This article is courtesy of the Horse Industry Association of Alberta
By Pat Ross
Basically, feel is connecting with the horse and knowing what they are doing with their bodies and legs underneath you.
Rhythm is being in sync with the movement of your horse’s body when you are riding. This is usually a more advanced stage of riding but can be started at the basic level as well.
Many of you have seen where a rider is performing without reins, like they are dancing with their horses. This is the epitome of rhythm and feel.
To achieve this you must have a very balanced and correct position. A balanced rider has a vertical line from their ear to their shoulder – hip to heels with very relaxed hip and joints. Where there is tension from you, your horse will tense up their muscles, which can give you the bouncing and roughness you would prefer not to feel. Try relaxing your seat bones and feel your horse’s barrel move from left to right as you walk. If you were to sit on a large barrel and rock it back and forth with your hips that would be the first step to learning about feel and rhythm.
THE WALK – is a four beat gait, count the legs 1-2-3-4, with the walk there is no elevation in the stride so it is easier to feel and ride. Try to feel your right hip lift and then feel it drop as your left hip lifts. You are feeling the movement of the hind legs. When a horse walks forward, they push off their hind leg, making it so his one hip lifts, then the other. Relax your legs around your horse and let that rhythm carry through your legs. A great way to feel this is to ride without stirrups or bareback if this can be done safely.
Speed your horses walk up and subsequently speed your rhythm up. Then slow your horse down by slowing your body down and relaxing your hips more. Visualise your seat as a stick of butter, and the saddle or your horses back as a hot surface and “melt” into it with your hips. Your horse will usually match what your body does. Repeat this and pay attention to the fine details of movement.
THE TROT – is a two beat gait with lift. The legs move in diagonal pairs 1-2, 1-2, 1-2. Perform a sitting trot or jog first and focus on deciphering which one of your hips is moving up and then down. Feel what your horse’s hind legs and hips are doing beneath you. Then move into your posting trot, letting your horse’s movement lift you up and down, and slightly forward and back. Envision the outside of your hips as trees, and your pelvis is a hammock tied between those trees, slowly swaying in the breeze: up and forward, then down and back.
Maintain soft contact through your legs and especially your knees. Don’t concern yourself about diagonals at first if you are just starting out, what is important is that you take the time to feel and pay attention to what your hip and the horse’s hind leg is doing at the same time.
A diagonal is where you rise in your saddle just as the horse’s front and opposing back legs swing forward. In an arena, this will be the shoulder closest to the wall. On the trail or in an open field setting, the proper diagonal doesn’t necessarily apply, but would be the more comfortable of the two motions. Once you learn to recognise the feeling of the correct diagonals, by watching the shoulder, try doing it without looking. This is how advanced riders, top competitors and professional trainers do it. If you find yourself in a western horsemanship class, equitation class or dressage test, looking down for the diagonal will cost you marks with the judge(s). Try feeling when the hind leg is moving up & forward. Some riders say “one-two, one-two” or “up-down, up-down” in their head as they are learning. What will be most helpful is having someone watch you and let you know when you are correct and when to change your diagonal. It can be even more beneficial to have yourself filmed during a riding lesson to see your position and where you are excelling or struggling. Live footage can be reviewed over and over again when you’re not able to ride.
THE CANTER – is a three beat gait with lift. The legs move in a 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3 formation. If your hips are relaxed you should get a circular movement or a rocking sensation. Your hips will then go forward and down and up and back. Relax and let that motion happen. This is where we see the most tension in riders, which is the worst thing you can do. If you cannot relax and ride soft, stop your horse, breathe, relax, look to where you are going and ask for the canter or lope again. If you do not feel relaxed or safe then there is no point to continuing. Continuing on just upsets you and your horse will respond consequently. Return to something you do feel comfortable with and work your way back again. Keep doing this until you can do a full loop or the circumference of the arena but only if you feel safe and comfortable doing so.
When you ask for the right lead in the canter or lope, your horse’s right front leg leads and so does your right hip. When you take the time to do it this way, there is no need to look down, which as with the correct diagonals: is the ultimate goal. You will also feel the straightness or crookedness in your horse’s spine beneath you. At the canter or lope, there will be a slight inner shift of his hip to the inside.
You must also relax your arms, shoulders and jaw to get the feel properly. Remember that relaxing is NOT slumping; it is sitting correctly with no tension. Allow your body to move with your horse. Also avoid pumping with your pelvis or torso and think of it as more of a driving and flowing seat.
CIRCLES – Circles should be done with no leaning of your body to either the right or left, or inside or outside. Leaning allows your horse to drop their shoulder, which prevents them from doing the circle correctly, and can lead to further issues when performing complicated maneuvers. If you are sitting properly, you will feel the direction your horse is going. Use your eyes to guide the rest of your body and keep your rhythm as you walk, trot and canter your circle. Try your best to keep the same pace throughout the entire circle. Your horse must carry themselves, if they deviate left or right, correct them with your body and let them carry themselves again. If you look down at the ground and inward, that is the direction your horse will go: inward. Your eyes should look around your circle and you should picture and perform a perfect circle. A 20 meter circle is the smallest you would want for practicing this.
Understand that with each different discipline there are slight deviations to what has been said here. Performing different exercises may work for you, like serpentines or trot poles. Your goal should be to feel your horse underneath you and let your body follow by relaxing and opening your hip joints. This does not mean letting your horse do whatever they want, you still must guide them through the movements and where you want them to go.
For some this comes easy, others much longer but as we know with horses you need to keep trying to achieve what it is you want. Seek professional guidance as they can watch and tell you how to improve and you can achieve success much quicker.
Pat Ross (Cochrane) has worked with horses her entire life in an array of disciplines including reining, side saddle, hunter/jumper and now western dressage. Pat’s passion is training and coaching, taking horses and their riders to the top of their abilities. She is a Certified Horsemanship Association Instructor, a director for the Sundre Light Horse Association and the Quarter Horse Association of Alberta Youth Advisor and was awarded the 2012 AEF Charlene Baker Award.