Everyone wants to have that special connection with their horse, but many riders struggle with the concept of feel or how to develop it in their riding. How to develop feel is a question I’m commonly asked when I work with students, but the truth is, there’s no shortcut to finding it. It requires you to spend hours in the saddle improving your skill set as a rider and spending more time with your horse on the ground so you can better understand his personality.
Here I’m going to talk about a few things you need to develop feel with your horse. The first involves improving the ability to physically feel what your horse is doing through your seat, hands, and body, while the second part involves thinking about your horse and thinking like your horse to better understand his mindset and what he’s experiencing.
Find Feel With Your Seat
Being able to feel what your horse is doing through your seat takes hours of practice and will be a difficult thing to master when you’re first starting out. But the more hours you put in, the more confident you’ll become with your seat while riding and the better connection you’ll have with your horse.
Balance. Having balance is a key part of finding feel. A good rider always sits in the middle of the saddle. However, there are several parts to this. First, your saddle needs to be in the middle of your horse’s back. Pay close attention to where it sits when you first mount your horse, as it’s common for it to get pulled to the left when you’re getting on. An easy way to see if your saddle is straight is seeing that it aligns with your horse’s mane and withers.
Athletic riding position. An athletic riding position helps you stay centered in the saddle with your legs underneath you. You know you’re balanced in the saddle when you can stand straight up in your stirrups without needing the assistance of your horn. (Having a saddle that’s the correct size for you will make it easier to accomplish this position.) When you settle back into your seat after standing up, you’ll bend your knees and sit in the center of the saddle with 60% of your weight in the seat with the other 40% in your feet.
You should be looking forward, with your ears aligned with your shoulders, your shoulders over your hips, and your hips over your heels. Your legs should be between the front and back cinch in order to have the proper connection with your horse. Your heels should be lower than your toes with your weight on the balls of your feet. You should be able to remain in this straight but relaxed alignment at all gaits.
If you look like you're sitting on the couch, you’re going to be too far back in your saddle, and your knees and legs are going to be too far forward. This position, which is all too common, doesn’t allow you to ride directly over the motion and makes it impossible to use your legs efficiently to connect with your horse’s rhythm.
Before you even get on your horse, start by standing on the ground, and having an open stance, like you would if you were on your horse. You’ll then bend your knees, with your toes slightly out, your back lightly flexed, with your chin level and eyes forward. Keep your elbows softly by your side and your arms in a 90-degree angle forward.
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You can even have someone throw a ball at you while you’re in the position to feel what a difference this balanced form can make—even when you’re on the ground. This is how it feels to have an athletic riding position. Return to your saddle and duplicate this position. When you feel yourself getting out of position, take time to reposition yourself. The more often you do this, the more it’ll become muscle memory for you.
Proper Timing. Once you develop an athletic riding position and have better balance in the saddle, you’re going to be able to better understand timing and when you should or shouldn’t be cueing. For example, when you stop your horse, it should be on the downbeat of his front feet. Same goes for changing leads. If you’re in sync with your horse, you’re going to have no problems asking for a change or stop. If your timing is off, and you cue for either of these, you’re not going to end up with a good stop or lead change. You need to have the ability to develop feel for everything that’s going on underneath you when you’re in the saddle. This includes what each of your horse’s legs is doing at all times.
Rhythm. You must have balance and rhythm in your seat at all gaits. Think of it as a dance. When you’re dancing, you never want to step on your partner’s feet. Being in sync with your partner and understanding their moves and their abilities makes dancing easier.
When your body is in the correct riding position, you’ll be able to better feel and understand each gait and its particular footfall rhythm.
The walk is a four-beat gait; it’s smooth and flat in motion, which makes it easier to sit quietly compared to a jog or lope. The jog is a two-beat gait where your horse’s legs work in pairs of diagonals; some horses are smooth jogging while others are rougher, with a more up-and-down motion. The lope is a three-beat gait, which should have a rounder motion compared to the walk or trot.
To be proficient at sitting quietly at a walk, jog, or lope, you must ride close to the saddle and not stiffen your legs or back to feel the stride. You can try snapping your fingers to the jog or lope to get in sync with the movement, or you can try counting to help yourself find the correct rhythm. If you find yourself overthinking where your body position is, counting your strides or snapping your fingers in rhythm of the gait you’re moving at can even help you take your mind off your seat and help you relax.
Finding Feel With Your Hands
Hands often get in the way of a good seat. It’s common for a novice rider to try to balance off a horse’s mouth. This is a bad habit you want to avoid. This is also why many instructors, including my own when I was a kid, have their students do exercises that involve holding their arms out to their side without having the ability to hold onto reins. However, I don’t recommend doing this unless you’re in a controlled environment with a professional who can properly handle your horse while you’re riding.
Use your hands separately. Your hands and arms should be used separately from the rest of your body. And in order for your horse to have good feel in his face, you need to have good feel with your hands. You must decide how light you want your horse to be in his mouth, which is determined by the techniques you use and how much rein pressure there is.
Using your hands has nothing to do with force, but more to do with opening and closing your fingers to soften your horse’s poll and face.
A great way to tell if you’re too quick or too dependent on your hands is by stopping your horse. When you stop, you should first sit deep in the saddle, release your heels downward, and say whoa.
After all of that you can add rein control to complete the maneuver. Your hands should be the last part of your body to react. If you go straight to your reins and pull your horse down to the stop, you now know you’re too quick with your hand not separating them from the rest of your body.
Stay in the box. Your hands should stay within an imaginary box, which is forward of the horn about a foot, as wide as your hips, and slightly back behind the horn. You want to avoid having your hands too low (by your knees), way out to the side, or back past your hip.
If your hands are getting too far outside the box, you might need to adjust your rein length and shorten it so you can keep your hands within the area they need to be.
Reaching down the rein and taking the slack out before you put pressure on the reins will help keep yourself centered in the saddle. However, your mindset should be to do as little as possible with your hand to obtain the response you’re after.
Find Feel With Your Body
There are six parts of your body you use as a rider that you need to pay attention to when you’re in the saddle. The first two parts are your legs, which move in rhythm with your horse’s movement and work independently from everything else. The third part of your body you use is your trunk—or the core of your body. When you engage in your core, you’re able to better sit in the center of your saddle and keep yourself balanced. You’ll use the trunk of your body at the same time that you use your arms, legs, and head.
The fourth and fifth parts of your body you use are each arm and hand, which also work independently from everything else. The sixth and final part of your body you use as a rider is your head, which requires you to look forward, keep your chin level, and think about everything that’s going on below it. Understanding this helps you get a leg up on being able to have feel and communication with your horse.
Think Like Your Horse
Once you have proper horsemanship, a connection with your horse will become easier. Horses can’t speak to you (except maybe Mr. Ed), but they can let you know what they’re thinking and feeling. Being able to read a horse’s mood and internal being can come naturally to some riders, but it can also be learned by years of experience in the saddle and constantly studying the horses you’re around or riding.
I believe that you need to have a special understanding of your horse’s mind, mannerisms, and his individual personality traits to be a complete horseman. If you ride your horse like he’s a machine rather than a living, breathing animal that reacts to every interaction or lesson you teach him, you’re never going to truly understand, or have, feel with your horse.
Spend more time around him. The easiest way to understand what your horse is thinking, or feeling, is by spending as much time as you possibly can around him. Experience is the best teacher when it comes to something like this, and hours in the saddle can help you better understand your horse’s mechanics and what his thought patterns are.
Think of your horse as if he were made out of clay and that you’re trying to form him into something special. Some clay is softer and needs an easier application, while other forms of clay are not as pliable and need a firmer application. Your horse is the same way. Trying to understand your horse’s individual personality and sensitivity will be key to your success. Every horse advances in skill at a different rate
of speed, so it’s important not to compare where your horse is to other horses that might be in the same age group or discipline as him. You don’t want to overwhelm him and force him to step up, you want to encourage him to keep improving. This is most easily done when you’re able to read your horse and understand what his body language is telling you when you’re riding him.
Stay consistent. Riding in a consistent manner where your horse can easily understand your guidance coincides directly with feel. To be consistent, you must have direction and be using techniques that you and your horse both understand. When your horse receives mixed signals, it’s easier for him to become confused and frustrated. It’s also harder for him to function when there’s no consistency and will make it harder to improve when you’re working him. Horses learn by repetition. If you’re straightforward in your cues and you take time to develop feel both physically and mentally, your horse will be able to be thoughtfully engaged in his learning.