FEEL: An Amateur’s Lessons in Dressage

Photo by Katie Lewis.

By Janet Teodori

Feel is at the heart of every sport. The feel of the sweet spot on the tennis racket, the effortless effort of a perfect golf swing, the rhythm of one’s strokes in swimming a length and the flowing turn at the wall, the catch of the wave to surf, the freedom of a smooth, downhill ski run. No matter what our sport, feel is what we strive for. It feels like “flow.” It tells us that we are fully connected to what we are doing and is a great source of pleasure. 

I have come to understand that riding is also about discovering feel. Yes, we have to hold our reins a certain length and height above the withers, but what we really seek is that “elastic feel” that tells us we are connected to the horse. A trainer can tell me to hold my reins “shorter,” but she can’t really help me find that feeling of elasticity. She describes it and lets me know it is out there, but it is up to me to find it. 

So much of riding is about feel: the horse being on the bit; riding inside leg to outside rein; the horse being in front of your leg; the horse carrying you and pushing from behind; the horse going uphill; the horse lifting into the canter. And there is more. 

How does one learn this? When I started riding, I read many books and watched many instructional videos. A good “left brain” workout. It did not surprise me that in all my studying, I had not learned the feel of what was being described. I knew the verbiage to describe a skill but could not feel what I was describing. The words were, in a sense, empty of feeling. 

My riding career has been a search for the feel my trainers have spoken of. Often, getting there has been trial and error. Perhaps I felt something that was correct but did not know how I’d found it. After many trials, perhaps I thought I finally “had the feel,” only to seek the next level of skill and realize how elementary my initial perception had been. 

Given that my trainers have told me the “feel” I should be looking for and even how to use my seat, legs, and hands, how can I improve my ability to actually feel these feelings they speak of?  

The “feel” is what we seek, and “feeling” is what we must do in order to find it. 

In exploring this issue, I referred to the classical dressage training scale. Colonel Burkner, in 1953, described “The Requirements of a Well-Trained Dressage Horse” in the form of a Training Scale for the horse. Classical dressage training results in achieving a certain “feel” from the horse. Rhythm and relaxation, suppleness, contact, straightness, impulsion, and collection: these were all the physical capabilities of a horse that impart a distinct feeling to the rider. I have often heard accomplished riders use the language of “feel,” whatever level of the training scale they were referring to.

Is the “feel” that a rider obtains merely the result of having greater skill? Or, does my inability to feel actually limit my skill, and, thus, chances of success? Which comes first: the personal capacity to “feel” or the technical ability to create the feel? Or are both interconnected? If I could improve my capacity to feel, could I improve my riding, as well as the joy I experience in every ride? Can I train myself to be more “feeling” and have that help in my practice? How might we all, as riders, apply the Classical Training Scale to ourselves in this endeavor? 

As I apply the Training Scale to the rider, I realize that all six elements have a physical and a mental component. 


1. Rhythm 

The rhythm of riding is not unlike the rhythm of a dance. Each gait (walk, trot, and canter) has a unique rhythm: four grounded beats for the walk and two for the trot, while the canter has three grounded beats and a suspension phase. These beats must come in succession, as with a metronome. How well we can support our horse in maintaining rhythm depends on our own ability to feel it. We can actually use a metronome to help us appreciate a steady, unvarying rhythm.  

The speed with which one beat follows another in any given rhythm is the tempo. This can be adjusted on the metronome to match the most comfortable tempo for each gait of your horse. For every given gait, whether collected or extended, its rhythm and tempo must remain the same. Sometimes, riders need to work on finding this feeling because our natural tendency is to slow down for collection and speed up for extension. Even though more or less ground is covered with each step in extension and collection, the feel of a consistent rhythm should be maintained. 

Consider: as you notice yourself walking or running, can you feel your own rhythm? How consistent is it? When we transition from running to walking, do we just collapse into the walk, or do the steps become progressively shorter until finally, we are running at the speed of the walk, and the walk develops gracefully? This is what we ask of our horses; can we feel this in our own bodies? 

The mental aspect also comes into play: how do your emotions impact your ability to feel and maintain rhythm? If you are happy and energetic or nervous, do you tend to rush? When you feel sad or deflated, do you have a hard time keeping up the pace? The metronome beats on, regardless of our emotions, but we may lose that mental awareness when emotion becomes strong. And, our emotions may carry us away from the feel of our horse. Focusing on the rhythm then becomes a mental task. Our horse will actually join us if we keep the rhythm in our own mind.

2. Suppleness

Suppleness is based on relaxation and flexibility of movement, as well as relaxation and flexibility of mind. There is a mind and body component to suppleness for both horse and rider. It is impossible to be supple in your body if you aren’t first relaxed in your mind. When you ride, internal chatter about judgments, past or future events, or gossip tends to close your mind and remove you from the “here and now” with your horse. 

Mental relaxation for the rider entails a calm, open awareness. Meditation or hypnosis can often be helpful in training the mind to remain focused during the ride. Sometimes, a mantra, such as “as I get in the saddle, I am focused on my horse,” can be spoken. As in meditation, we may need to pull our minds back from wandering multiple times. 

When we are relaxed mentally, we have the chance to feel how our horse feels: does he give his head with gentle pressure on the rein? Is his barrel moving side to side? Do his hips swing?  

The same physical suppleness we seek in the horse is also required of the rider. How supple are we as riders? Consider: are you holding tension in your own body which needs to find release? Do your hips and arms equally swing as you walk? When you sit (or drive a car), can you feel whether both seatbones carry equal weight? Can you rotate at the waist equally in both directions? Are you able to do a concentrated activity with one hand without the other hand mirroring the movement? How strange does it feel to perform non-habitual movements, such as interlocking fingers the opposite way, taking the first step onto a stairway with the other foot, or getting up from the floor toward the right instead of left? How differently do the two sides of your body function – think of handwriting, eating, and performing daily tasks.  

We ask the horse to be relaxed and supple, but we must also ask this of ourselves. What can we do to achieve physical and mental suppleness ourselves? 

3. Contact 

What does it mean to be able to “maintain contact” as a rider? Contact describes a steady feel of the reins, appropriate for the horse, which is predictable and constant; A reassuring “holding of hands”: no pulling, no jerking. From that consistent feel, the rider has the opportunity to make fine adjustments in the moment so that the horse will understand.  

What does “good contact” feel like for your horse? Does he prefer very light contact or heavier pressure? Ideally, you work with your trainer to determine the proper “feel” of the reins for your horse. 

When the trainer says, just hold the weight of the reins, or you need five pounds of pressure, learn what that feels like and believe it. Good contact requires your ability to find the feel of “holding hands” that makes your horse most comfortable. Too much or too little pressure can make the difference between a “good” or “bad” ride and a happy or unhappy horse.  

A rider’s ability to have proper contact with the horse does not depend just on finding the feeling of the reins’ weight. It also depends on their commitment, presence, and relationship; developing these is the rider’s responsibility to bring to the horse. These are the mental components of “contact.” Is the rider mentally prepared for a relationship with their horse? It is a commitment to being our horse’s partner and guide. Consider: do we give up if he shows resistance? Can we compose ourselves when he spooks? Do we panic or react with anger when things go wrong?  

Having contact is dependent on opening our minds to the horse. Listen to the horse through the feel of his body and his energy. His body energy reflects what is going on in his mind. What is your horse saying at this moment? Is he happy, distressed, or nervous? Can you feel what your horse needs at any time? He always needs from us the feeling of “I am here with you.”  

Contact with the horse has some physical and mental requirements of the rider that may need attention in order to bring greater success to the horse’s training.  

4. Impulsion 

Training impulsion in the horse depends on the rider’s ability to feel it. What is impulsion? In impulsion, the horse’s energy comes from the hind legs. Do you know what that feels like? Many of us are used to a horse who pulls himself along from the front end, dragging his hind end behind him. Here, we may feel like we are being pulled along, as if by rope, downhill. And yet, we desire the feeling of going uphill with a horse that pushes his body forward from the rear and carries us “like a queen”! 

Our responsibility as riders is to know the feeling of power from the horse’s hind legs, uphill balance, and being carried. We must first find the feeling, recognize that we have found it, and learn how to create it with our horse. Once we know these feelings, we will expect them and settle for no less.  

But, a comparable attribute to impulsion that riders must learn is maintaining a degree of energy and intention in our own bodies and minds. Can you feel the change in your energy levels during various times while you are riding? Does your walk phase have less energy than trot, or trot less than canter? When you halt, do you slouch and “take a break” or remain engaged for more? Your energy for the ride should be maintained across the gaits, just as you want the horse to do. 

As riders, we have a responsibility to correct the horse when his energy tapers off and insist on his moving from the hind end to carry us. To do this, we must maintain our own energy. 

Check your own feelings in this regard, because your horse will feel in his body what you feel in your body. Stay engaged with the partnership. Your horse’s energy will join up to your own. 

5. Straightness 

(Erik Herbermann [pupil of the famous Egan von Niendorf] placed straightness before impulsion. His argument was that impulsion is impossible with a horse that is not straight. However, most trainers place straightness before collection, as we have done here.) 

A horse is naturally crooked. His hind end is wider than his front end. He also may be stronger on one side than the other or more coordinated, just as people are. 

As we advance on the training scale, we ask our horses to be straight, but are we straight? Do we use one hand preferentially to the other? Yes. We are either right-handed or left-handed; few of us are truly ambidextrous. Do we preferentially carry weight in one arm or on one side of our body? Pay attention to how you carry your groceries, purse, books, or a child in your arms. Do we prefer to step with one foot first when going upstairs or to kick a ball? Yes. We are not functionally symmetric or any more straight than our horse is.  

How can we feel our horse’s straightness if we are not straight? Our responsibility is to do our best to become straight in our own bodies; to be able to use either hand or leg independently, as is needed; to maintain upright balance in the saddle with equal weight on both seat bones; and to function more symmetrically on both sides of our bodies.  

We may need the support of physical therapists, chiropractors, or neuromuscular massage specialists to help us with this. Rolfing or Feldenkrais’ practice may help change our body awareness. However, it requires a certain mental discipline to become aware of and learn to release old body habits. Any physical change from habitual patterns feels uncomfortable, and our unconscious resistance to change may be strong.  

Learning to feel these aspects of ourselves and resolve them is part of our training.

6. Collection

Collection puts significant requirements on the horse’s development along the training scale, but it also places new requirements on the rider. 

In collection, the horse’s energy is maintained in a smaller frame. The horse’s body appears shorter, but the same high energy is contained in a smaller package. It is a powerful, rather than weaker, frame, as is a coil that would spring out if released. Horses need to be trained to accomplish this, as it requires much strength. Often, we riders tend to reduce our horse’s energy as the steps shorten. When energy is not conserved, we lose the element of “lift.” One of the rider’s responsibilities is to learn to feel this conservation of energy so that collection is lifted, active, and energetic rather than more sedate.  

The other feeling new to collection is “riding from the seat.” With collection, your legs and hands are less important than your seat. Finding the muscles that constitute “the seat” and learning how to use them are necessary for creating collection. You develop the feeling that you and your horse are connected through your seat, or “plugged in,” as Jane Savoie teaches. This is when you truly start to feel that you are in control of each step of the horse; closure through your seat lifts him into collection, and the change in scope of your hip movement determines the opening and closing of his frame. Only with this new feeling of riding from the seat can true collection be ridden.  

This feeling is not easy for riders to find, nor easy to master. This is where the mental component comes in. It requires sensitivity and discipline on the rider’s part to transition from “no seat” to “seat” because it is definitely less familiar and more subtle. Once we have found this feeling, we must determine to practice it until it becomes a habit. In achieving this, we have progressed in the training scale along with our horse. 

In conclusion, riding is an expression of progressively finer nuance in physical and mental communication with a horse. The mastery of feel is necessary for the mastery of riding. Using feel to discern the physical and mental restrictions of our own bodies and minds and working to improve them may be important ingredients towards improving the riding partnership with our horse.  

Much is written about how to improve a horse along the training scale. In this brief article, I have highlighted the ways in which we riders might apply the Classical Training Scale to ourselves and train towards a greater feel in riding as we endeavor to train our horses. We may need to pull this training together from various sources: self-reflection, therapy, hypnosis, meditation, Feldenkrais, Rolfing, and Somatics all come to mind. May we all learn to feel as deeply as we can, and enjoy the ride.

About the Author

Janet Teodori is a USDF Bronze Medalist, Level 3 – 4 rosettes, showing at Fourth Level. She trains in Arizona, with Laura DeCesari and Ellie Stine-Masek, on her horse, Lexicon. The original concept for the article stemmed from a question asked of me in 2017 by Beth Baumert, “What is the difference between amateur and professional riders?, and I answered, “Feel.”

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