Riding: If We Can’t Feel It, We Can’t Fix It.



After the last blog, a friend/trainer thought legs should have been mentioned. Or as she put it, “‘The Mechanical Leg?’ It taps and bumps and wiggles and kicks and urges the horse along just due to habit and maybe some well-intentioned but less well educated former trainer’s instruction.” She’s totally right.

Over the years, I’ve ranted blogged about legs and seats and it might be time again, but then I had a thought… and if there is an advantage to writing a few hundred blogs, this is it: You have to find different ways to say the same thing, hoping to be heard differently. Because nagging horses with your same banging leg isn’t more effective than nagging riders with the same over-used words. (It ends up riding and writing have more in common than you’d think.)

Start here: Horses have bad days. People, too. You really hope the two things don’t collide at the same time, but if they do, there will be people watching. For the same reason, if you have the most balanced sensitive ride ever, there will be no sign of people for hours afterward. It’s either a cosmic sense of humor or fodder for paranoia, depending on your blood sugar level.

Poor riding is always easiest to see from the cheap seats, which are defined as any place other than the saddle of said horse. Railbirds who judge from the ground don’t usually have bad intent, it’s more like a morbid curiosity. They just can’t take their eyes away because if it hasn’t happened to them recently, they think it might soon. Define railbird as you when you aren’t in the saddle of said horse.

This line of demarcation between riders and railbirds feels painful and huge in the moment. Riders tell me that peer pressure hurts, but peel back the emotion, and the difference between the sides is proximity to the mounting block. Meaning that the riders on the ground see what looks obvious, but when in the saddle, don’t manage to do better, as the current railbirds will attest.

Does this mean we have more physical awareness of other rider’s position than we have awareness of our own? Yikes.

Is that thing so obvious when we see other rider’s legs tap and bump and wiggle and kick incessantly, still nearly impossible for us to feel because we don’t know what our feet are doing, even when we think we do? We agree that less is more, but can we recognize how doing less feels? No wonder horses get confused by us.

Disclaimer: I’m a riding instructor, so I’m in the cheap seats, too. I have the view from the ground and I’ve seen legs do things that make my ribs seize up, too, from riders sincerely doing their best. It’s my job to get inside the rider’s head and connect the external reality with the internal awareness, narrowing the gap between perception and reality.

Riders fiddle with words like “feel” and “responsiveness” when looking for certain behaviors from a horse. We ask if the horse is on the aids but what if we have it backward? What if those are the requirements for us? If a rider wants “feel” and “responsiveness” from a horse, we have to first find that inside of one’s self, with awareness and sensitivity.

Humor me and put your saddle on a rack or fence and climb on. So, you’re sitting in your saddle while it isn’t on a horse. Good. Breathe. Do you feel your lungs expand fully? What does the air smell like? Is the air hot or does a breeze cool it? Can you breathe deep into your belly or do your ribs constrict you? Give your breath the same patience you give horses.

Now throat-breathe for a full minute, shallow tiny breaths, and then ask for a canter. Well?

Define “feel” as what your own senses tell you about what’s going on inside of you. Can you feel your spine collapsed or tight? Can you feel your inner thighs gripping the saddle? Can you feel your foot quiet in the stirrup? It’s easy to ride the rail of a fence, isn’t it?

Tack and mount your horse. Breathe. Don’t even think about picking up the reins. Ask your horse to walk on and notice your lungs. Notice your sit bones and knee joints. Wiggle your toes, feel your fingernails. Every sense that a horse has is so much keener than ours, that our best hope is to at least use the senses we have with more clarity.

We need to consciously fine tune our bodies to listen. It is a mindful state, one elusive enough to make you bored or want to pull your hair out. Be engaged and patient, instead. Feel the vertebra of your spine space themselves and stack in balance when you inhale. Then feel your horse stretch his topline in response. Yes, that’s where it all happens.

We always want a technique for how to accomplish something, the magic cue that all horses take. Breathing is that cue, but we don’t want to believe it.

I type the word breathe more than any other. It’s hard to find ways to make it sound as important or romantic as it is without wacky hyperbole. Breath is nothing less than the direct line of connection with our internal senses, and even more important, our direct line of connection with horses. It’s the secret to feeling and then fixing…only it’s no secret.

When I’m speaking in public, I see eyes glaze over every time I say the dreaded word. Breathe. The perfect calming signal and riders act like it’s some kind of vegan cue; one with no meat on it. Not even egg on it.

They want a real aid; a different bit or spurs or a special whip with my logo on it. They want an easy shortcut, but there isn’t one. If you negate how horses communicate and insist they take a technical cue without connection to his rider, then expect to see a flat, forced answer by rote. And that’s the best scenario.

Well, can’t put a logo on air, thankfully. It’s free for everyone. That means skill with horses isn’t about wealth or opportunity or even luck. We can all be equal breathers. I feel like a used-car salesman but in a good way. Here’s the same old breathe sales pitch in different words:

Hey, horse lover, do you want to know how it feels to be a horse?

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Clinician, Equine Pro


  1. Excellent, teaching is always about repeating yourself over and over again! I’m glad you don’t give up and yes, it’s amazing how something so easy yet easy to forget as breathing can make such a difference with the equine! Such sensitive creatures, I love them so…. Thank you for your educated words! Great reminder as I work with my two horses. They are not show horses, but none the less I want them to listen and I want good communication between us when I ride. Hopefully without wiggly legs, I remember so well in my Hunter/Jumper days of keeping that leg still! ❤️

  2. After your last blog, I thought about my recurring habit of multiple choice aids. How could I be quieter? So for two days all I did was walk my horse when I had the arena to myself. I carried a dressage whip, not because I ever touch him with it, but as an aid. (When I first got my horse he tensed up at the sight of one in someone’s hands. I slowly desensitized him to it.) When I carry it in the saddle it aids me to keep my hands quiet. I dropped the stirrups and rode at the buckle. What was the quietest aid I could give from my seat to turn him? Could I do a leg yield without changing my hands? Could I do transitions within the gait? How did he feel if I held my breath vs breathing in rhythm with him? He was relaxed, stretching and snorting. We left the arena to go for a hack.
    It paid off in our next lesson! I felt more and thought less. He was forward, rhythmical and swinging. It was magical!
    Thank you for sharing your insights, Anna. You have helped me so much!

    • Yes!! Well done for listening! Just wonderful experience and exactly what I mean. Feel the ride. Let him feel it. Lisa, what a great comment, thanks.

  3. What a perfect reminder for someone who seems to have no personal responsiveness when it comes to my legs. Breathing, I can work on that! Thanks Anna!

  4. If you think we have trouble knowing what our legs are doing, think about how little attention we pay to our breathing since it is so automatic. Automatically short and shallow when we concentrate; when we don’t just stop breathing entirely. So it is a good reminder and needs to be reminded over and over. Thank you for doing so.

  5. We all hear at different times and in different ways. We think we’re communicating and then realize that we’re only 50%…on a good day. I have had to get off perfectly good horses and walk them back. The sad part is that I will never know what actually happened. So keep the same messages coming and never get tired of teaching us the importance of “breathe”.

  6. Such a wise post. today I had to get my horse to breathe. He was troubled by the fact that a door at the side of the arena, that is never open ,was slightly open and moving because a breeze was coming in. I had to dismount and walk him over to the door and touch it and pat him and tell him it was ok. He was puffing and nostrils flaring. I kept touching the door and talking to him and then patting him till he stopped puffing. Something was wrong in his “sacred” arena and he had to be on alert! And….the difference between a rail bird and a coach is the coach is trained to be able to help a person whose legs are thumping or bumping. The rail birds just criticize.

    • Anne, he’s smart. That’s where the predators will attack from. It’s always life and death. My fantasy is that the railbirds all stand and breathe together for the horse, rather than criticize… just sayin’. Thanks, Anne

      • I agree that he’s smart. Also he knows what the home arena does not usually look like and this was just not right! Wonderful suggestion for the rail birds Anna.

  7. “A different bit or spurs or a whip with my logo on it”. Haha! Isn’t that the truth. People are so dumb, and I can say that because I WAS one of them. What a great rant….I mean blog 😁

  8. Finally, I have found someone who validates what I have discovered. My anxious and large warmblood could easily get me into the high, shallow chest breathing and then we would both feed off each other’s neurotic energy. When I took yours and Buck Branaman’s advice and spent time LEARNING how to ‘belly breathe’ it made a remarkable difference in my energy and my mare’s. I slowed down and breathed into my seat (a breath half-halt) and my horse slowed down her pace and found her balance. – All from the power of a breath.

  9. Thanks for a really good post. I enjoyed the comments almost as much as the post. I am a late-in-life new rider, and learning something really big and hard and scary has been humbling and life-changing in so many ways. Learning anything hard as an adult is learning how to be comfortable with being really uncomfortable. So there’s that.

    I am learning that riding is hard also because it requires me to hold a mirror up to my behaviors – my energy, my thoughts, my emotions – and discipline it all. Temper it if needed. Let it go if I can. But I can’t hide it, much as I may try. I’ve come face to face with much of my baggage during my lessons. You can fake your way through some relationships in life, but not one with a horse, and maybe not one with a trainer either. So I quit trying and is I bring my authentic (messy, weird, joyful) self to the barn, It’s a relief to surrender, but doing so also leaves you vulnerable. Feeling the feels.

    Then there’s all your good riding advice. To ride well, I have to be still and listen with my seat bones. Feel what I’m doing. I have to be mindful and be fair. I must trust and be trustworthy. You say breathe deeply and be aware of our bodies. All this advice is good practice for simply being a self-aware and centered human being.

    So it is clear: between the emotional work and the physical awareness work, my horse is teaching me to be a better person both in the ring and outside it.

    Amazing stuff.

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