Why can’t my horse do what we did the other day? It’s like he forgot everything he learnt and it’s so frustrating! It feels like we’re moving so slowly. These are issues I’ve experienced riders struggle with recently. It is easy to forget that when a horse greets us, they aren’t thinking about achieving a perfect piaffe. They aren’t scheming about pushing the envelope to jump 1.5m today when they only just did 50cm the other day. They don’t have aspirations like we do.
There’s a saying that living in the past brings sadness, living in the future brings anxiety and only in living in the preset can we find contentment. We’re complex creatures, but we are predictable. Often when we’re with our horses, we’re stressing about a past session that maybe didn’t go so well, or we’re trying to recreate a moment of bliss we experienced in a past session. If we’re thinking about the future (with “hard eyes”), we might be fixed on that ultimate goal of jumping higher today than we did yesterday, running faster today than we did the other day, or getting a few steps of perfect half pass today when our horse gave us a glimmer of lateral movement two days ago. Being too focussed on an end goal can sometimes distort our balance and prevent us from feeling exactly what the horse is offering now, in this moment, while he/she breathes and moves underneath or around us.
Sometimes a horse’s mind is ready to learn something, but their body is not. Imagine you’re learning to do the splits. If you are largely inflexible like I am, you would not dream of immediately doing a death drop into the splits – you would break and quite possibly never be able to get up again. I know my remains would have to be peeled off the floor, carefully packaged and transported to the nearest emergency room! It’s the same for the horse. Sometimes their mind has learnt the lesson and is receiving the question from you, but they need to reach a higher level of strength, coordination or suppleness to answer the question. Perhaps they have taken strain from previous attempts and need time to recover. This is where “drill work” will not help. The converse could also be true – and I see this very often with young horses starting out – perhaps their body is capable, due to careful conditioning over a period of time, but their minds are just not quite there yet. Even in seasoned horses, this is one of the main problems I see. Many “problem horses” are merely horses who have not learned that they are able to think through problems and respond appropriately rather than defensively. Often the handler also hasn’t been clear in their own mind about how they would like to help the horse reach an answer.
Feel is about being able to sense in the present moment what it is that the horse’s body and spirit are saying to you. It is listening with your body before reacting and it is the ability to provide and receive feedback in a receptive, relaxed state, such that the relay of messages becomes imperceivable by the average onlooker. In equestrian art, when feel is mastered, harmony blossoms. This, to me, is a much more fulfilling goal to achieve than any single task we could possibly assign ourself or our horse. Nevertheless, even the most task-orientated equestrian could benefit from keeping conscientious feel in their mind as they pursue their goals.