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Learning to Sense & Feel in the Saddle

Riding with feel is a skill that develops with time in the saddle — but there are exercises that can help you learn faster, such as this one reprinted from from ’50 Best Arena Exercises and Patterns.’

Photo from 50 Best Arena Exercises and Patterns, used with permission.

This exercise from 50 Best Arena Exercises and Patterns by Ann Katrin Querbach develops your feel for the movement and rhythm of your horse. You’ll learn when the horse moves each leg. This is important in order to recognize exactly when an aid should be applied, influencing the movement of a specific leg of the horse to increase the action or bear more weight, respectively.

You need two ground poles and a helper on the ground who can monitor whether or not your feel is accurate. Place the poles at any point on a circle, a few feet off the rail.

1) First, ride around the outside of the poles at the walk. Concentrate on how your pelvis moves in the saddle. You’ll hear this described as a horizontal eight: the pelvis always moves unilaterally slightly upward and forward and slightly downward and backward. When the left side swings forward and upward, the right side swings backward and downward. Ride at the walk until you clearly understand this movement.

2) Concentrate only on one element of the movement, for example, the hip swings forward and to the left. Always when this occurs, the horse is moving his left front leg forward, too. Position a second person on the ground and let them confirm for you whether you can consistently identify when this leg is moving.

3) Once that works, repeat the same process with the horse’s right foreleg. Once you are confident with the forelegs, begin to work at the hind legs. Here, you must have the feeling that your hip bends downward and backward. This means every time your hip moves downward, backward, and to the left, the left hind leg of your horse is moving?

4) Once you’ve mastered this on the left side, begin to work on the right.

5) When you are certain that you can feel each limb of your horse in movement, play a small game with your helper. This person calls out a specific leg of the horse (for example, “Right hind”) and you must call out “Now” every time this leg moves forward. The helper then changes to any other leg and you must again call out.

6) Once you have perfected this, you can take the next step, beginning to ride over the poles on the circle at the walk. Try to identify for your ground person which of the horse’s front legs crosses over each pole first. Once you’ve got that, tell her which hind leg is crossing over each pole first. The goal is to feel when a specific leg of the horse moves over the obstacle.

7) When you have also mastered this exercise, you can again go one step farther. Before the horse crosses the pole, try to feel the distance at which he has arrived there. Is he too far away and, therefore, has to take an extra-long stride? Is he too close and can only fit in a tiny step? In both cases, you should feel that the rhythm is briefly broken. Or, is the distance correct and you consistently have the right distance to the pole?

8) Once you have successfully completed this exercise at the walk, you can try at other gaits.

What if you feel the individual legs incorrectly or too late?

Practice makes perfect, so don’t give up and do allow a second person to help you. Concentrate on one specific leg. Allow the second person to tell you when this leg is moving and try to feel what your pelvis is doing in this moment. Eventually, you will be able to link your body awareness with the moving leg.

What if your horse always has an incorrect distance from the poles?

In this case, you should really frame your horse with your leg aids and plan your path ahead. Count how many strides your horse needs to take along the correct path and for the right distance, and hold to this count as you ride between the poles. To do this, you may have to drive your horse forward or take him back a bit. This advice is based on the assumption that there is an even distance between the poles.

This excerpt from 50 Best Arena Exercises and Patterns by Ann Katrin Querbach is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books (www.horseandriderbooks.com).

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