If you spend any time at all in the dressage world (or any discipline), you’ll hear the term “feel” thrown around quite a bit. There are heaps of definitions floating around. Ask any trainer, and they’ll probably be able to give you at least a half an hour lecture on the concept of feel and how to get a better handle on it. They’ll tell you it’s like the force. It’s the mystical connection you reach from your fingers to the bit. It’s the ball of chi that steams and snaps in a sphere around you and your horse when you both work in harmony. It’s a celestial being that only visits your riding lesson when you’ve been really good and you deserve enlightenment on a certain movement.
What does it all mean?
Many trainers will begin teaching feel by having you sit up in your saddle and hold the reins evenly in both hands. Then they will pull on the reins with varying levels of strength and ferocity, resulting in the rider either flopping over the horse’s neck or holding firm and feeling both butt bones sinking deeper in the saddle in a moment of seat-to-hand connection. I’ve done this exercise myself. It’s pretty simple once you figure out how to get around it. Once I impressed a clinician with my “fantastic seat” when she marched up to me and tried to jerk my reins. Me, being the clever and crafty cookie that I am, foresaw her intentions and braced my abs and back, managing to stay up in the saddle when the rest of the riders face planted. The exercise was fun while it lasted, but ultimately it only taught me a gimmick and didn’t clarify the concept of feel.
My own working definition of the elusive “Feel” is simple: it is a moment of clarity between horse and rider in which the aids (or simply one individual aid) finds the sweet spot in efficiently achieving the desired movement or task. I don’t limit Feel to the theory of seat-to-hand riding, though achieving this contact is a central aspect in developing an understanding.
For me, riding dressage is similar to playing a video game (or at least what I think a video game is like…I’m not a gamer myself). You start out as a newbie. You don’t know how to hold the controller or which buttons mean what. Sometimes you look at the wrong screen and end up shooting yourself multiple times and failing. As you get better at a certain game, you’ll start to know when and what frequency you need to engage which controls, and eventually you will go up the levels and unlock new challenges.
This happened to me a few lessons ago. I was struggling mightily with the leg yield. Shiloh, possibly the wiggliest horse on earth, was staggering down the diagonal leading with his forequarters and suddenly jumping sideways with his hindquarters to catch up. All at once, the stars came into alignment, a bug flew past my face at just the right second, the neurons fired in perfect unison and I got into the proper rhythm for a left leg yield and managed to hold on to it from the quarter line to the rail. I figured out the timing to keep both myself and Shiloh straight and parallel to the rail, crossing over beautifully. It seems so ridiculously simple:
just time your aids so you half halt with your outside rein and push with your inside leg when the horse’s inside hind leg is still in the air
Yet, it took me months to figure out how to do this with Shiloh. Riding with your mind is an active process, a dedication to building and fleshing out a massive, inexhaustible archive of muscle memories and terms. Fortunately this is an infinite and enjoyable process, and sometimes you get to keep separate archives for separate horses.
Books, youtube tutorials, and articles are all very helpful, but ultimately you will never understand Feel until you actually experience it yourself and commit it to memory so you can reproduce the results. Sometimes it’s a long process and sometimes it’s surprisingly easy. It takes a great deal of patience and rule breaking to find it for yourself.
I was recently introduced to the dressage master Catherine Haddad’s theory of “skeletal riding”. In this short and informative video, she walks the viewer through her daily warm up with her lovely Grand Prix gelding. Throughout her warm up she allows herself to relax in her position and even shifts her legs forward on top of the thigh roll, thereby deepening her seat at the get go. Plus I love the way she can calmly and evenly talk through what she’s doing even when she’s sitting his ginormous springy trot.
This is what I mean by breaking the rules. Don’t be afraid to venture outside the realm of “correct” positions and equitation. Obviously we don’t want to be crooked or in any precarious positions, but generally it’s okay to do some flailing when you school in private. One man’s “chair seat” is another man’s “anchored seat bones!”
For me, the next achievement I hope to unlock is learning how to slow Shiloh’s freaky freight train right lead canter. He gets so out of balance (and I get so stressed out) that we end up careening out of control and losing rhythm.
Last week while working on his right lead canter, he actually got out of kilter and fell TWICE (very minor slide and spills). I checked him out afterwards and he’s 100% sound, no heat in his legs or soreness in his back. It probably hurt me more than him. I blame myself for riding on the uneven ground and my tendency to look to the inside when he starts going faster and faster. I guess I’m subconsciously thinking “MayDayMayDay! Emergency one rein stop, pull up now!”, which only makes the problem worse because my crookedness pulls him into a teensy circle and puts us in danger of losing balance and tripping. So far, my only hope for slowing him is firmly left-righting the reins and tightening up my abs until my seat become less mobile and he has to collect a little bit. It’s rough and I always dread working on that lead.
But we must press on! If you want something you’ve never had, you have to do something you’ve never done.
Happy Riding! And may the Feel be ever so strong with you!