Have you ever run down to a sliding stop and pulled at the wrong time, catching your horse off stride and getting popped out of the saddle? Or been riding down the trail, missed your horse’s signals about the upcoming booger, and landed between his ears as he whirled to flee?
What I’m talking about here is a lack of feel. Feel is the near-magical ability that all great riders possess—the capacity to feel what’s happening underneath them. When you have it, you know where your horse’s feet and his mind are at any given moment.
Developing feel requires time—lots of it—in the saddle. You can speed the process, however, with the exercises I’ll give you here. With a helper, you’ll begin to develop a feel for where your horse’s feet are as he moves. Then you’ll apply this learning to ride your horse so that he takes the first step over a pole with the leg you intend.
Why this matters. Good feel is the key for so much you do with your horse. In addition to knowing when to give a cue and how to read your horse’s mind, feel enables you to put your horse’s body in the correct position so he can do his job more easily. Plus it enables you to know immediately—without looking—when your horse has picked up the wrong lead. And so much more! It’s truly the holy grail of riding.
Learn to feel. With your trainer or a friend watching, sit deep in the saddle with your weight in your heels. Look straight ahead as you ride forward at a walk, and try to “feel” your horse’s front legs. Say “right” each time the right leg advances, letting your helper correct you as need be until you can reliably feel the right leg coming forward. Allow periodic chat breaks, where you stop noticing your horse’s movement, then see if you can—without looking, of course—again feel when the right leg advances. Then do the same with the left leg, going back and forth as you work on feeling the difference.
Apply that feel. As you get better at it, put your feel to the test. Lay a single pole on the ground, then ride toward it with the goal of getting your horse to step over with a certain foot first. If you’re riding in a slight arc to the left, as in the photo, try to get your horse to step over the pole first with his left leg. It takes feel and a lot of practice, but once you start to get it, you’ll know you’re on the right track.
Keep going. When you’ve mastered these exercises, try them at the trot. As an alternative, sit your horse at a halt and try to influence which leg he steps off with into a walk. Then try identifying, by feel, all four of your horse’s legs at a walk, one at a time. At the lope, practice feeling which lead your horse is on before glancing down to check. The more you work on all these “tests,” the faster you’ll fine-tune your feel.
Laurel Walker Denton, Skull Valley, Arizona, grew up on the Bar U Bar Ranch where she and her husband, Barry, reside. An AQHA and NRCHA judge, Denton has trained and shown horses in working cow horse, reining, and ranch riding (barubar.com).