In this excerpt from her new book Essential Horse Speak: Continuing the Conversation, Horse Speak founder Sharon Wilsie explains what we really mean by “feel” when it comes to our horses and how we can improve it in ourselves.
When we talk about “feel” when it comes to horses, we’re talking about more than just the sensory “feel” of limited, body-centered awareness, like you have when balancing a bicycle, walking on a balance beam, or even playing sports. You do not really need empathy to have a better shot in basketball or to ride a bike. Horsemanship, on the other hand, requires more than tactile skills.
Some trainers or instructors may have said to you, “You just need to get the feel.” You may have seen amazing equestrian performances, of either the athletic or entertainment kind, where it certainly looks like the humans involved have some kind of feel. “Finding a feel” has been long associated with the mysteries of attaining “oneness” with a horse. Many books and clinicians, over many years, have tried to illustrate this elusive sensation. The conundrum here is that old saying, which we often hear in relation to feel: “You either have it or you don’t.”
Well, I am not satisfied with that answer. I want all my students to embody that mysterious word, feel, and one of my goals of Horse Speak is to teach it to you! And, if you already have good feel, I want to help you to have great feel.
Treating horseback riding like a mostly tactile skill leaves out the other side of the coin: the fact that both humans and horses are highly emotional creatures. When asked what initially drew them to horses, one of the top reasons people cite is generally something like, “I like how they make me feel,” not, “I like the sensation of using my calf muscles on a horse’s flanks.” What so often happens when learning to ride, however, is the student is told to “make” the horse do whatever it is she wants (trot, for example) and to ignore emotional feelings related to getting a horse to do it (such as kicking). We go to a lesson to feel, and we are often systematically taught not to feel.
What Is “Feel,” Anyway?
When horsemen talk about the word “feel,” they are generally referring to awareness achieved through both proprioception (perception of the body’s balance, locomotion, and physical expression) and sensory perception (processing of input related to the experience the body is having via sight, sound, smell, taste, or touch). Let’s imagine a yard stick. On one end are people who have a difficult time decoding body language, and on the other end are people who are masters of body language. The increments between them indicate the varying degrees of ability to decode and encode body language. In many ways, “feel” is simply the ability of the brain to decode and encode correctly and quickly, along with the understanding of what to do with the coding to further your goals.
For example, if your brain sees an angry human face and responds correctly to that face by staying out of trouble or even preventing trouble from happening, then the next time you see that angry face “brimming” (meaning a second before it even happens), your brain will start initiating the coding process to keep you out of trouble. The physical sensation might be that intuitive “hit” you feel in the pit of your stomach, which seems to help tell you what to do in the situation. Some researchers who study neuroscience and Polyvagal Theory teach that the nerves of the brain are connected to the gut, heart, and lungs via the vagus nerve, and that the vagus nerve plays a role in emotion regulation, social connection, and fear response. This is oversimplifying it, but basically the brain and nervous system do things we do not always know about to ensure our survival. One of those things is to accurately predict outcomes based on subtle signs and cues that our system is “reading” from the world around us. If your eyes perceive movement on the ground that wiggles like a snake, your body is inclined to jump up and away without it being a conscious choice. This is an intuitive reaction to stimulus; however, on more subtle levels, you are also reacting to the messages you have come to believe or been conditioned to respond to from all your sense perceptions all the time
Skill-Builder: Developing Your Feel
When with your horse, ask yourself good questions like:
- How do I feel inside my belly?
- How do I feel inside my heart?
- Do I feel dizzy in the company of this horse, or do I feel centered and calm?
- Am I scooting off into internal dialogue in six seconds, or can I linger longer with these feelings? (We sometime feel uncomfortable trying something new, so we need to be patient with the process and stick with it.)
Assign non-escalating language to what you believe to be your horse’s “moods.” For example, instead of, “He’s angry!” try “He appears to be feeling a level of stress, which I can see due to his facial expressions, the fact that he is holding his breath, and his tense posture.” Or, rather than, “She’s happy!” try, “She appears to be feeling comfortable and relaxed because of her deep breathing, her cocked hind leg, and her droopy ears.”
This language can help you “feel” what your horse really needs and begin to understand how best to react to his state or actions in a moment in time. If you say to yourself, “He appears to be feeling stressed,” you can then consider whether, in response to his mood, you are shutting down, feeling tense, or beginning to feel negative, as well. Likewise, you could sense your body feeling warm and comfortable as you watch your mare in her relaxed state. Cultivating an ability to identify with the horse’s state of being, and then learning to pay attention to the back-and-forth empathetic share, is vital to coming to a more accurate conclusion about what is real for your horse and what is a projection of your own mental or emotional state on him. With practice, this exercise can help you be more “in the ballpark” with regard to what your horse is telling you, giving you better feel in and out of the saddle.