Whether or not you think you were gifted with talent for riding, reaching the end of that talent is where the real learning begins. Feel is the language that horses use and understand. The kind of feel we have is determined by (1) our awareness: how we are perceived by horses, combined with (2) our effectiveness: how clear we can be about what we are asking them to do.
Feel = Awareness + Effectiveness
Although I had some talent, I chose to go beyond what I could pull off by the seat of my pants and decided to start down the long and winding path of learning what really matters to the horse. I was frustrated much of the time, as I was learning a language foreign to me. By pressing on with guidance from my mentors, I came out the other side a few hundred horses and a decade or so later with some peace and clarity. Here is what I have learned about feel and how to develop it; I hope it resonates.
A rider with good feel knows where her horse’s feet are, and how they are tracking. She knows where the horse’s weaknesses are, and how to tactfully approach them without exploiting the horse’s vulnerability. She has no interest in dominating the horse and making it perform for her. Instead, she knows she must earn the horse’s trust for it to have a strong foundation.
Horses now like her, they want to be around her, not because of bribery or unnecessary enablement. She feels what the horses are feeling and has empathy for them. Horses have respect for her because she sets boundaries that are firm and consistent; they know where they stand. She will help a horse who is trying to explore the lesson at hand, give it a chance to figure, and make decisions for itself.
She learned to embrace the struggle and pay attention to the day to day experience; her feel developed as a result. She became wiser through making mistakes, which are a necessary part of the process. She quit comparing herself to others and began comparing what she accomplished each day with where she was the day before.
She became wise about who to seek instruction from. She quit taking people’s words so literally and listened to the horse’s story. If that doesn’t match what the person is saying, she has little time for it. The smoke and mirrors dissolved and it became hard to fool her with words. She takes advice from the old masters; “observe - remember - compare.” They set a framework for learning, but the framework is not rigid. It allows her freedom and creativity.
You hear some professionals say that you can’t teach feel; you either have it or you don’t. That isn’t the whole story. The riders with good feel took responsibility for where they were and where they wanted to be early on. Most people want answers from the external, they don’t like to look inside, and they are very uncomfortable owning mistakes. This internal resistance can really set a person back without them knowing it. Success with horses, as with life is quite simple; be willing to dig in and let go, over and over.
We find our own way by putting the work in; IN ourselves, FOR ourselves, often BY ourselves. The desire to learn must be greater than the fear of getting in uncomfortable situations and making mistakes. We develop judgement by going out with an openness for whatever arises and learning from it. And good judgement comes from remembering times of bad judgement. So it is trial and error, a slow but necessary process that develops our feel. If you are lucky enough to have a trustworthy mentor or teacher to help point out the way, this acts as a great catalyst, but they are only there to serve as a guide. The work is still up to each of us. Developing feel is a unique journey, and we’re each on our own path, trying to find our way home.
“Your journey is not the same as mine, and my journey is not yours. But if you meet me on a certain path, may we encourage each other.” - Unknown