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When Education gets in the way of Education

Published: 5/18/2016
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Editor's Note: Amy Skinner is a regular guest columnist and has been a horse gal since age six. She  runs Essence Horsemanship, rides and teaches English and Western. Skinner has studied at the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art in Spain, with Buck Brannaman, Leslie Desmond, Brent Graef, and many others.

Read more about Amy here.

Read more Journals & Journeys here

By Amy Skinner

Bill Dorrance said, “You can’t teach feel, you have to experience it.” 

I like to think I make my living teaching feel. But really, it's an elusive goal. It isn’t that some people are born with this magical, mystical ability while others aren’t.  And it isn’t just about education.

Some of the most talented horsemen and women I know are not well-educated in the classical sense.  On the other hand, I’ve ridden with some highly educated riders who I would not even let lead my horse.  I’ve also ridden with some incredible horse people who flapped their elbows, left their fingers open, and rode with their legs ahead of them as if they were in a Laz-E-Boy.  In other words, they were technically dubious riders. But they had the ability to think, feel, and communicate with their horse. 

Feel is tricky to teach.  I’ve taken riding lessons since I was six years old. It’s taken me these 20 years to learn that in order to learn I have to get out of my head.  I still don’t always do it.  Maybe by the time I’m 90, I’ll be where I hope to be.
I struggle with getting out of my head when taking a lesson.  When I’m worrying about what the people on the other side of the fence think, or when trying to impress or please my instructor, or when feeling doubt about my ability, I am not able to feel. 

As an instructor, it’s incredibly important for me to keep my students in a learning frame of mind. If the rider is not in the moment, they are shut off from feel.  Instructors cannot give you feel, but they can guide you to it. It has to do with observation, open mindedness, and creativity.  

Watch WiseAssWallace discuss Feel.

One of the reasons why systems like Parelli and others are successful is they offer easy-to-follow steps, taking out the guess work.  Even dressage and its levels offer a type of scale that allows people to check their work. 

However if we’re open-minded and observant, we’ll find that these systems and scales don’t fit every horse. If we are going by feel alone, the systems and scales do a tremendous disservice to many horses, as well as the students trying to learn about feel. 
So really, experimentation and creativity are essential qualities for the avid horseman who has to think outside the box in order to find the path needed for their his at each moment. 

One of the most difficult things as an instructor is trying to educate someone who is already educated.  People with academic careers are often very linear thinkers. They can have a hard time thinking creatively.  Also, people who read and study riding and horsemanship can get a set idea about what is “right.”
Yet riding is much like art. You can learn all the rules, but a good artist knows when to break them. 

Feel requires lots of room for mistakes, accidents, and failure.  We can’t be too concerned about messing up, because we can’t know what doesn’t work sometimes until we’ve gone there.  We can’t know the limits until we’ve gone too far. We can never advance until we’ve pushed.

So how do you learn feel? 

-- No, don’t stop taking lessons. 
-- Don’t stop reading.
-- Don’t stop thinking. 

But do get out there and watch your horse. 
Go behind the barn and try new things. Who cares what others think? 
Don’t be afraid to bounce a little, mess up, look stupid, whatever. 

Do you think the “greats” never ruined a horse, got bucked off, cried in their trucks, or went down the wrong road with their horses for too long? 

Feel requires observation, wiggle room, quiet moments watching, and reflection. 
-- Don’t be self-deprecating.
-- Don’t be pompous. 
-- Don’t let your education get in the way of your education.

Listen to your instructor, but throw away what feels wrong.  Your horse knows what’s best and if you watch and listen, so will you. 

Watch WiseAssWallace discuss Feel.
Read what kayaking and soccer have to do with Feel.

View Reader Comments:

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5/19/2016 Rob
This is the best article I've read on the process of finding feel, hope I get there someday because there is no better feeling when you get glimpses of it as a rider. Thank you Amy.
5/19/2016 Betsy Buchanan
Amy, I really appreciate this article. As a long time rider new to feel, I have had to toss out most of what used to be right, and start at the beginning. Next time I cry in my truck, I'll know Tom and Ray and the other greats are with me. Thanks for reminding us to be open to experimentation and failure, and to be gentle with ourselves.
5/19/2016 Amy
wow thank you. Betsy I'm pretty sure I cry in my truck regularly. I wrote this article to remind myself just as much to be easy on myself. I'm glad you guys like it.
5/21/2016 Cheryl
I love this article! I'm trying not to inundate my students with too many facts. I try to teach them balance and feel. I tell them they can start to feel a horses thoughts by being mindful and failing. If you fail at it often enough you will learn what happens before, during and after the failure and you will learn how to fine-tune your corrections. I just tell them to remain calm and mindful. When we think too much or become fearful or frustrated we lose our connection. We need to just be and not expect or force. Riding should always be enjoyable and never a chore.
6/27/2016 Karen
Amy, this is a really good article. Thanks for putting it into words.

"A horse doesn't care how much you know until he knows how much you care." - Pat Parelli