‘Feel’ is a crucial element of the dressage rider’s development and is something that the world’s greatest riders possess in abundance.
But what is feel, why is it so important for a dressage rider, and can you learn it?
In this guide, we explain what it takes to develop that elusive quality and why you simply must have it!
What is ‘feel’?
‘Feel’ is the term used to describe the mysterious ability a good rider has when communicating with their horse.
A rider with good feel knows exactly where their horse is at every moment. They sense their horse’s balance, thoroughness, connection, and the acceptance of their leg, seat, and rein aids.
A feeling rider knows exactly what aids their horse needs to perform at his best, why those aids are required, when they needs to apply them, and for how long.
This ability enables the rider to communicate with their horse effortlessly, and as if by telepathy, by using the lightest of aids in complete harmony.
Often, riders with a high degree of natural feel are unable to tell you what aids they are applying and when. They just do it instinctively. For them, it’s like trying to explain how to breathe; they can’t describe it, they just do it.
Can you learn feel?
Many riders have natural feel, especially if they have been riding from a very young age.
However, if you’re not one of those lucky people, you can learn to develop your feel. First by learning the theory of dressage, and second by spending time honing your skills in the saddle.
Basically, you need to learn how to become aware of what your horse is doing underneath you at all times and how the pressure, timing, and placement of your aids can influence him.
One of the key words that’s used in dressage is “harmony.” You’ll see harmony mentioned on your dressage sheets under the “Submission” collective, and it’s a quality that dressage judges look for.
Harmony means that both horse and rider are able to move seamlessly and elegantly together, as though they are one, and everything looks easy and effortless.
Any signs of tension or resistance clearly demonstrate that the partnership is not harmonious, and the reason for that is, frequently, that the rider doesn’t have the feel necessary to work as one with their horse.
Where to begin
If you don’t have natural feel, that’s nothing to be ashamed of. You are certainly in the majority! So, where do you begin the journey of learning and developing feel?
First of all, you need to understand the dressage Scale of Training, the correct seat, and how to use your aids correctly.
Although learning all the theories won’t win you a dressage test, it certainly helps provide you with a solid knowledge base to draw on when you’re in the saddle. You can then learn how your aids influence your horse, how to time the aids correctly, and why you need to know that to progress your horse’s training.
It can also be extremely beneficial if you know how your horse thinks. That will enable you to develop your feel more effectively.
What’s required of your horse?
To help you begin developing feel, the horse must be relaxed and able to work in a pure, correct rhythm in all the paces. Only then can you develop the throughness and connection that are required for you to feel the horse’s movement.
What’s required of you, the rider?
To begin with, you need to have a balanced, supple seat that allows the horse to swing through his back without you blocking him. Only then can you feel what your horse’s hind legs are doing. This then helps you to apply the right aids at the right time.
For your to achieve this, you need to be able to sit up straight, maintining the ear-shoulder-hip-heel alignment whilst being symetrically balanced with equal weight in both seat bones.
Now you have all that in place, you’re ready to develop your feel. So, rather than simply riding mechanically, your aim is to achieve that elusive emotional connection and harmony that every great dressage partnership has.
So, what can you feel?
A rider with good feel can tell what their horse’s hind legs are doing without having to lean over and look down at them. Instead, they ‘feel’ what the hind legs are doing through their seat and then apply the necessary aids at the appropriate time.
For example, when the hind leg swings forward and under the horse, that’s the moment to use your leg to ask the horse to move sideways. It’s much easier for the horse to take a step sideways when his leg is already in the air as opposed to on the ground.
Conversely, when the horse’s hind leg is in contact with the ground, that’s the moment to ask for more impulsion as the horse is able to push off the ground to create more forward/upward movement.
Exercises to help you develop feel
Here are a few simple exercises that you can use to help you to improve your feel.
As your horse is walking quietly, put the palm of one hand on the horse’s croup, just behind the saddle. (Don’t do that if you have a very sensitive horse that’s likely to freak out!)
If you have mirrors in your arena, watch to see the corresponding movement between the horse’s hindquarters and his back legs. As the croup rises and falls, learn to associate the feeling between the two.
As the horse is walking calmly around the arena, place one hand on his shoulder, just in front of the saddle. Feel the shoulder blade moving back and forth as the horse’s front leg swings.
Now, take your hand away. Can you feel the horse’s legs moving without the aid of your hand? Once you’ve achieved that, up the ante and shut your eyes. Now, try to feel which leg is moving.
Once you’ve developed a feel for where your horse’s hind legs are, pick up working trot and ride a 20-meter circle.
On the circle, ride a transition to working canter.
As the horse makes the transition, the rhythm changes from two-beat trot to three-beat canter. Try to time the transition as the inside front and outside hind legs are just about the leave the ground. To do that, you’ll need to feel when the outside hind leg swings forward and change it from the next step of trot, to the first step of canter.
Repeat the exercise a few times to see if you can feel when to time your aid. As your feel develops, you should be able to time your aids to perfection so that you get a smooth, fluent transition every time.
Remember to change the rein and ride the exercise in both directions.
Feel in an essential quality in a dressage rider. Having natural feel enables you to ride in perfect harmony with your horse, time your aids to perfection, and present a picture of almost telepathic understanding.
To improve and develop your feel, you need to understand the theory of dressage, the aids for the exercises, and the Scales of Training. Also, you must work on your position so that you can ride with an independent, supple seat that doesn’t block the movement through the horse’s back.
Some people are born with natural feel. But don’t despair if you’re not one of them. With hard work and practice, you can develop feel, too.