Looking good

As humans, our eyes are currently our primary method of assessing the world around us.  So much emphasis is placed on how things look.  I sometimes wonder if this isn’t at the expense of some of our other senses. As a bodyworker I use my sense of touch as I palpate, my hearing as a horse trots up and even my sense of smell. Horses with compromised metabolisms tend to smell slightly different to healthy horses!

What’s comforting about visual assessment is it is very easy to classify from an external perspective. Something either looks right or wrong. In our culture there is great importance attached to not only doing right, but also in being seen to do right. And we find great safety in binary choices, yes or no, right or wrong.  But what about our deeper, more amorphous sense of feel? How does it look when something feels right? Sometimes things can feel very different from how they look. And, most relevant to modern competitive dressage, what happens when the culturally accepted “looking right” becomes so detached from what truly feels right that people lose their internal compass.

Work by the Animal Health Trust, Dr Sue Dyson and others on a visual pain scale is doing much to help people relearn an objective assessment of what is really beautiful and what is forced and causing a horse pain.  Here is a 28min podcast with Dr Sue Dyson on her research in forming the pain scale.

In training a horse it is more important to me to work on how a movement feels before I work on how it looks. This is how I ended up teaching ugly shoulder in. The only two beings who truly know what is going on in a conversation are the horse and the rider. From the outside it can look ungainly, but if the rider is deeply connected to the feel of the movements then they are best placed to tell when there is progress towards harmony and when there is discordance. Too many people get too attached to the way their horse’s movements look, and lose sight of the feel of them.

Rollkur is a prime example. Anyone with a feeling heart can see the pain and suffering in the face of a hyper-flexed horse. But it appears that people training this way have shut off their feeling senses in favour of how the horse looks after it is released from  hyperflexion. This is of course an extreme example. However, dressage was at its inception a feeling art.  A way of increasing the appreciation of beauty and harmony in the human. And of increasing the beauty of movements of the horse under saddle. With the modern shift to dressage as a competitive sport where success is mostly determined by how the riding looks, I feel something has been lost.

Does this sentiment resonate with you? If yes and you’d like to find more feel in your riding then what next? First you need to reconnect with your ability to feel things.  The feelings in your gut or in your heart are where most people experience this sense. Working from feel plunges us into a world between right and wrong, into the grey scale. If you as the rider can be the only one to assess whether it feels right, then you need to learn to trust your own judgement.

As an instructor I aim to construct situations in which you are highly likely to experience the necessary feelings so you learn what you are feeling for. The C18th empiricists taught by feel alone. Novices would be sat upon highly trained horses which were then worked in hand beneath them for up to 2 years so they had a full appreciation for their balance.

Balance is essential to feel. If you are mentally or physically out of balance then this skews what you can feel.  The best place to start finding balance is by connecting to your breath. Notice as it flows in and out of your nose and how your diaphragm moves to allow this. Count 10 slow breaths, breath in to a count of 4, hold for 4 and then out for 4, hold for 4, then start again. This very conscious “box breathing” brings your mind to the present. Here is a link to a 6 minute mindful box

breathing exercise I have found a useful daily practice.

Next, take your attention to the area between your heart and diaphragm. You need to calibrate your sense of feel with some extreme marker points to give you reference for your own feelings. Think of something frightening, I like to imagine the jumps at Badminton, and notice any changes in the quality of feel in your body. This gives you one end of the scale. Work through feeling something abhorrent, Big lick training works for me.  Then get the other end and think of something beautiful and something joyful. I remember one perfect gallop up a steep hill on my childhood pony, he really pushed from behind and the power was awesome and marvelous and thrilling all at once. I summitted that hill with the biggest grin of joy.

To calibrate your physical balance the ideal way to learn is on the lunge by deliberately using movements which put you a little out of balance and then refinding it. It is hard in the UK to find good quality lunge lessons.  I always teach lunge and in hand work along side the riding for this very reason, so the horse is sooner or later ready to be used for the rider’s seat work too.  Even for people who don’t ride but enjoy the work in hand, being aware of your physical balance is essential.

Once you are in balance, mentally and physically, you can really start to notice the feelings in yourself as they arise. Each person has their own internal story to connect to different sensations. I tend to feel frustrated when the horse loses its balance. I do not act frustrated (any more), but in noticing that feeling I am able to say “Ah, we are out of balance, lets do something about that”. Also, the balls of my feet press harder in the stirrup when the horse goes on the forehand. It is not my job to hold the horses up, and that pressure in my feet tells me I am starting to act as a counter weight and need to help the horse and myself back to independent balance.

This has ended up being a long one so I’ll finish here with this: for me feel trumps appearance every time. The beauty of this is that when you focus solely on the feel and the harmony, it all starts to look more beautiful organically. I leave you this week with this extract from The Twits by Roald Dahl, illustrated by Quentin Blake.