This article originally appeared in the November/December 2018 issue of Eventing USA magazine.
As a rider and coach, I am striving each day to be better at my craft than I was the day before. In that quest, I spend a lot of time reading about and studying people who have achieved success in their chosen fields and the many theories behind achieving success. If I have learned anything from all of my reading, it’s that reaching your goals or achieving success is not an inevitable outcome that you’re gifted with at birth – rather it is the product of developing and channeling whatever God-given talents you may have with determination, education, skill, practice, and luck.
With that in mind, I’ve been on a bit of a mission recently to define “feel” in riding. It’s one of those elusive concepts – we all know it when we see it, but trying to define it, or harder still, teach it, leaves many of us fumbling for words. I’ve been informally surveying fellow riders, coaches, and trainers to get their thoughts on what they think feel actually is and if they believe it’s something that can be taught. Some say you either have “it” or you don’t, and many of us have probably long since concluded that feel is a natural and innate talent that only the lucky few possess. It’s been a fun topic to explore, and I hope that I can convince any non-believers out there that feel is something that can be developed. No matter how much natural talent we may or may not have been born with, we can all become better, more “feeling” riders.
I don’t think any of us will deny that some people may have a better innate ability with horses than others, but I would argue that innate talent is only part of the equation that determines whether or not one is a good or successful rider. In the course of my studies and conversations, I have come to the firm conclusion that feel is something that is necessary to be a successful rider, and that thankfully, it can be learned as well as taught.
Some words I hear people use when describing feel include soft, effortless, harmonious, quiet, in sync, sympathetic, empathetic, natural, innate, and intuitive. All of those words help to describe the person that rides with feel but don’t really help us understand what feel actually is. So let’s come up with a clear, common definition for feel that we can work with.
Webster’s Dictionary defines feel as:
When the verb feel is used in the sense “to think or believe” it typically implies believing or having an opinion on the basis of emotion or intuition, even in circumstances unsupported by much real evidence.
Because feel is often described as possessing some kind of intuitive or instinctual relationship with the horse, I think it would be useful to define intuition as well:
From these definitions, we can gather that there are both physical and emotional components to feel.
I recently asked David O’Connor to tell me his definition of feel. He described it as a rider who rides with 1. empathy and 2. soft, elastic elbows. It’s important to note that David’s definition contains both the mental/emotional and physical components we’ve just discussed. I also found it interesting that one of David’s longtime students, Lauren Kieffer, rides with both empathy and elastic elbows, suggesting that even if Lauren was born with natural feel (which I’m sure she was), throughout the years David has also helped Lauren to further develop that natural talent and feel into consistent competitive success.
My own definition of feel is similar to David’s, being: the ability to ride with empathy through a balanced and relaxed mind and body.
For the more mathematically inclined, there are a couple of equations that can help us understand the process of achievement in general and with feel specifically. The first can help us understand tools needed to achieve success in any field. In her book, Grit, Angela Duckworth describes not only how talent is an overrated ingredient of success, but, more importantly, how anyone willing to put in deliberate practice over time can gain mastery.
The equation for success that she came up with is as follows:
Talent x Effort = Skill
Skill x Effort = Achievement
In the equation, effort is counted twice, while talent is only counted once. The idea that effort is more important than talent is vital to our discussion about feel, because it argues that while natural talent may make the beginning of the learning process easier, it is ultimately effort that is the key ingredient that turns talent into achievement. Talent alone, while nice to have, is not the determining factor in success or mastery.
The second equation is one that I have been playing with in an effort to distill the various components of feel:
Elasticity x Balance = Physical Flow
Mental Balance x Physical Flow = Feel
Now that we have established a basic definition of feel, let’s explore the components of feel and how to develop them.
Empathy x Mushin = Mental Balance
Empathy: I’m not talking about a simple desire to be kind to your horse. Rather, when I speak of empathy in riding, I’m talking about being open and mentally flexible enough to listen to your horse. Where is the horse’s mind? Are they relaxed mentally and physically? Are they balanced? Where are their feet? Is there tension in their body somewhere? In order to bring the horse closer to where you want it to be, you must first listen to them and know where they are starting from.
Mushin: Mushin is a Martial Arts term which translates to “no mind”. It is a mental state where a practitioner clears their mind of everything except what is happening in the moment.
Athletes describe this same concept as “flow.” In order to react/respond in the moment to a partner/horse, there is no time for thought. Thought interferes with your body’s ability to react. This is why it is important when learning something new to repeat the technique enough times that your body can execute it without conscious effort. This is also called “the ten-thousand-hour rule.”
Three important aspects of Mushin are 1. having no thoughts of the potential outcome of a situation, 2. having a lack of judgment, and 3. having a lack of fear.
Elasticity x Balance = Physical Flow
Elasticity and Balance: The primary components of having an elastic body which is in balance are 1. relaxation, 2. correct posture, and 3. using a minimum amount of force/strength.
Mental Balance x Physical Flow = Feel
Now that we’ve defined and explored the individual components of what I believe makes up the concept of riding with feel, I hope that I’ve made a convincing argument that feel is something that, with mental and physical control and awareness, we can all achieve, regardless of the talents we were gifted with at birth. Knowing that we all have the power within ourselves to become better, more feeling riders can help to keep us motivated while going down the uncertain path of mastery. The idea that great riding is an elusive gift reserved for those lucky enough to be born with natural talent is patently false.
Regardless of initial talent, I firmly believe that we hold the key to our own success as riders and trainers (and humans) if we take the time to understand and practice the necessary tools.
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