To understand the story behind why we’re writing and publishing this book, you have to understand how biomechanics connects to the ability called Feel. Riding with Feel is vitally important to all great riders and trainers, regardless of discipline. Ray Hunt, Paul Belasik, and Sally Swift have all written about how essential it is for a rider to understand and move with a horse’s own natural movements, which is the physical component of feel.
- “. . . to stop the Journey in the land of technique can be deadly for the growth of the rider. As D.T. Suzuki has suggested, very often people confuse true harmony with tranquility. You will get all the tranquility you need in death. To revere tranquility is to revere death. To revere life is to revere movement, change in all its forms, lovely and frightening. If ever there was a creature of movement it is the horse, whose beauty and grace can be concealed in a stable or at rest, but is revealed in its motion. The art of riding is a celebration of motion, of nature’s rhythms. . .” Paul Belasik, Classical Dressage master. Exploring Dressage Technique: Journeys into the Art of Classical Riding. J.A. Allen, 1994, page 8.
- “When you attain an inner and true balance on a horse, you’ll find yourself riding easily with your center over the horse’s center of gravity, which lies between the stirrup-leathers when they hang straight. You will be balanced over your horse’s center of gravity when your stirrup leathers are perpendicular and your feet are under your center. If you can consistently ride this way, you have gained self-carriage yourself, and can then help your horse to attain the same. . . When the horse has self-carriage . . . [h]is legs seem to swing smoothly and freely from his back. He looks happy. This quality of movement can only be achieved if you give the horse maximum freedom and comfort as he moves. You need your seat, legs, and reins as tools to instruct and help him. . .” Sally Swift, Master Horsewoman. Centered Riding. A Trafalgar Square Farm Book, St. Martin’s Press, 1985. pages 120-122.
- “Keep your horse even and smooth in whatever gait you both go together. One doesn’t go and the other catch up. It’s your idea and the horse’s idea at the same time. . . When you see a horse out in a field or the corral he isn’t bothered. There is no worry. He isn’t sticking his head up in the air, his ears pointing straight up, and standing there stiff and hard. He’s relaxed. This is the mental attitude we want. When you don’t have a soft mental attitude you don’t ask anything of your horse except to relax and feel back to you, to respond to you with confidence. . . You’ve got to be one mind and one body.” Ray Hunt, Western trainer. Think Harmony with Horses. Pioneer Publishing Company, 1978, pages 27 and 87.
Belasik, Swift, and Hunt learned feel through physical experience, by riding for many thousands of hours and developing a perception of horse movement that was and is literally bone-deep. Their writings strive to convey that understanding to those of us who cannot, for practical reasons, spend enough time horseback to develop this sense of feel in our own bodies. Understanding the biomechanics of horse movement and posture, however, helps riders learn feel another way. Once you see how a horse moves its feet in different gaits, for instance, it’s much easier to feel those feet moving as they carry you. And when you can tell which foot is moving when, and understand how that relates to a horse’s windows of opportunity for changing from one gait to another, then you can start to time your request for a gait change so that a horse is literally in the position of being able to respond.
But there’s another aspect to Feel, and it’s one few people talk about: Feel has been extremely difficult to explain or even talk about. A prominent farrier whose work is biomechanically sound expressed this problem very well in a private letter to us after we asked if he’d be interested in making a video tutorial for the book’s supplementary website: “Some thirty years ago a Californian approached me with a similar idea of riding by feel. We talked of writing a book. He found it so difficult to present that he went on to other things. Horses are a hands-on business best taught one-on-one over long periods of time.” What this farrier did not realize is that the problem of communicating Feel is culturally-based. Respected Northern Cheyenne horse trainer Phillip Whiteman, Jr. explains that Tom and Bill Dorrance learned a lot of their horsemanship skills from a Northern Cheyenne Elder. This makes sense for many reasons, not the least of which is that Feel is completely understandable within — and a fundamental expression of — Indigenous worldview. Yet, although the Dorrances were able to learn the skill for themselves and became masters in applying it to help horses and people, they had a difficult time explaining it to people in mainstream culture. That’s to be expected because cross-cultural communication and education are notoriously difficult. So the Dorrances and then their protégé Ray Hunt largely had to rely on creating learning situations that allowed riders to experience Feel for themselves. But of course that only works in the setting of a clinic or private lesson. It can’t, as the farrier wrote us, be easily communicated in writing — unless the writer happens to be Indigenous and has experience in cross-cultural education. Dawn Hill Adams, one of the book’s authors, is not only a biomechanics scientist, she is a registered member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and she specializes in cross-cultural education.
Of course you do still need to learn through riding experience as well. You still need to get on a horse and put in some time there to be a good rider. But the more you understand the biomechanics of horse movement, and the more you understand Feel within Indigenous worldview, the more tools you have to correlate what you’re feeling to what the horse is actually doing. Then you have the insight you need to start moving your own body in unison with the horse’s movements — sensing the horse’s motions through your own bones, muscles, and nervous system and responding as if the horse’s movements were your own. And eventually, once you’re united in that kind of way, the horse can respond to movements of your body, too, lifting or bending or lengthening, fluidly and with willingness, as you shift your balance and move your seat or your legs.
That’s riding with feel. And you can develop feel faster and more easily if you understand the biomechanics of horse movement and the Indigenous concept of Feel.