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We have probably all had experiences as a rider where an instructor changes something quite tiny in our riding position and it feels SO ALIEN! Here is why, and why trusting a familiar feeling is something to be cautious of when riding…

I have long been interested in the Alexander Technique. Its founder F.M. Alexander had some really useful insights into the habitual use and misuse of the human body; and by chance he was also a rider. One of those observations which is pertinent for us as riders is:

“Don’t trust a feeling.”

Well, you might say: “If I cant trust a feeling how do I know what is happening?”

You may also rightly exclaim “Surely riding is mostly about feel; if I cant trust what it feels like, then what?!”

The key to what Mr A meant is that we do things in a certain way by habit and they start to feel normal to us and, whether they are good, bad, useful or useless is kind of irrelevant, because they ‘feel’ familiar and hence they feel ‘right’ to us. This is especially important when we ride. Riding is made up of zillions of moment-to-moment feels, not just feels about what we are doing but what the horse is doing beneath us and also feeling what we and the horse are doing together.

Most people I teach have their own horse and spend most of their riding and schooling time on their own with their horse. In that situation it can be very easy to establish patterns between you and your horse that start feeling ‘normal' and ‘right.’ But that doesn’t necessarily mean they are necessarily the best option.

Some people are quite ‘externally referenced,’ which means they rely on feedback mostly from other people or perhaps from the horse’s performance (or the arena mirror). Other people are more ‘internally referenced’ and tend to decide if things are going right or wrong by whether they ‘feel’ right or wrong. Both approaches have their positives and negatives as far as riding is concerned.

A largely ‘externally referenced’ rider may not develop very much ‘feel.’

A largely ‘internally referenced’ rider can fool themselves: if, for example, they have been tipping their upper body backwards behind the vertical for a few years, or pulling their legs a long way back for years, or giving half halts on automatic pilot every couple of strides for decades, those habits will feel right and normal regardless of whether they interfere with the horse or not.

A good way to balance the skill of riding with feel and avoiding the potential pitfalls of ‘trusting a feeling’ is to look specifically and with objective eyes at the horse while he works beneath you. This type of objectivity is both an easy and difficult skill to develop. The trick is to keep your observations very simple and analytical; but because we are used to habits in ourselves or the horse it is hard to see the simple facts without the distorting filters of the familiar habitual thoughts and feelings that we have formed.

To genuinely look at the facts of what the horse is doing gives a whole new take on the process and adds a new dimension to the ‘feel thing’ that is so vital as a rider. A really good well-placed arena mirror can help too; being videoed when riding is brilliant; an instructor who is looking at you and your horse and giving genuinely objective feedback can also be a great help.

HERE IS THE GOOD NEWS: What I find most often with students when they see objectively what work they and their horse are producing is that they are surprised how much better it looks than it feels, or it is much better than they thought it would look… Hurrah!

So there you go, develop feel in your riding but be cautious of ‘trusting a feeling,’ as it may be holding you and your horse back from achieving easier and more rewarding results.

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