Teaching Feel - Part Two
By Bonnie J. Hilton (Horse Training article copyrighted by Saddle & Bridle Magazine.)
With a rider that already knows how to post at the trot, but is unable to demonstrate sitting, a return to the aforementioned method of walk work would be most helpful if the student is willing to try. In motion, as the energy of the diagonal gait moves through a rider s body, there is little difference between sitting and rising. This may seem ludicrous to a rider who is at present struggling at sitting. In rising, the diagonal of motion is directed by the rider up and forward. In sitting, if the motion is not directed somewhere and the rider tries to contain the motion (sit still and grip) they will end up bouncing all over the saddle and make the whole experience very uncomfortable for themselves and their horse. In sitting, the diagonal pair motion of the horse shoves the rider from one side to the other. As an instructor, experiment yourself and see what you come up with for feel identification at sitting. I think we can agree that there is a definite rhythm.
How would you explain it in relationship to the leg movement of the horse? Given enough time a student will feel it, as long as the horse is consistent in their gait. The balanced rider, no matter what style, straddles the horse equally proportioned over their central vertical axis, with equal weight being distributed into each lateral axis (side). When the rider posts, they accept the forward thrust of energy generated by the horse and direct it forward in an even motion, by rising from the saddle in an equal arc from both legs and hip joints simultaneously. Although the energy (thrust) developed by the horse at the trot is constantly alternating from one diagonal pair to the other, the rider should not visually exhibit any diagonal motion in their body as they post. The feel that the rider can separate should be bilateral, equal off of both sides.
The rider who is seen to twist while posting is most often using one lateral side more than the other, usually the right side is dominating the post. The twisting rider is pressing into one stirrup more than the other and causing a rotation of their body around their central axis. If the same rider tries to perform the sitting trot they will literally shove themselves into a loss of balance. It should be noted that some horses, due to unilateral development at the trot or past injury, will have a trot irregularity which may cause twisting. Thus it is important that an instructor know a student s horse and its way of going before judgment is made as to the cause behind a rider s twist at the post. The saddle should also be examined for twist and panel irregularity, as well as stirrup length and evenness. The instructor should also know the student and as noted earlier, any possible physical limitations.
In trot/jog review, posting is often rushed into before a student learns to sit. This leads to problems, as many students fail to ever learn how to sit and feel movement, thus never achieving an independent seat. Too often balance is gained through overuse of hands and the posting diagonal is too often found by looking, instead of feeling. If this approach is continued, canter work will follow in the same manner, with little understanding of engagement and true united lead work. Here again, don t rush into canter work, build a foundation of understanding with your students.
I just opened the eyes (I hope) of another instructor I work with by giving them a little advice about teaching canter and how you approach feel with this gait. They have a canter horse and didn t even realize that they should be using this horse for demonstration, aid application and feel. I had a canter horse at my own facility, was myself taught on a canter horse and presently have an equine owned by one of my students who I use as a canter horse when needed. What is a canter horse? Well trained to both verbal and seat aids, great on the longe with and without a rider, smooth gaited (comfortable and balanced) at the canter and through the upward and downward transitions. This fit horse is worth its weight in gold! You put this equine on a longe and you let your student see what the canter is. Remember, you are developing an eye. You demonstrate the canter in both directions. As with the trot, you can use wraps to produce a wonderful visual to help train the eye. Put the horse in three different colored polo wraps for the left lead, then change them for the right lead. Outside hind is one color, diagonal pair is another color and leading fore is the third color. You can longe the horse and explain it and then you can get on and demonstrate and explain the aids and the feel for the upward and downward transition and how the actual gait feels in execution.
This may take up the whole lesson, if not several lessons. Don t rush this teaching. Give your students a chance to think, and expect them to think. Are we producing thinking riders? When you do put your students up, if you really have a canter horse, you know that when you ask verbally, or along with the students correct use of aids, the horse will canter. This isn t today s mass production approach of instruction and here again I have to remind everyone that learning how to run a horse into canter around a ring is not going to be of any use when and if the same person attempts to ride a horse outside of the walls, execute a lead upon command or attempt changes. This controlled approach to learning what the canter and the correct lead feels like is much slower, but more lasting. I advise that group lessons for walk and trot are fine but when it comes to canter, several private lessons should be expected.
If all your school horses are great, I stand corrected and advise that you brush up on how to work individual riders within the ride approach and teach the canter in that method, after you have done a full demonstration as explained. You still want to be producing students who can feel what they and their horse are doing.
To hone your teaching skills for feel and develop even better awareness yourself, teach mounted when you can. Once a beginner rider is up and started and can safely be off the lead, working with you mounted on another horse (a safe, sensible mount for sure!) is instant demonstration time. Something goes wrong and you both stop and you discuss, explain, demonstrate and then they continue. You can play follow the leader and you will get a better perspective of your student s seat development by riding behind them. Students learn more when their instructor rides with them, even if all you are doing is walking around. They will watch your every move! It is a wonderful training tool and a great way to stay in shape yourself and break some of your own bad habits!
Teach students the stretching exercises, to have them feel their way into awareness for balance and strength while you demonstrate the different movements you want them to practice. (You may want to practice a few weeks yourself before you start, just to make sure you can still do all the exercises you put your students through!) Granted you will want to put in time with all your students on the longe, and with you on the ground developing independent seat work, but mix it up with the mounted lessons if you can. In the continuing theme I have against rushing, feel is just another area where it seems to be a problem. What are we teaching? I suppose the question to pose is does it matter if you teach feel or not. Is it part of horsemanship instruction or is our focus supposed to be on ridership? As I wrote in a past article, Those instructors who will be faced with teaching in the 21st century must be aware that ridership can have its drawbacks. For the individual, ridership is too transitory. Horsemanship is enduring. Therefore teaching and fostering the development of both qualities would be to any professional s best interest.
How long do you expect to be teaching a particular student? In the tough economic times that we may be facing, if gas prices keep going the way they seem to be heading, what will keep your facility open and working with your share of the pie? Ridership or horsemanship or a blending of the two? Did my late ancestors care about feel when they rode? Who taught them? In Europe, about the same time that my late greats were coming here and during the two world wars, the modern masters were honing their skills.
Stop and think about it for a minute, someone had to be thinking and feeling riding. Research the riding school techniques and those of the military. This isn t some new age application! I think it matters that you should explore the techniques of teaching feel, learn application and offer the approach. Where will our next trainers, our next Masters come from? All of us have had students who want to learn how to ride for reasons that don t have anything to do with their connection to or the training of the horse. George Morris, the U.S. Chef d equipe for our show jumping team and author of Hunter Seat Equitation recently noted, There are people who want to have an easy road to success with their children. The quick success is the most important for them. They are not interested in the journey, just in the result.
These are difficult times in our sport and money talks and will dictate to many of us how we will proceed. Personally, I am elated when I hear or read about someone who has spent their whole life so far, and they are probably only in their 20s, learning, from the muck fork on up. What may be of interest is that students who do want to start this awareness journey, often stay on the journey, through the lives of several horses and varying degrees of performance work inside and outside of the show ring. These are the students who stay with you for years, they get involved with training, they may get involved with teaching others, as they hone their horsemanship and awareness skills. I am proud of the handful of students who I now have who are teaching and training themselves, using not only the awareness techniques that I taught them about feel, but also developing new methods (that I m gleaning!) which they are passing on to a new generation.
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