Feel- Part 6 The Rider Training Scale

As equestrian enthusiasts we should all understand the principles of riding and the training scale for the development and education of our horses. What is not often discussed is that there is also a ridden scale of training that assists rider progression in the development of an independent seat.

Over the next few months I hope to explain and break down the Rider Training Scale from a physiotherapy perspective giving you insight into becoming a more effective and efficient rider.

The 6 Elements are:

  • Balance
  • Flexibility
  • Rhythm
  • Coordination & Proprioception
  • Contact & Dexterity
  • Feeling

Let’s talk Feeling

Great riders are great because of their ability to quickly react to the horse’s actions in a way that’s effective, efficient and soft. They need more than just technical proficiency; they need a feeling for the horse and a feeling for their actions in the saddle. Feeling makes riding look effortless and makes riding a dance and not tug of war with the horse. To have feel is an art and is developed over countless hours of saddle time. It is the hardest of the skills to teach but feeling can be learned through repetition of perfect practice. It’s important that instructors don’t always focus on the horse but work towards rider position and the rider’s ability to develop feel. As discussed in previous blogs developing Balance, Flexibility, Rhythm, Coordination and Contact create the stepping stones to learn Feeling. Developing an independent seat and independent hands is the secret in allowing the horse to move underneath you and into the bridle.

The term ‘feeling’ applies to the awareness of the movements of our joints and the tension in our muscles during the movement of the horse. The rider’s sense of feeling is more complex than many other athletes because of the need to process the added reactions of the horse’s movements on top of their own body’s awareness. At the beginning of the training scale, the rider needs to develop feel for the regularity of the walk, trot and canter. A rider that is stiff and holds tension is unable to achieve the same sense of movement that is happening from the horse.

It is important that the rider can self-reflect and evaluate their riding to develop awareness and feeling. Visual feedback, such as video sessions are helpful, as is an evaluation by a physiotherapist to help strengthen and develop key areas for the individual rider. The rider needs to develop an intrinsic or automatic feeling and be able to react quickly and appropriately at that moment. It is the internal, intrinsic feedback that develops the sense of feeling in the rider.

Feeling is strongly linked with developing a correct contact and outline for the horse. Feeling the horse’s correct contact and frame is a whole body experience not just what is felt in the hands.

To achieve correct outline in a working frame the horse needs to reach forward into the contact. The horse needs to be actively working from behind and seeking to reach forward with its whole body to meet the rider’s hands at the end of the bit.

Initiating the horse’s reaction by asking for more impulsion from the legs and seat and then allowing the energy over the horse’s back and into the hands is the aim. Create a millimeter of space, without dropping the reins for the horse to reach toward. If you, the rider, feel your horse surge forward into a rounder body outline, with the feeling of lifting the back underneath, the rider will know they are on the right track. Having feeling is being honest with yourself. The horse will always give the rider the appropriate feedback by its actions and responses to aids.

What limits our ability to feel :

In our bodies:

  • Pain
  • Balance problems
  • Stiffness
  • Hyper mobility
  • Asymmetry
  • Muscle imbalances
  • Poor proprioception

Having control over our body is no easy thing to master. We all have preferred sides, right hand/ left hand dominances, differing degrees of flexibility, different body weights, sizes and shapes. As an individual we need to maser our own body and riding position and improve our personal weaknesses to become ambidextrous. Home programs, exercises, stretching and strengthening work allows us to train our own bodies to be better in the saddle. This have been discussed in my previous blogs.

In our minds:

  • Fear
  • Over Thinking

I am sure we are all familiar with the sense that sometimes our head gets in the way and limits our ability to ride well. Fear and over thinking lead to body tension and prevent us from properly ‘feeling’ the horse. We will ride well only when we can relax and control our bodies correctly. Why does it go so well at home but then at a competition it all falls apart? Our nervous energy and our clouded mind prevent us from performing at our best and our horses sense our nervousness and also react to it. Deep correct breathing, positive thinking and motivating thoughts are strategies in combatting our own fears and help us ride at our best.

The ridden scale of training in the development of an independent seat is certainly a journey. It is excruciatingly hard, tedious and repetitive. It is forever changing, always challenging but the most rewarding feeling when riding. The ability to ride correctly with our core and not our hands makes riding beautiful and creates a true partnership with our horse. Keep trying and keep practicing as the results are wonderful.

REMEMBER how important it is for your body to be correct in the saddle to complete the elements of The Rider Training Scale. If you are needing some help please call to arrange a private consultation.

Kate Howland
Equestrian Physiotherapy Services
BSc. Physio



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Kate Howland

Kate caught the dressage bug while studying her Physiotherapy degree. To improve her riding she moved to the UK in 2008 to work as a pupil for Grand Prix Rider Tina Layton and also the world renowned Eilberg Family at Pink Green Dressage Farm. In the UK she was able to develop her riding and also her skills and knowledge working and caring for performance equestrian athletes and the detailed management they require. She was also working with equestrian physiotherapists as part of the United Kingdom World Class Squad. She has also completed further training at the College of Animal Physiotherapy United Kingdom and with the Australian Physiotherapy Association. Kate still loves riding and competing in Western Australia and have an 8 year old warmblood gelding Rhonjelco who she has trained through the grades since he was 3. She looks forward to competing him at medium/ advanced level in 2016.