A term commonly used by horsemen, you may have an intuitive understanding of the word, but it is difficult to define. What does it really mean to have feel? Can it be taught?
In the following paragraphs, I’m going to attempt to define feel and share a few simple exercises you can use to improve your own feel.
I would describe feel as an awareness of your horse and of yourself. It is making observations and reading the horse, but at a glance. Going further than reading the horse, feel is awareness of emotion, of tension, pressure, movement and what might be coming next.
When we experience true feel, it’s not a cognitive process, it is a sense, a knowing. Feel is the unconscious mind at work, using prior learning to process information and make assumptions quickly.
It is the mind and sense of the expert. Everyone experiences feel in different contexts, for example driving a car and judging the speed and distance of other traffic to smoothly and safely merge across lanes, or in seeing the face of a child or spouse and instantly knowing their emotional state.
In a professional setting, feel could be an experienced doctor knowing the diagnosis of a patient even before a complete exam, or a seasoned golf player lining up and using just the right amount of swing for a perfect shot.
In these examples, feel does not happen through any kind of magic or even unexplainable knowing. Rather, it happens out of the process of observing and learning over time, until our brains can process the information from our senses so quickly we no longer consciously think through all of the information, but instead we just get a sense of the situation.
If you’ve been driving for years, you no longer have to think about how to merge, and all the pieces of information and action required to get it right – the speed of the car coming up behind, the right amount of acceleration, turning the wheel, hitting your blinker, straightening back out to stay in the lane… you just look in the mirror and go.
The same process happens with our horsemanship and riding.
An experienced rider sits on a horse and can feel where that horse puts his weight and how much pressure to use from a leg aid to bring him into better balance. Or the experienced rider is able to pick up on the tension the horse carries through his neck and use the rein in just the right way to encourage the horse to soften and move more freely.
While I just described feel as the sense of the expert, you will experience many moments of feel long before becoming an expert. You will find feel at different stages as you build up enough experience in that skill and situation for your unconscious mind to do its work.
You may start to feel your horse at the walk, and handle the reins softly, knowing just the right amount of pressure to use when going slow. When the pace picks up, that feeling may disappear, and you may find you are right back to thinking through each step of the process vs. feeling your way through it. But as you continue to learn and build your skills, the experience of feel will come more often.
We tend to experience feel when we are in a state of flow. Flow is experienced when both your ability level and the level of challenge, for any given task, are both high.
We can find flow in even simple tasks, but the key is this sweet spot between ability and challenge. If the task is too hard and our ability too low, we become anxious, if too easy, we become bored. The experience of feel will come when we are challenged, but have the skill set to meet that challenge – whether the challenge is cantering a jump course or walking an even circle.
I’m working on an article to go into detail on the science of flow and how we can achieve it as riders, so look for that next week.
While feel exists when we are in a state of flow, we don’t always need to be in this state to experience the horseman’s definition of feel.
However, to find feel we do need to be present, attentive, and attuned to our senses.
Next, I’m going to describe several simple exercises to improve your feel.
Pay attention to your breathing to connect to yourself and become more aware of your senses. This may seem over-simplified, but focusing on your breath brings you into the present and is the easiest awareness exercise one can do.
#2 Practice Handling the Reins with Greater Awareness
While in the saddle, you can also do an easy exercise with your reins. Take one rein at a time and slide your hand down the rein and then back up. Practice both keeping a soft contact as you slide your hand as well as beginning with a loose rein and sliding your hand until you just pick up a bit of contact and then letting the rein go loose again.
The video below will show more clearly how to do this.
This can improve your feel of the rein, give you a sensation to focus on, and create slow calming movement.
#3 Develop Your Sense of Touch
Touch is very powerful. For social animals, such as humans and horses, touch is a powerful tool for bonding. Different types of touch however, can trigger very different responses.
The next exercise is out of a book I reference often, Linda Tellington Jones’ book, Improve Your Horse’s Well-Being.
This exercise will help you practice feel in noticing different amounts of pressure and being able to adjust the pressure that you use.
In the book, Linda describes a scale of pressure, and recommends practicing these different levels of pressure first on yourself, and then through a series of touches with your horse.