Ah, feel, that nebulous term that floats around dressage lessons world wide. The way some people describe ‘feel’ makes the concept seem like Flora, Fauna and Merryweather must float down to your cradle as a baby and gift it to you in front of the entire kingdom. Many dressage instructors believe that ‘feel’ is a skill that a rider either has or has not, with no room in between for growth. Personally, I am not.
But firstly, what is ‘feel’? What does it mean to ride with ‘feel’?
A horse is a dynamically moving creature, not just in its locomotion, but in its muscle tone and ability for that particular ride. The first piece to the ‘feel’ puzzle is for the rider to have a position that is stable enough to receive information from the horse through their own body and know how to interpret it. Notice I am not saying that the position needs to be perfect (Though the better your position, the better and faster you will be able to correct issues that arise.), what I am saying is it must be stable or independent enough to correct and improve your horse’s way of going. If you are sitting upon your steed attempting the sitting trot and the only signals shooting toward your brain are “Mayday! Mayday! Too bouncy! Too bouncy!!!” then your seat it not feeling the engagement of the hind leg, the state of the back, the frequency of the tempo etc.
As your seat gets stronger and more independent you will be able to feel different and more nuanced aspects of the ride. Think of it like painting. As a new rider you are finger painting, then perhaps you graduate to a paint by numbers but are still using your brush with broad strokes and bold colors. As you learn you will ‘feel’ new and more advanced techniques and be able to try for subtler and more challenging pictures.
Every way that your horse moves (or doesn’t move) elicits a reaction physically through your body. It can be extreme, in the case of your horse bucking across the arena and you clinging like a monkey to his or her back, or it can be miniscule, a shift in balance that you feel softly in the back edge of your pelvis. Physically, ‘feel’ is the ability to interface your body with your horse’s, to understand what the stimuli he is throwing your direction means and how to correct or praise the feeling they give to you. The more you feel, the sooner you are able to correct or praise and the better the product of both of your labors will be. These are the building blocks of physical ‘feel’ and to my knowledge there are no shortcuts to achieving it. That being said, I do firmly believe that a rider with an open mind and a thirst for knowledge can grow in their ability to ‘feel’.
The other piece to the puzzle is the mental aspect to ‘feel’, and this one is tougher than the physical aspect. To mentally have ‘feel’ is one part teacher, one part physical trainer, and one part student all wrapped up in one rider. You must be able to get on your horse and if they are moving stiffly that day, decide weather it is because it is a cold morning, they are sore or are off and react accordingly. You must be able to ride a naughty young horse and decide is they are acting up because they are boisterous and feeling great, are confused by a new skill being taught, or are testing their limits within your herd of two. Mental ‘feel’ also has a great deal of patience and empathy, both with yourself as well as your horse. (Patience with myself is something I am constantly working on, and is one of my weaker pieces.) This is where the ‘student’ aspect comes into play. Horses will constantly humble you and the moment you lose the student portion of your feel, you will have lost something integral to your development as a rider. Even more importantly, you will have lost the heart of riding. You will have lost the wonder that is possible when another penny drops and your understanding becomes clearer. Have the authority of a teacher to impart what you know, but do not let that overflow into arrogance, otherwise you will learn nothing further.
So, gentle readers, ‘feel’ is something that I do firmly believe grows along with the rider, both physically and mentally. It is the journey of dressage and true riding in any discipline. Those that believe that ‘feel’ cannot be developed miss the heart of matter.