One of the most difficult tasks facing an instructor is teaching a student to feel and react to the horse's movement and responses.
Many experienced riders have well-developed riding skills, but they do not feel and react to the subtle indications a horse gives to his subsequent actions. Riders who do not feel the horse's errors are unable to react correctly in a timely manner to the horse.
Exercises to improve a student’s ability to feel the movements and responses of the horse have been developed. They include the typical exercises for developing balance and independence of the hands and legs; feeling the horse's foot falls and weight shifts; feeling the horse's rhythm; and learning to respond to the minute responses of the horse.
Developing balance and independent hands and legs is the first concern in any riding program. Students should be taught to ride standing in the stirrups and sitting without the stirrups. They should practice these skills at a walk, trot and lope. In addition, independence of hands and legs can be learned by using various hand exercises such as touching the poll, touching the hip and holding the hands straight up, out and down.
As students become proficient at these exercises they can ride with one leg drawn up to the side and hands in various positions until the student is totally comfortable on the horse at any gait and in any position. At this point students will have flexible bodies, be flexible, in rhythm with the horse and comfortable using hands and legs independently. However, many students still do not have any idea of what the horse is doing and how to influence those movements. Therefore, they must study the horse's foot falls and weight shifts and get in rhythm with those movements to ride by feel.
Riding by feel is first developed by learning the foot fall patterns of the horse. At a walk the horse moves each leg independently and has four separate beats. The trot is a two-beat gait with diagonal legs moving in unison. The lope is a three-beat gait with the off hind leg and the leading foreleg hitting the ground independently and diagonal off foreleg and leading hind leg hitting the ground at the same time. All of these foot falls can be felt by being attentive to the weight shifts of the horse.
At a walk the saddle will shift alternatively from back to front in a diagonal manner in relationship to the footfalls. Students should focus on the weight shifts of the front legs. Ask students to move their hands in rhythm with the front legs. The right hand goes up and down as the right leg goes up and down. The left hand does the same with the left leg. By doing this, the students can get their hands and body in rhythm with the horse's motion.
Students should observe the movements of the horse with their legs and hips as well as getting in time with their hands. As the horse progresses to a trot, the weight shift is from side to side in relation to the front legs. Again ask students to move their hands up and down in relationship to the front legs. They should feel the shift of weight from side to side through their hips and legs. As they become proficient at feeling these weight shifts, picking up the diagonal at a trot will be simple for those riders who desire to post. At a lope the weight shifts from front to rear and from the outside hind to the inside fore, therefore, the rolling motion goes from back to front and slightly toward the inside of the circle.
Have your students swing their arms in a counterclockwise manner in rhythm to the canter. The arms should come forward and down with the front legs. As students become proficient, they can move the inside arm in relationship to the leading foreleg and the outside arm in relationship to the off foreleg.
As students focus on the weight shifts and leg movements of the horse, they will have a better feeling for the horse's legs, stride and weight shifts that indicate the horse's actions and intentions. One of the easiest ways to teach these concepts is to have one person stand behind another with his arms on the partner's shoulders; the person behind should close his eyes and, as his partner in front starts to walk in place, the person behind can begin to feel and predict the movements of the person in front. By doing this you can simulate the walk, trot and lope. As students begin to feel the weight shifts and foot falls of the horse better, they can react to the horse's changes and influence the horse's rhythm.
The objective of riding by feel is to be able to influence the horse. This can be done by simply establishing rhythm with the horse and then slightly changing the rhythm. As the horse becomes more receptive to your feel and rhythm, he will alter his rhythm to conform to yours. You can influence how long a horse's leg is on the ground by simply putting more weight on that leg as it strikes the ground. By weighting a leg, the student can influence the horse's speed, leads and responsiveness. By using your hands on the reins in rhythm with the horse, you can change the rhythm of the horse by simply slowing the rhythm of your hands. The same thing can be accomplished by slowing your weight shifts to influence the horse and his balance.
By posting on the correct lead and putting weight on the inside hind leg and the outside foreleg, you can influence the horse to take the correct lead. Therefore, as the student begins to feel the rhythm of the horse and gets more in rhythm with the horse he can change the horse's movement and control him by simply changing the rhythm.
One of the most critical concepts in developing a responsive horse is to respond to the horse's minute responses. To respond to the horse, the student must feel the horse's responses and understand them, so that if the horse gives in the slightest way to pressure from either the bit or the legs, the cue must be removed for the horse to understand that he responded correctly.
To teach students to feel those responses, you must teach them to feel minute responses. The first exercise in developing this responsiveness is for two students to take a rubber band and stretch it between a marker. The marker should be placed half way between the two students.
The objective to this exercise is to be able to pop your partner with the rubber band; however, you must move your hand to the center marker before you can release the rubber band. If either partner starts his hand forward toward the center marker, the other partner must quickly move his hand to the center marker also to avoid being popped by the rubber band. This way one student is learning to respond to the other student so neither one gets popped.
As they become proficient at that exercise, you take two markers and progressively move them closer to each student until the student has only to move his hand 2 or 3 inches to release the rubber band. At this point they become very responsive to each other's movements. As they progress, each partner must alternately close their eyes and learn not to respond to the visual stimulus of seeing his partner move his hand forward but must feel that movement to avoid being popped by the rubber band. The same exercise can be conducted with rubber bands around their feet to simulate the horse's responses to leg cues.
As students become more and more responsive to the changes in tension on the rubber band they will be able to substitute these responses to that of the horse releasing tension on reins or responding to leg cues. As students become more proficient at detecting these small responses from their horses, their horses will become more responsive and the result will be a more responsive horse.
Teaching youth to ride by feel is a difficult, challenging task. As students develop their timing and rhythm, they will become better riders. As they improve their ability to feel and respond to the horse, the horse will improve.
Teaching Youth to Ride by Feel