“Developing Feel” (Topline Ink Equestrian Journal, Sep/Oct 2008)

Have you noticed that some riders seem to ride effortlessly, while others appear to be working harder, even struggling, to accomplish even the simplest requests from their horses?  Have you also noticed that a horse’s way of going often reflects the rider: some being happy and relaxed, while others appear uncomfortable, sour or resolved?

The riders who seem to be in harmony with their horse have developed something called “feel”.  It is almost as if they instinctively know which aids to apply and to which degree and frequency.  Their horses seem almost to read their every thought and movement, even though the rider’s aids are almost invisible. The horses reflect this by working in a relaxed, content but attentive way, totally in tune with the rider.


It is true that some riders are blessed with natural talent and seem, as some say, to be “born on a horse”.  For these riders, learning comes more easily, as the words of their instructors are quickly absorbed and “felt” as a response in the horse. Of course, learning dressage takes much time and practice, even for naturally talented riders.  They too must spend countless hours in the saddle and on various horses, constantly developing their skills.  Learning to develop ‘feel’, however, is something any rider can develop and improve in herself, even if it does not come naturally.  The result is a more conscious rider who applies more subtle, empathetic aids, creating increased harmony with the horse.

In order to develop and improve feel, I recommend four basic steps to start you on your way.


Step One: Develop feel in the rider


Improving body awareness off the horse:


Feel in the rider depends on her ability to isolate muscle groups and be aware of the sensation of muscles relaxing and contracting.  To help develop this skill, I recommend practicing body/mind endeavors like yoga, tai chi, pilates, etc. These practices, especially yoga, put us in tune with our bodies and help identify differences between the left and right side, which is very important when riding a horse.  A good example of this: A rider whose horse tends to drift to one side suddenly learns, through yoga or a related practice,  that she tends to squeeze one of her legs harder than the other.  The horse is simply reacting to her unconscious aid.  When you become in tune with your own body, you will be in a better position to influence your horse and certainly make more sense to him.


Improving body awareness on the horse:


For this, I recommend taking longe lessons.  All one needs is a quiet, reliable horse and a capable trainer with a good eye.  On the longe, the rider can develop the correct seat position, which sets the stage for improving balance and feel.  By performing exercises such as stretching and swinging her arms and legs, plus riding without stirrups and reins, the rider becomes more confident and relaxed, relying less on gripping and tightening and more on balance and suppleness.  This encourages the rider to develop feel.

Another useful exercise, performed at the halt, is to lift one leg at a time, including the thigh, completely off the saddle.  After lifting one leg, gently let it drop down again. Then repeat with the other leg.  Do this several times and notice how the legs lie more relaxed on the saddle, without gripping.  Now try to become aware of different body parts, one at a time: ankles, calves, thighs, knees, hips, torso, shoulders, neck, upper and lower arms, hands.  Gently tense and relax these parts, first at the walk and then the trot and canter.  The result is that you will become more aware of what your muscles are doing at a given moment.  When riding a horse, your muscles must alternately engage and relax.  Being aware of and, ultimately, being in control of this “cycle”, will help you make much progress toward developing feel.



Step Two:  Develop sensitivity in the horse


The most important thing to remember here is:  Less Is More.

Recognize that a horse can feel a fly land on its body and will twitch the skin to flick it away.  However, horses also tend to lean into direct pressure, which one can observe when watching horses in a herd situation or a mare with her foal.  The mare will often brace herself while the foal playfully leans into her.  This tells us that while the horse is very sensitive and can react to very small aids, he can also become ‘dull’, leaning against direct pressure if presented with it.  Because of this, we need to use the lightest aid first and teach the horse to react to and move away from it.  This develops feel, sensitivity and alertness to our aids.  (The rider who only kicks or grips with her legs will make her horse dull, thus negating feel.)

How do we do this? Start at the halt.  Relax your legs. Touch your horse gently with one leg.  If he responds by moving his hindquarters (or his whole body, depending on your intention) slightly away from it, immediately release the leg pressure and praise your horse.  If you don’t get an immediate reaction, do not increase the pressure, but do something a bit different to get his attention:  use either a slight “bumping” leg, a touch with the spur, or a tap with the whip, applied just behind your leg on the same side. Praise again after you get a response. Relax, wait, then try again in the same way.  Usually after a time or two, the horse will learn to respond to the light leg aid. Now try for this reaction on the other side.

After the horse becomes sensitized to these lighter aids, try for other reactions in the same way: Ask your horse to move forward from halt to walk using a light closing of both legs. If you get an immediate response, praise and immediately relax the pressure.   If he does not react, repeat the correction described above.  Repeat until the horse moves off actively but calmly at your first indication. Gradually work toward the same, light response in other exercises, such as leg-yielding at the trot, walk-trot transitions and trot-canter transitions.

The most important thing to remember is that as soon as the horse responds to a light aid, immediately release it by relaxing the muscles used in applying the aid.

The horse can also be made sensitive to the rein aids.  Try using the

softest hand possible, remembering that a horse’s mouth is among the most sensitive parts of his body. Starting at the halt, ask for soft yielding to the hand, slowly, one side at a time, just by closing the fingers and asking for a gentle flexion.  When the horse yields, immediately soften the hand. Repeat on the other side.  This paves the way for a softening response each time you close your fingers. When you learn to coordinate soft rein aids with correct leg, seat and weight aids, harmony and feel develop as a result.



Step Three: Ride different horses

There is an old saying which says, “To appreciate someone else’s riding, get on their horse”.  Every horse feels different to ride, depending on conformation, natural sensitivity and the way it has been ridden or trained.  A wonderful way to (further) improve and develop feel in the rider is to ride as many different horses as possible.  It is true that we learn from lessons and hours in the saddle, but when you get on a different horse, everything can change instantly.  The new horse may react entirely differently from the horse you are accustomed to.  For instance, your own horse may reliably pick up the canter when you use a certain combination of aids. On the new horse, however, you may wish to ask for right lead, and he may pick up the left one.  Perhaps his current rider used slightly different aids than you do. Such differences can make a rider more analytical and thereby increase her feel. I once went horse shopping with a student wanting to buy a school master.  She was an accomplished rider, but had ridden mostly one type of horse.  When she got on the first horse, a beautiful mare which had won many prizes, she asked the horse to trot, but the horse responded by performing a lovely piaffe!  My student could do nothing to get the horse to trot… she only continued to piaffe!  It was as if the horse was speaking Spanish and the rider was speaking Chinese! We learned that the mare had been trained to perform this movement when the rider lightened her seat, which is the same aid my student normally used to get her own horse, a very sensitive thoroughbred, into the trot. The mare’s usual rider deepened her seat slightly to ask for trot, but lightened it for piaffe.  So the horse was only doing what she had been trained to do.  My student did eventually buy the mare, and went on to learn the mare’s “language” with much success.

I must add here that the development of feel suffers greatly when the rider insists on only one way of riding every horse, and forces each one to respond to the aids in the same way.  This type of riding creates only frustration and confusion in horses.  It is the one of the rider’s jobs to determine which aids/timing/intensity work with different horses and in different situations. This is another important application of feel.


Step Four: Let a “feeling” rider get on your horse

Another useful way to improve feel, especially if you have only one horse to ride, is to ask a proficient rider or trainer to periodically get on your horse.  (perhaps she’ll even let you get on one of  hers!)  Riders or trainers who routinely develop horses up the levels of dressage using harmonious training methods can help “tune” your horse, making him more sensitive and alert to subtle changes in seat, weight, leg and rein pressure.  This can give you a new appreciation of how sensitive and balanced your horse can be, and may help increase your development of feel.

Just be wary: not every trainer, even if they have won prizes in competitions, rides with feel.  In fact, you may have more feel than you think!  The best way to decide if the person “tuning” your horse is the right choice for you, get back on your horse for a few minutes after the session and determine whether or not you like the way your horse feels.  If he is more sensitive, balanced and alert to your aids but is still relaxed, great! You can then try to remember this feeling and work toward it the next time you ride on your own.


In conclusion, developing feel in dressage is a worthy goal for every rider.  The skills to develop and increase feel are honed over a lifetime of riding and studying horses, and are vital for those truly seeking harmony . Not only does this make riding more enjoyable, but honors our commitment to the needs of our intelligent, sensitive partner, the noble horse.

2 Responses to ““Developing Feel” (Topline Ink Equestrian Journal, Sep/Oct 2008)

  • Great articles. Reconfirming my own thoughts as well as giving me some better insights. Thank you.

  • What a beautiful article, thank you Sandy. I loved your point on how folks can tell is a professional has good feel if you like the way your horse feels after they ride it.

    I hope to ride with you in a clinic at some point and get your ideas on a young horse I’m developing.