Rolling Stone Magazine lists the song "Feelings," written by Morris Albert, as the #9 worst song of the 70's. I tend to agree. It's a cheesy, redundant, vague song about losing a feeling and not being able to get it back. Kinda like trying to 'feel' a dressage movement.
As you may have already guessed, I am not a fan of “feel” when riding a horse.
I know, admitting this may get me banned from the “in” dressage instructors club, but hear me out. My issue with ‘feel’ is multi-faceted.
First, what riders feel is not necessarily correct or incorrect, what they feel is change. That change may or may not be for the better.
Second, a rider’s ‘feel’ vocabulary is limited to the range of her experiences. Unless a rider has trained several different conformation types up the levels, chances are their ‘feel reference’ will be incorrect.
Third, how a horse feels and how a horse looks may or may not match, particularly when a horse is learning a new balance point or a new movement. As a horse gets stronger, the same “look” may feel dramatically different.
Fourth, feel changes from day-to-day, depending on the weather, the footing, if the saddle has shifted back, the horse and rider’s fatigue level, the list goes on and on. Feel just has too many variables to be reliable as a training evaluation.
Fifth, riders tend to get emotionally committed to what they think something should feel like, which gets in the way of an instructor helping them change the horse to become more correct.
So if I don’t teach feel, how do I help students become independent trainers?
First, I ask students to ride by landmarks and tests.
An example of using both landmarks and tests in leg yield: when leg yielding, using accuracy as a landmark, ride the movement from D to B. If the rider can accurately ride from D to B, instead of D-ish to somewhere-near-B, while keeping the horse parallel to the long side, the horse’s alignment will create crossing. Additionally, a great test of balance in the leg yield is asking the horse to do a small flexion in the direction of the leg yield. If the horse can do a small flexion change, without tension or tempo change, then the horse has proved his balance as well.
In shoulder in, there are two landmarks. First, if starting the shoulder in at M, can the rider see E through the horse’s ears, with both ears level, while keeping the hind legs on the track? If yes, then the angle is most likely correct. Second, can the rider push her inside hip forward, and line it up with her outside fist, without having 10,000 lbs in the outside rein? If yes, the bend is most likely correct. If the horse maintains the tempo and increases his back swing when the rider swings her hips more, then that shoulder in is probably pretty darned fancy.
The second way I help students become independent trainers, and admittedly this is a bit contrary to my earlier-stated anti-feel stance, I ask students to let me label their “feels” for them.
I rode in a clinic with a big-name trainer last November on Capi, and after a series of exercises, she asked me, “What do you think of that feeling?”
“It doesn’t matter what I think, I’m memorizing it,” was my reply. In that moment, I was noting where I felt the most pressure from the saddle on by seat, how much movement I felt in my hips, how much the muscles in my thighs were firing, and humming a song in my head (that’s my personal method for maintaining tempo – background music in my head). I was creating a ‘feel reference’ for the trot.
When I’m teaching, if a movement looks correct, I’ll tell my student to memorize that feel. Nine times out of 10, they’ll say, “But that’s not what I thought it should feel like.”
To which I reply, “’Should’ doesn’t matter, go with look, that’s what judges see.” Then I let them hang in that movement for a few minutes, doing my best to give minimal corrections, so they have time to create a ‘feel reference.’
And thanks to the wonderful cell phone cameras, I don’t have to ask them to believe in me, I can shoot a few minutes and they can see it for themselves.
Once a student accepts the disconnect between ‘look’ and ‘feel,’ she is able to consistently focus on using landmarks, tests, and muscle memory instead of the nebulous notion of ‘feel.’ Which means, even when her ‘feel’ seems off, she has tools she can apply, tools that will let her confidently trust her training techniques. And correct techniques consistently applied creates consistently trained horses.
In dressage, techniques are much better than Mr. Alber's "Feelings," which in his words, "never come again."