There is a technical /mechanical side to riding. There is a scientific/academic side to riding. There is an athletic side to riding, for both the horse and the rider. And there is also an intuitive/psychic side to riding. Often referred to as “feel” or “equestrian tact”, it is the most difficult aspect of riding to describe and to teach.
Many trainers believe that it cannot be taught at all. When I was growing up, I frequently heard riding teachers say that a person is either born with it, or they will be forever hopeless, just as the German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote: “If you cannot feel it, you will never be able to chase it down”.
However, based on my own experience as a student as well as a teacher, I know that this sixth sense can be developed to a fair extent, as long as the student has a certain innate sensitivity for another being, combined with some awareness of their own body, the ability to focus and observe, self-discipline, and love for the horse. It is not an easy task for the student or the teacher. But it is well worth the effort, as it leads to a much better communication with the horse. The teacher has to explain to the student what to look for in the horse as well as in their own body, how to analyse what they feel, and whenever possible demonstrate these finer points in practice.
In this article, I will try to give some pointers for how to improve one’s equestrian tact, although it is something that cannot be learned from a book. It takes a horse and a human teacher to explain the horse’s communications. Without feel, the rider may at best become a skilled technician, but never a true Rider/Trainer in the sense of the Old Masters.
Prequisites for Developing Feel
The first prerequisite to developing feel is probably to open one’s heart and mind up to the horse. One must also have a good understanding of how the horse’s mind and body work. Then it is a matter of observing the horse with all senses, including a certain psychic sense that feels the horse’s energy. This means watching the horse’s facial expressions, eyes, ears, and overall posture, feeling his muscle tone, listening to his breathing, and feeling his presence, his thoughts, and emotions.
The rider’s mindset should never be that the horse is an enemy who needs to be conquered, defeated, and outsmarted. This would be completely misguided, and lead to a very poor relationship with the horse, who will only suffer under a rider like that. Instead, the rider’s attitude must be that he is trying to help the horse understand what is required of him, and that he is trying to help him to do his job better and more efficiently. The horse will feel it and respond positively to such a friendly approach. “The horse always talks to you”, Egon von Neindorff used to tell us in lessons.
It is up to us to listen and to try to understand what he is saying to us.
Balance, Suppleness, Soft Muscles
In order to be able to hear what the horse has to say, the rider has to be physically and mentally balanced and relaxed but focused, because only a relaxed body and mind are receptive. We have to clear our mind of all clutter, all preoccupations, and distracting mental chatter, and direct our attention to the horse. This quiet, listening focus tends to attract the horse’s attentiveness in turn.
Balance is of the utmost importance for horse and rider in every regard, because an unbalanced body is always more or less stiff and tense. An unbalanced mind is tense as well, which also leads to muscle tensions. Stiff, hard muscles cannot feel anything. An unbalanced rider will always grip with his hands and legs for fear of falling off which makes any intelligent, sophisticated interaction with the horse impossible.
Being physically balanced requires that the rider engages his core muscles to align his pelvis, vertebrae and shoulders vertically. This allows the rider to relax his hands and legs so that they become available for communication with the horse.
It is important that the rider uses all of his senses to take in all the information that is emanating from the horse. Humans generally receive 90% of their information through their eyes. The rider, on the other hand, has to develop his sense of touch and his intuition to replace visual input to a considerable extent.
Listen And Think Before Talking
Before applying any active aid, the rider should get in touch with the horse first and feel his mental and emotional state, his muscle tone and his balance. The rider can feel the horse’s entire body through his calves, knees, inner thighs, seat bones, and hands. If the rider is interacting with the horse on the ground, he does not have seat and legs as “antennas”, but all the other senses still apply. Screening the horse before taking action enables the rider to find the right touch and attitude for each communication. This prevents misunderstandings, such as scaring the horse with an abrupt, sharp, sudden aid, when a soft, quiet aid is required. This cannot be emphasized enough. I constantly have to point out to students that their aids are too harsh, too sudden, too abrasive, which creates contractions and defensive reactions in the horse that could be easily avoided.
Every aid should start with a passive-receptive base contact that lets the horse know that there is a channel of communication open that might be used. That is why it is so important to have a light, steady, and even contact with both reins, both calves, both knees, both thighs, and both seat bones at all times. After feeling the horse with the aid that the rider wants to apply, he starts the aid proper with a very small amount of pressure. If the horse does not respond, the pressure is increased smoothly, similar to turning up the volume on the stereo, until the horse reacts to the aid. This will reveal the horse’s response threshold, i.e. at which amount of pressure the horse starts to respond to the aid. This threshold can be moved up or down through training. In other words, the rider can make the horse more responsive or more tolerant, depending on his own preferences.
Fine Tuning The Horse’s Responsiveness With Feel
When the whip needs to be used in order to draw the horse’s attention to the calf, the rider has to let it rest on the horse’s side with its own weight firsts, before applying a pressure or vibration. A whack out of the blue is extremely unhorsemanlike, incompetent, and counter productive.
When a spur aid is needed, a certain base pressure has to be applied first. Then this base pressure is gradually increased, until the horse responds, and afterwards the spur returns to the base pressure, before it is taken off again. Kicking and jabbing with the leg or spur are also unhorsemanlike and counter productive.
Every time the rider adjusts his position, every time he touches the horse, even every time he contracts any muscle in his body, the horse feels it and reacts to it, for better or worse. If the horse does not react, because the aid was too small, or because he was distracted, the aid has to be repeated, a little more loudly this time, until the horse responds. The worst response is no response. Everything else can become the starting point of an entire conversation. By the same token, it is the rider’s responsibility only to move actively when he intends to apply an aid. Involuntary movements and muscle contractions disturb the horse and destroy the tuning by making the horse dull and unresponsive.
The rider has to observe the horse and evaluate his physical and mental state before an active aid is applied. Based on this analysis, he chooses an aid. Then he observes the horse’s reaction and immediately analyzes it. The outcome of his analysis determines the further course of action.
Technique and Intangibles
Each aid can be defined in terms of its duration, amount of pressure, and timing within the footfall sequence. However, there is much more to it than that. Each aid can be given with a variety of attitudes, and it can carry a vast array of overtones. Musicians will immediately understand the concept. Two musicians can play the same note with the same volume and duration, yet produce a very different sound. The same note can sound happy, sad, or angry, among other things. The very same concept applies to riding. An aid can be light, but sharp and edgy. It can be strong, yet soft, and any combination in between. It can also convey different emotional states, for instance it can be comforting, nurturing, cuddling, authoritative and demanding, or threatening, fearful, insecure, or bullying. Needless to say that some of these overtones are not helpful at all and need to be avoided, while the others have to be carefully chosen to match the horse’s sensitivity level, personality and frame of mind. Choosing the wrong overtone can quickly lead to disaster.
With growing experience, many of these choices are made intuitively, reflexively. Many horses need emotional support from the rider. If the rider fails to recognize that, and bullies the horse instead (which is unfortunately all too common), the horse can become frightened out of his mind and permanently refuse to work with the rider very soon.
When working with difficult horses, and especially correction horses, the rider sometimes has to switch quickly back and forth between being authoritative, reassuring, comforting, stern, etc. The more the rider listens to the horse and engages in a two-way conversation, the more the horse will open up and communicate with the rider.
Conclusion: Rider Accountability
In this conversation the horse trains and educates the rider as much as the rider trains the horse. It requires the rider’s constant, undivided attention on the horse as well as himself. He has to monitor all changes in his seat, all aids, and all changes in the horse. Every time the horse changes anything, the rider has to try and find the cause for the change by backtracking in his mind: “What did I do when the horse changed? What did I do a stride before he changed, … two strides before, … three strides before?” If the rider looks deeply enough he will detect that his own posture and muscle tone changed in more or less subtle ways before the horse changed.
The rider then has to catalog which changes in his posture improved the horse and which ones made him worse. We have to cultivate the adjustments in our own seat that made the horse better and avoid the ones that made him worse.
This requires complete honesty on the rider’s part with himself. There is no room for cuddling one’s ego. Otherwise, the rider remains stuck at the current status quo, unable to improve. Ultimately, it’s always the rider’s responsibility to adjust and change his seat, his aids, his exercises, his attitude, or his training strategy in order to bring about an improvement in the horse, regardless of whether a mistake that occurred was the horse’s “fault” or the rider’s “fault.”
READ MORE ABOUT AUTHOR: DR. THOMAS RITTER