he realizes he is no longer terrified but exhausted.  He heaves heavily, gasping to get oxygen in and his rider feels his legs taking steps like unstable sticks of jelly and a noticeable limp.  Our dedicated equestrian knows she needs to cool her beloved equine friend down but she’s so exhausted from the rapidly large volumes of adrenaline coursing through her system she dismounts in a heap and collapses on the ground next to her beloved equine friend heaving heavy breaths in synchronization with the horse.  She looks at the horse, rolls her eyes and calls him something not fit to repeat while the horse half closes his eyes, ignores the presence of his rider entirely, sticks his nose out a little and focuses on catching his breath as he confirms in his own mind that the only place of safety is within his home property confines!  

Our dedicated equestrian lets out a groan as she notices her beloved equine friend has also pulled a shoe in his antics and stabbed himself in the sole with the toe clip…. There goes the training schedule for the next week….

Moving onto our pleasure rider, who loves her horse more than her family and has more of a friendship with her equine buddy, not a great deal of leadership, she pretty much lets him do whatever he wants and he responds to the lack of pressure by generally plodding around happily at his home for 30 minutes or so. 

BUT… It is a nice day and our pleasure rider decides it would be lovely to go for a ride through the hills with her equine buddy.  Saddled up and going out the gate she turns the first corner onto a fairly steep hill.  Her equine buddy slows to a stop and goes to turn around.  Right now he is so fat he could be mistaken for a broodmare pregnant with twins and the sight of the hill is enough for him to decide that was enough of a stroll for today.  Our pleasure rider asks out loud, “Hey, where are you going, that’s the wrong way!?” Then she tries to haul her equine buddy around back onto the base of the hill.  With some heaving and wrestling and arguing between the two of them they end up facing the bottom of the hill.  Begrudgingly the horse walks slowly forward, head right down as he drags himself up with his shoulders and front legs, puffing more heavily with every stride. 

Our pleasure rider feels mild concern about her horses struggle up the hill and leans forward trying to make it easier for him.  In turn her equine buddy stops again and attempts to turn around but is so fatigued that he loses a bit of balance on the steepness of the hill and stumbles.  Our pleasure rider becomes unseated and unbalances her equine buddy just that bit more and they dangerously teeter on falling and rolling down the hill! 

Choosing to dismount in a hurry, our pleasure rider walks to the top of the hill leading her equine buddy.  At the top she is heaving just as heavily as her horse and must sit on the ground to recover.  Her equine buddy is relieved, rests quietly on three legs, eyes almost completely shut and takes a much needed nap!  Our pleasure rider looks up to her horse, mumbles something along the lines of “Screw this bud, lets go home” gets to her feet, decides getting back on is mean and leads her horse the 2km trek back home.  It takes a solid ten minutes for the pair of them to stop puffing once they’re home.  Our pleasure rider and her equine buddy decide to find a good patch of green grass for rider to lay in and horse to add to his already bulging belly.  They’re both happiest just chilling out!

SO what is the point of this little tale of two riders?  Well… apart from poking a little fun at a few of my friends who will generally tell these tales themselves with a whole lot more colour, it is to point out to the masses that a casual trail ride is not always…ahem…casual!

While you do get your lovely rare gems of horses who will accept any new situation like it is the norm, the majority are not really happy with too much change.  If you do want to turn your horse into the type who likes to have a ‘relaxing’ trail ride out, then make sure you ‘train’ for it.  Small rides, not too far from home to start and preferably with another rider who has a seasoned, confident trail riding horse who will give your horse a sense of calm. 

What are your trail riding stories?  The good the bad and the ugly?  What are your tips, tricks, fail safe methods for enjoying a day out or a few days out on a mountain ride? I’d love to hear your stories!  As a teenager I used to ride for hours and hours with my friends around our country roads, swimming in dams, going through the drive through in Macca’s….  I’m sure there are many of you with some entertaining stories!

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