“Feel” is a word that is kicked around a lot in horse training conversations. The word often comes up in conversation when there is a lack of it; more often than not it is the amateur rider that is in short supply of the coveted “feel”. During the clinic with Mario he said one difference between amateurs and trainers is timing; trainers ride more horses and put more hours in the saddle which allows them to develop their timing and feel. I thought I had a pretty good idea of what feel in the saddle was, until a lesson I had just over a week ago; that day I hit the brick wall when it came to “feel”.
Sarah had me working on lateral work getting control of Grace’s hip and shoulder. It seemed as though I could get one end of the horse, but not the other. If I asked her to sit on her hind end and move her shoulder Grace would always step out behind, never holding the ground. We then broke the exercise down to just getting control of the hind end which is where I found the brick wall. Our lesson was now happening completely at the walk, each time I added pressure behind the girth with my heel it pressed against an unmoving object. The harder I tried the more pissed off Grace became. Sarah talked about timing; when to apply the cue. We talked about foot falls at all 3 gaits and when the best time for the rider to influence a particular leg was. It all made sense to my brain but to my body it felt like calculus. I knew that this was something I would have to practice during the week. I pointed out to Sarah that my lower leg wasn’t reaching behind the girth where she wanted it. I was twisting like a pretzel to get it back there which was throwing me out of balance and pissing my horse off even more. Sarah told me to keep my heel down when putting my leg behind the girth and to stop curling my lower leg up. She also made a comment about my hip flexors and recommended that I get back into yoga. It was the first time in a long time that I left a lesson feeling unaccomplished.
I spent the week in between lessons determined to get back my feel. I spent a ride in the bareback pad with no spurs but a dressage whip. I rode another time without stirrups, another time with my eyes closed. Still, I couldn’t get my lower legs where I wanted them; I even banged my heel on the large buckle on flank strap – ouch! Those words kept haunting me “keep your heel down when you bring your leg back” How was I going to do that with my midget legs? It was Friday before the big “Ah Ha! light bulb” moment happened. The hip flexor! What if I started the cue from my hip, clear up at the top of my leg? I opened my hip angle, felt the hip flexor lengthen and then moved my lower leg behind the girth. My horse immediately moved her hip over off the pressure. It was so easy it was crazy! So I tried the other leg, same reaction! I rode the entire ride moving Grace’s hind end all over the place and laughing like an idiot. Good thing I ride alone. I was even able to soften my back and keep my abdominal wall engaged. This lightened my seat allowing my horse to drive up even further from behind.
At my Saturday lesson I showed Sarah the progress I had made and went on to repeat to her most of what she has been telling me for the last 10 years. Now that we had control of the hip Sarah had me move onto the shoulder. I was now able to get my horse to rock back on her hind end with a soft hand by using an indirect aid from the outside rein. The goal was to pick her shoulder up to “stand up the pillars”. I felt Grace’s stride completely change underneath me; there was a loftiness to it that was missing before. Her lope was a pleasure to sit and required a lot less work on my part. Grace forgot to drop her shoulder to the right when loping on the left lead; I was even able to slow her stride down by asking her to sit on her hock for a longer period of time. There was a flow to the ride, an “easiness” that I was just starting to capture.
I’m not sure what exactly causes that level of feel to come and go. If I had to guess I would think that it has something to do with the fact that I ride the same horse day in and day out. We get really used to each other’s patterns and our role in them. I have to give myself a break as I do have “feel”. I know this because I put snaps on pair of reins this week so they could be more interchangeable between bridles. Within seconds of that ride I was already cursing the snaps and them remembering why I have taken them off my reins in the past. Snaps attached to the end of water loops on reins mess with my “feel”; they break the soft contact I have with my horse’s mouth. I am also thankful for the brick wall rides because without them I would never grow as a rider and never strive for what I thought only months before wasn’t possible. The journey continues…