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Learning Feel

Written by Wendy Murdoch

This article originally appeared in Eclectic Horseman Issue No.51

For over 20 years I have taught the biomechanics or “how” of riding. The position of the rider’s body is key to good balance and timing. Sitting crooked in the saddle creates excess tension in your muscles, which is counterproductive to good riding. When you sit in line with gravity, there is less muscular effort needed and you are mentally available to focus on what you want to do rather than just hanging on. 

Once you are in good balance, the ability to time your aids within the movement of the horse is much easier because you are more “available” to respond to what is happening underneath you. Timing requires the presence of mind and body to observe what is happening in the moment. Through teaching balance and timing many of my students have learned to have a better sense of feel.

Feel seems to be the Holy Grail of riding. It is an illusive factor that riders believe they have or don’t have and/or may never attain without tremendous effort. It is often presented as mysterious, difficult to attain and illusive; a concept that can only be accomplished with great effort and countless hours of struggling, searching and grappling with something that cannot be described or explained. As horsemen we must pursue this Holy Grail called feel while recognizing that our fate may be the same as those of the Knights of the Round Table, forever searching and never finding.

As a result of this belief it is often accepted that feel cannot be taught. It is something you were born with; you either have it or you don’t. If you are lucky, you have it. If not, you are destined to a life of struggle without success. And until now, there hasn’t been a good way to teach feel. Recently however, science has discovered a simple technique to reduce stress, which surprisingly teaches feel. I have been using this technique with my students and have come to believe that anyone can learn to have feel.

To be clear, I define feel as the ability to sense what the horse is doing as he is doing it within the present moment and respond appropriately. Feel is something we perceive with our senses and may include all 5 (touch, see, smell, hear and taste) individually or in combination. With feel you can give your horse the appropriate aid or release at that critical moment so that he can respond by doing what you want him to do with a minimum of effort. You catch him at the precise moment to make the thing you want him to do easy and obvious. The horse doesn’t feel pressured or stressed because he is available at that moment to do what you request.

Someone who lacks or has poor feel appears to have no clue whether the horse is ready or capable of doing something at any particular moment or not. The person with poor feel often over analyzes (instead of senses) the situation, therefore she is not available when the horse might be ready. A person with poor feel is going to need a lot more force to get the horse to respond appropriately, if at all. Many riders lack feel because they get in their own way by over thinking, self-doubt and the belief that they can’t feel. In most cases these issues can be resolved because feel is innate to humans.

Feel is a matter of paying close attention (to oneself as well as the horse) to what is happening in the present moment and acting accordingly. It is critical to be present, a moment in time between past and future (the here and now). The more calm, focused, and attentive you are, the more present you will be in any given moment. For example, I was extremely present when a deer jumped onto the road and slammed into the front left side of my new car. Everything slowed down and I can still see the look in the deer’s eye when it landed in front of me. The more senses you involve, the more present you will be in any given situation. Past/future thinking obstructs feel because you get caught up in “what might happen” in the future or “what did happen” in the past. Analytical thinking inhibits your ability to sense the world around you; therefore, it diminishes or eliminates your ability to feel.

Feel-think

Many riders can sense but do not have feel because they disconnect the process of feeling (sensing) and action. These riders believe they cannot feel because they are unable to get the horse to respond and do what they want. The problem is not in feeling but in taking appropriate action. The rider feels what is happening (i.e. my horse just raised his back), over-thinks and then reacts with negative emotions (generally fear or anger). The thoughts and emotions are related to the past (“I got dumped”), the future (“He might run away with me”) or expectations (“He better not make me look bad, damn it!”). I call this behavior feel – think. The rider feels what the horse is doing and then goes into her head to analyze, process, consider all the possibilities that might, did or should happen, then determine which of them she should do and how to do it (raise this hand, use this leg, make my horse yield, etc.) before doing something about what she felt in that moment. Obviously by the time she acts (or doesn’t act because she has become paralyzed by her thoughts), the moment is gone. Any action she does take will “fall on deaf ears” because it is too late.

Feel-do

People who feel-think may be able to sense as much as riders who have feel. The difference is that riders with good feel act on what they feel instead of think. They never stop to consider if they should respond– they simply do what is necessary to make the appropriate change in the horse. This is why riders with feel are able to achieve positive results quickly and efficiently; there is no hesitation or doubt between feeling and action. I call this feel-do. The rider acts (not reacts, which is based in negative emotions) on the feelings coming in through the senses in the present moment.

Unfortunately feeling riders cannot bottle their experience and confidence for sale. For the most part the rest of the riding population makes slow progress or remains stuck in the negative self-view that they lack or have poor feel. However, I have developed a technique that quickly, easily and effectively teaches riders how to have good feel in as little as 15 minutes. This technique is based on Heart Math, tools designed to reduce stress and enhance well-being, and is effective because it teaches you where and how to tune in for both feeling and action.

Heart Math

Feel–do is based on Heart Math—accessing the heart’s intelligence to improve focus and creativity. In the book, Heart Math Solution, the authors, Doc Childre and Howard Martin, talk about the negative effects of stress on the body. Heart Math was designed to decrease stress. Through research it was discovered that your heart has a small nervous system that can be regulated by your breathing. This heart intelligence can in turn regulate the brain. “Heart intelligence provides an intuitive, direct knowingness that’s an essential aspect of our overall intelligence.”

Heart Math is based on altering your heart rate variation (HRV). When you take your pulse you are looking at an average number of beats per minute. HRV looks at the time interval between heartbeats. When you are stressed the distance between the beats is very irregular. Childre and Martin describe how “disharmony in our heart rhythms leads to inefficiency and increased stress on the heart and other organs while harmonious rhythms are more efficient and less stressful on the body’s systems.”

Childre and Martin use the term “coherence” to describe the heartbeat when the distance between the beats enters a rhythmic sinus rhythm. “Internal coherence within an individual can be measured by monitoring the heart’s rhythmic patterns. When a system is coherent, virtually no energy is wasted; power is maximized. Coherence is efficiency in action. Coherent people thrive mentally, emotionally, and physically. They have power to adapt, to innovate. As a result, they experience little stress.” [These] “Positive emotional states are rewarding and regenerative to the heart, immune system, and hormonal system, while negative emotions drain these same systems.”

Heart Math teaches you how to alter your HRV so that you can move from a stressed state to heart coherence. I have adapted the technique to riding and use the term “Heart Space” to refer to the term “heart coherence” (it’s easier to yell across an arena). When the rider is in her Heart Space she is able to feel what the horse is doing and respond without the questioning doubt or analytical thinking often accompanied with most riders. By accessing the intuitive part of your brain, you will remain present with the horse and respond appropriately to any situation.

How to Feel – Do 

  • The first step is becoming present. To do this, I use a Heart Math technique.
  • Place one hand on area around your heart.
  • Imagine breathing through your heart.
  • Breathe in and out slowly to the count of 5.
  • Have a sense of appreciation or gratitude (a positive)
  • emotion as you breathe.
  • Continue with this breathing while you:
  • Notice a feeling of calm awareness when in your Heart Space.
  • Create a “button” that immediately connects you with this positive calm feeling.
  • Take your hand away from your heart area while retaining the feeling.
  • Mount your horse, walk, trot and canter.
  • Notice what happens to your horse.

If you leave your Heart Space, simply touch your heart area, recall your “button” and breathe with appreciation to reconnect. In the beginning you may feel a little tension around your heart. This is fine as long as it is not too uncomfortable. If breathing to the count of 5 is difficult, then find a rhythmic breathing that is comfortable for you. Generally after about 5 to 10 minutes of breathing with a positive emotion you will be ready for the next step. Of course with practice you get better and better at going to your Heart Space. You can use this technique on and off your horse to develop the habit. I practice while driving my car.

Ask a question

While breathing into your Heart Space ask yourself the following question: “If there was one thing I could do to make ‘this’ better, what would it be?”

“This” could be anything from improving your horse’s walk, picking up the canter, stopping, riding a circle, or dealing with work, etc. Notice that the question says “better” not perfect. It is critical that you only want to improve what is happening, not fix it. Trying to fix something implies that it is broken. You simply want to improve on the situation, which allows for small incremental changes.

Asking a question helps you observe what is happening and clarifies what you sense and feel. You have to notice something in order to be inquisitive enough to ask a question. If you are unable to form a question, go back to your Heart Space and begin again. When you can ask a question, you are aware of what is happening in the present. This creates an opportunity for change. If you can’t recognize what is going on, how will you know what to do or when it is better? As an example: you are riding in the arena. You begin to breathe into your Heart Space. You become aware that your horse is walking slowly; therefore, you ask, “What is one thing I can do to improve the walk?”

It is critical that you ask, “What is the ONE thing….” By one thing, I mean something as isolated as moving your pinky finger to something as comprehensive as moving your entire body. By the way, this technique is not about meditation where everything is peaceful and quiet; it is unlocking your potential. Therefore the answer could be anything from do nothing to smash the horse with your whip. The action is not a judgment of right and wrong but what is needed in this moment to fulfill the answer to your question. If you put constraints on the answer, you (“I don’t want to kick my horse”) you are in thinking (not feeling) mode. Go back to step one (breathing) and begin again.

Listen for the answer

The answer to your question will come from your Heart Space. The answer may take a minute, a day, a week or a month to come to you. There is no time limit on receiving the answer. Once you put a time limit on getting an answer you are no longer in your Heart Space.  The answer is always simple, easy and within your means. You have the ability and skill to do the answer. The answer will never be complex, involved or beyond what you are capable of doing. If you hear an answer that is multiple parts (use this leg, rein here and that rein there) it is not one thing nor is it from your Heart Space. Instead it is from your thinking/analyzing mode. You are in feel-think. Go back to your breathing and begin again until the answer comes from your Heart Space.

Do whatever the answer is

Once you get an answer, act on it. If the answer is do nothing then that’s what you do. If it is to breathe, that’s what you do. If it is to kick your horse in the guts then do that! If your answer is from your Heart Space your horse will not take offense. The answer from your Heart Space is always some type of action or the absence of action. It is never a rationalization, which would be from your “busy brain.”

Listen to the response

Once you have taken the action you need to continue to be present to feel the response. It is extremely important to acknowledge any change, good, bad or otherwise to your action. It is also important to keep that feeling of appreciation and “thank” your horse for responding. I find that when riders keep the appreciation they are able to sense small changes. But many riders feel the improvement and then discount it as not enough, not right, not good enough. If this is the case you are no longer in your Heart Space. When you judge the response, you have changed the rules, which makes it impossible for the horse to ever improve.

As an example, I had one student who had a sluggish horse. From her Heart Space she asked how to get him going. Her answer was hit him with the stick. She did and he made a small improvement, which she didn’t acknowledge. When I pointed out that I saw something happen, she then qualified her answer by saying yes, she felt that, but it wasn’t enough. Once we clarified how she was not acknowledging the horse for his efforts (essentially not saying “thank you” for the change he did make), she was able to completely change the walk and no longer needed the stick. The key was to acknowledge what did happen by remaining present (in her Heart Space) with a feeling of gratitude toward the horse no matter how small the effort on his part.

Once you have gone through the cycle, repeat by listening again. Notice the response to your feel-do action. Then if you are still in your Heart Space, either ask the same question again if you want a bit more improvement, or ask a new question. If you are in the present, you will know which you want to do. The key is to ask a question.

As an observer it becomes extremely obvious when a rider is in her Heart Space or in thinking mode. The horses recognize the difference too! Riders who are in their Heart Space are calm, focused, present and aware of their surroundings. Those riders who are in their busy brain often look tense, drop their gaze and have a general sense of anxiety. The horse will also appear nervous and tense while the rider is thinking, but the horse of the Heart Space rider will be calm and focused.

The horse’s heart space

Once you can get to your Heart Space, check to see if your horse is stressed (looking for something to shy at, distracted, anxious, nervous) or calm. If so, imagine your horse’s Heart Space, a calm place where the horse is not stressed. The evidence for doing this comes from Heart Math. When one person is in heart coherence and she holds hands with someone else, that other person will enter coherence. When we are riding we are “holding hands” with our horses the entire time so we can entrain them to our heart rhythm. Horse and rider achieve a level of peaceful calm focus when both are in their Heart Space.

If you are interested in learning more about heart coherence, I suggest you read the book Heart Math Solution, available on Amazon.com. If you would like an EmWave Personal Stress Reliever hand-held biofeedback unit, you may order those through my Web site: www.murdochmethod.com

This article originally appeared in Eclectic Horseman Issue No.51

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Wendy Murdoch

Wendy Murdoch has ridden since childhood in a variety of disciplines including Hunters, Dressage, Eventing, and Reining. Wendy has been teaching internationally for over 20 years. Her goal is to make riding more enjoyable and fundamentally simple by showing her students how to achieve what great riders do naturally. Learn more: www.murdochmethod.com