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Teaching Riders to Feel


Teaching Riders to Feel: Training site section Logo, horses grazing in tall grass. (Part One )

By Bonnie J. Hilton  (Horse Training article copyrighted by Saddle & Bridle Magazine.)

As an instructor of horsemanship, do you teach feel? How do you start your beginner riders? How do you approach positional and aid application problems with experienced riders? Is there any value for you as a trainer or instructor, to take the time to attune a client to their body and that of their horse? Can you explain feel, can you demonstrate it, can you make it come alive for a student and have it become something that they can use each and every time they mount and attempt to practice and train on their own. Is it possible, especially with our young students, to embrace the words of Erik Herbermann from the recent book, A Horseman s Notes, A purely intellectual approach to riding is not very effective.

Things work best when we let our mind be constantly guided by living feedback from our physical senses and from our intuition. Teaching feel takes some thought, some development of lesson plan structure for explanation and actual demonstration. Teaching feel takes time.

For youth instruction, teaching feel in our modern fast paced culture is a challenge. Our young students are not going to develop their physical sense or their intuition from an electronic device plugged into their ears or placed in front of their eyes. In my experience with teaching feel and the body awareness approach, the end results have produced thinking students, with patience, who have embraced the development of the personal half-halt and understand the need for fitness, range of motion and balance, not only for themselves, but for the horses they work with.

I will admit that this approach will not fit every equine application in the world of our sport today. Some individuals are not going to embrace it, especially when you tell a confirmed, end gaining rider that they need to go back to basics, so that they can feel what they are doing right and wrong. Today s mind set is too often directed to a quick fix. However, I still think it should be offered, even though at times it may be frustrating.

Some time ago, I attempted to teach feel to a group of gymkhana riders who had come to a venue in Florida. The fact that they all had either new or borrowed hard hats on for the first time, which I had insisted upon, set the tone for my teaching. I made a fool out of myself with some of the group, but several others embraced the concepts I was presenting and during the clinic process came to realize through feel that they had unilateral problems as riders and their horses had subsequently developed sided issues which were causing their performance problems. These riders eventually felt what they were doing wrong, were able to see correct application in demonstration, understand the problems that their horses were having and went away with the determination to seek out further instruction and training help.

If you are faced with end gaining students, teaching feel is going to be difficult to integrate, unless you have some down time when performance commitments are not pressing. As noted in the beginning of this article, only you can decide if the approach will have any value to you and your professional focus.

I ll make some assumptions for the teaching of feel. That the saddle has been examined by the instructor to be of good form and that when on the horse, it is centered, no matter what type it may be. That stirrups have been checked for even length, even on the western saddles. That the horse is complacent enough for work on the single line for longe or at least being led around from both sides. That the horse has been worked with by the instructor, so that the instructor knows what the horse feels like and what the student has to contend with at the level they will be riding. That the most basic of bridle equipment is  being used, so that the student will be able to discern rein to bit pressure. That the student has been asked about any past injuries or the existence of any condition that would contribute to natural crookedness. Like horses, none of us are 100% straight and evenly proportioned and some students can have past injury related limitations that cause range of motion problems and subsequent difficulties with feel.

Each student should be viewed as an individual when approaching the instruction of feel, with only limited reference made to some ideal template. Truly, when you think about it, there isn t any ideal when it comes to feel. For some students it will be more difficult and a true challenge for instruction. That is why you have to approach the mind in this application.

Although some instructors will immediately think that this type of instruction won t work with young students, who just want to ride, please keep in mind that it also won t work with some adults, who have the same mind set. I m not advocating the loss of clientele by drastic format change. I am just discussing a possible different approach to be integrated into your present programs, for those students who show an interest and have the passion. I ll conclude this article with further reasons why I advocate teaching feel.

It will also be assumed that the beginner student has been instructed, with much demonstration, how to mount and find through feel their positional awareness for the halt. If you have an indoor with a mirror, you have a wonderful tool to use to help in awareness work at the halt, if the mounted student can be positioned to see themselves as they work on feeling for the correct position at the halt. Take the time to demonstrate common faults and let the student position themselves in incorrect positions so that they can feel the extremes. Once a student can mount and center themselves in balance I ll assume that work has started in balance and strength exercises to gain confidence at the halt and into the first steps of walk. I m an old school advocate, so I start all my students showing me their balance capability by working in two point to standing, no matter what type of saddle is being used (except side saddle of course!). All the mounted stretching exercises complement feel work, if you allow the student enough time to discern that one side may be freer, have better range of motion, than the other.

Formative work spent in warm-up production will form a foundation for the rider to use to feel what they need to do to help their body. For the more experienced rider stuck in do mode , coming back to these basics may be necessary. I presently have an experienced rider who spent their first lesson just working on positional feel at the halt and walk, trying to slowly release and stretch through their hips joints and ankles, to allow their legs to come more under them. They had developed a chair seat from years of casual riding and now they were in pain due to poor posture and an aging body and their horse had some back issues due to their poor riding posture.

Please remember to always start the experienced rider at the halt and have them feel their way into what they think is a balanced or centered position. If it is not correct, aid them in the changes slowly and have them repeat the whole exercise until they can find the new feel. The new position will feel terrible, the habitual position will feel correct and it will take time to make the adjustments.  You may have to start their awareness work by repositioning them at each lesson. Think of it as a rider s base line, the point which you need to start from and go back to each time problems arise.

You don t need to be rushing past any stages of this instruction. Allow your students the time to feel, to understand what they feel and apply it, so as to start the process of awareness for themselves. Then they will be able to develop independent skills and be able to discern what they need to do to correct themselves and to help their horse.

The use of hands, arm strength and true bit feel should be given major importance in our early instruction. We need to be developing an understanding for sensitive, feeling contact. I am constantly working with riders who have developed rein balance in the formative stages of their instruction. Although I like to longe a rider in the early stages to develop the independent seat away from the hands, I am well aware that it is not feasible in all facilities, where there is high volume in group instruction. (Maybe this in another area where we really need to rethink how we are teaching the foundational basics. Why are we rushing?)

How can you approach the bit, rein, hand, arm connection to give your students some idea of what it should feel like? For group instruction, why not take the time to pair them up on the ground and have them drive each other? The horses can have a day off!!! Use basic snaffle bridles or just snaffle bits and reins for props. Have one partner with the bridle (can put the bridle over their head and neck) hold the snaffle bit to the rings from the inside in each hand in front of their chest with the reins going on the outside of their arms behind their body to the rider . The hands become the feel of the mouth. Have the horse partner close their eyes and take direction from the driver behind, from bit feel and voice aids. In large riding programs, team competitions can be formed by blindfolding the persons being the horse and setting up simple patterns for the drivers to accomplish. This type of instruction used to be fun, yet illuminating, as students learned just how quiet and connected the rein aids really can be. You can teach long reining prior to driving the same way.

Granted there are facilities where the horses being used in the riding instruction programs are far from conditioned, trained and compliant to the aids, but why not allow your students the opportunity, by production of an alternative exercise, to have some insight into what can be achieved through consistent, progressive training? When you do put your students up mounted, at least attempt to slow down some lessons into explanation, demonstration, practice and discussion of true positioning for straight and for bend. What is placer , what does it feel like and look like and why don t you just pull on the horse s mouth? Something as simple as having your students halt their horses, as square as possible and then attempt the placer for position left and position right. They will learn how to keep the hindquarters between their legs, as some equines will attempt to avoid the flexion if not contained by leg aids. With more experienced students starting to learn about equine warm-up, this equine flexion can be carried over into the true neck flexions done at halt.

 From these exercises the understanding and feel for unilateral development grows and the thinking rider will want to know how to correct the problem and prevent it. With some students, because they will voice their interest, you will be able to start teaching true horsemanship. Although individual riding lessons are more in depth when you are teaching feel, group instruction works, as long as all parties are honest and upfront with true assessments. I prefer to challenge myself and tell all my students not to placate me, don t tell me yes when the answer is really no. If they don t feel something, it is my job to try to find some pathway that will work for them.

Having always been a rider , I was a difficult student when I started this type of instruction and had a terrible time developing the focus for feel. It took me many months to change from doing something, to learning how to feel something. I still struggle as a trainer in that I get into the do mode too often and don t give myself the time to feel and think something through. It is a common problem when working by the clock, we forget how to allow ourselves to just sit, feel and follow. Here again, how fast are you teaching these days? How many lessons before the student is working at trot? at canter? Who or what is dictating your approach?

When taking or giving instruction, the awareness of what is often called the following seat should be sought. We hear so much about the independent seat, the deep seat, the balanced seat. It is all gibberish to someone who has no idea what any of it is supposed to feel like. What is this elusive following seat and how do you explain and demonstrate it? To be effective this education should start at the walk and preferably on the single line. You can either work along side your student with the horse on the short line or longe them around you. I prefer working with a short single line along the rail of a ring, if the horse will comply, so that we start with straight lines before we have to focus too much on torso rotation and the feel for bending. By using this approach, the rider will be able to focus on the feel of what is happening to their body as the horse is in motion.

The first step should be that the gait should be explained, shown to the student by either watching the horse on the longe or by having the instructor ride and explain by demonstration. We all want our students to develop an eye , I wrote about it in the early 90s  but unfortunately we seem to have forgotten that we have to take the time, demonstrate and review continually, for that eye to develop. Once on themselves, instruction should be devoted to the leg movement and in a slow and methodical way teach the rider to start to have hind leg recognition through the feel of the motion. Call out the leg movement as it happens so that the student can relate left and right hind to the feel of what is going on behind them. (With experienced riders it is interesting that this will sometimes remove the focus from what is going on in front with the head set and get them off the reins, which often they and the horse have been balancing on and hopefully stop the fussing and fidgeting going on with both rider and horse.) The rider will learn to allow themselves to follow this motion in balance and ride (move) with it.

Later in instruction, the rider will be able to influence the motion of the walk, the actual strides of the horse, by correct timing of their aids. Looking back I realize that I was blessed with the horses and the facility that allowed me to take students out on walking trail rides and they gained all kinds of positional confidence going up and down hill and having to adjust to all the changes in terrain. We spend so much time enclosed by walls now, it does become boring and dull, but that is still no reason to rush the process. Go back to transition work in the beginning stages and embrace that which has become a forgotten art in some teaching, of developing elegance in your riders, their awareness, the feel for form and function, so that they can appreciate that which is really not all that simple or boring, the accomplishment of having a horse work in balance just from halt to walk and back to halt.

One of my students has a daughter in ballet and we recently had an interesting conversation about the parallels in instruction and the pitfalls of rushing past the basics and developing feel and the corresponding independent usage of body. The original ballet instruction for her daughter started with a fast paced approach, which the mother later learned was not teaching the mental discipline or the core strength approach needed to provide a solid foundation for later work on point. Another instructor was sought and her daughter was brought back to basics and slowly matured to the physical and mental demands of achieving point. It is interesting that the mother, who rode as a child, never grasped the basics correctly and had no concept about feel. She readily admitted upon evaluation that she rode , that was something her family did and she never gave it much thought. Now as an adult rider, getting back into the sport with a different focus, feel has become a new and understandable approach. She has completed over a year of working with a similar riding mental and physical core program based on feel and can now apply what she has learned with added confidence to the new young equine in her life. She doesn t want false frame, she doesn t want forehand problems developing due to rushed foundational work. She knows what it feels like to get a balanced transition and correct bend and that is what she is looking for in her daily work with her youngster in the formative walk/trot gaits.

In my opinion, if the walk is taught in this manner, so that the student feels, understands, accepts and allows the motion of the horse, the sitting trot can precede any instruction in the posting trot, as the next stage of learning. Here again the student should watch the trot, really see what is happening with the legs and get a good understanding of the movement. (Take the time to put on two colors on polo wraps on the diagonal pairs, so that your students can see the diagonals as they work.) Demonstrate the trot, have the student watch and see you work from the walk, through the transition into trot and explain what you feel as it happens and what you do as a rider to compensate for the shifts in balance into a new gait and then back down through the transition to walk. It is mind boggling to have to break it down this much and for some instructors it may seem like way too much information for some students to process. Give your students a chance, they will probably surprise you.

This spring, I had a little five-year-old girl give me feedback on feel, as they started the sitting trot. I seldom teach little children anymore and this opportunity brought me back to my basics and made me note that I had not been in depth enough with a young man who is trying to learn on a very limited lesson schedule. For his last lesson I demonstrated and explained the upward and downward transition to sitting trot and showed him the extremes of motion and then voiced the concerns about balance and control. When he was up and working on the single line in straight lines along the rail, he gave me the honest feedback on what he was feeling, at first nothing but bouncing, but he was not as tense as he had been when he had tried to trot before on his own.

One aspect that is so important when teaching feel is that you keep your students breathing and have them aware of the tendency to hold the breath and get tense. We kept working transitions and slowly he felt the side to side motion and was able to follow and still control his body as needed within the movement. He had a lesson this past weekend and was able to come off the line and work the sitting trot on his own. Through working with feel he had developed the awareness, he knew what to expect in the upward and downward transition and that allowed him to work with the motion, the following seat and not brace and get rigid against it. He was already working on feeling for the correct diagonal of motion for post. By observation and explanation posting trot made sense to him. He knew he needed to practice more for posting because his legs were not very stable when he tried, but it was easier for him to accept that he should work with the motion, not try to force it.

Since I mentioned the importance of breathing, I want to elaborate. All I did was the slightest of pelvic tilt and exhaled and she came into walk from the trot, that was wonderful, my student exclaimed this morning from atop her three-year-old mare. The same mare who had come to me some months before from another facility with mouth issues from being framed too early and forced into performance that she was not able to perform mentally or physically. I rode this horse a total of twice and knew that we needed to go back to being a baby. Luckily my client has patience, is learning more and more about feel and has found that breathing is such a wonderful training tool. Exploration of the exhale in the half-halt may be controversial, but my feeling is apply the technique and see if it works for you. I have gone against the inhale approach to both the upward and downward transition for years because I train with body awareness and I have horses that move forward on the inhale and will perform the downward transitions on the exhale. We explore the exhale as a part of the personal and ridden half halt.

I have students who have gone so far as to maintain a focus on deep breathing as they are working to maintain calm and focus on their difficult equines. This introspective and intuitive approach, maybe Zen like, is but another way to slow your students down and have them  feel what they are doing.

This article will be continued in Teaching Feel Part Two

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