A lot of my riders have been making huge strides in their riding performance recently. I think this is directly related to a newfound dedication of asking the all-important question: what can I do to ride better? And my answer to that is almost universal.
Riding fitness, like any athletic fitness involves a combination of different elements. Dressage riders are athletes! Yet, all of us experience frustration when it comes to that almost magical element called “feel”.
It is fairly simple to settle on four different areas which we regularly work on to improve our dressage riding: Endurance or cardio fitness, balance, coordination of aids, and reaction time or “feel”. If you think about all of your lessons and rides, you can probably easily identify when we are working on each of the first three things. Everyone gets better with practice, and it is easy to see. “Feel” is more elusive, and we only seem to grasp it when we have somehow managed to manifest it and have a brief “wow” feeling that leaves us almost as quickly as we found it.
I do believe “feel” can be learned and improved. Part of it has to do with our reaction time versus that of our horse. I shared a great blog post on reaction time a year ago, but it begs a re-read.
Horses are reportedly 7 times faster than our own reaction time. In fact, of all domestic animals, horses have the very fastest reaction time to a stimulus. Additionally, horses are the fastest learners of all domestic animals and one of the fastest learners of all animal species. We are ridiculously slow compared to them. That makes me want to get better so as not to be such a burden to my beloved mount. Indeed, horses are so magnificent and so forgiving, the more I understand that, the kinder and more sympathetic I become as a rider. Some days, I just thank my horse for putting up with me, and agreeing to be my partner in this athletic endeavor.
The really great thing about horses is that they truly live in the moment, which means that the instant you get it right, they are there for you! Horses are also known to have amazing memories, far better than any of us would guess, so you need to have built some trust in there too.
OK, so here is what I do to improve my reaction time and feel to be the best partner I can for my horse:
First, imagine that you can get better, faster. Believe it. Think about it a lot when you are not riding.
Second, when you ride, don’t think so much! Stop analyzing! Leave your worries behind. Meditate in the saddle, which means when a thought comes in, let it go and go back to sensing your horse. Use your ears to tune into the hoofbeats, his breathing. Use your eyes to read his reactions through his ears and neck muscles. Use your senses in your hands, arms, and shoulders to feel when the slightest change occurs in the contact. Learn to listen to the feedback your horse gives you. They have quite a lot to say if you open up and allow it. Really learn to appreciate the relationship and bond you have with such a magnificent creature. Give up your ego.
When you get there, time stands still and there is no greater experience on the planet than this. You will know what it is to be one with your horse!
Lynn Edgington is one of the owners of and Master Trainers and Instructors with Edgewood Equestrian.