Exteroception, in its most general form, is the sensitivity to stimuli originating outside of the body. It applies to all of our senses. In riding and working with horses there are three forms of exteroception that I think are most important – vision, touch, and sensitivity. Each of these faculties are important on its own, but as an equestrian, having them work together seamlessly is important to achieve that intuitive skill, “feel”. My definition of that elusive term “feel” is the ability of the horseman to perceive, respond, and communicate with a horse’s thoughts and movements through vision, touch, and sensitivity.
Why is vision a part of “feel”? Horses and humans are visual by nature. Horses have a large field of vision, and they rely on it to protect them from harm. Horses, by nature, are also imitators. Doing what other horses do helps protect them from harm, and horses will mimic their humans too! After all, you are part of the herd. When you watch experienced, confident riders, you notice they are able to notice what is happening around them. They are able to keep their eyes up and use their peripheral vision to focus outside of themselves. More novice or less confident riders tend to be more focused on their current position and often miss things going on around them. If you have ever ridden in a crowded warm-up arena, you know how difficult keeping up with many other horses and riders can be. This is just one way you can
learn to use vision to your advantage and improve communication with your horse.
Touch may be the most difficult part of exteroception. When we think of touch, we think hands, and the hands are our most used sense of touch. In riding, they are also the most abused. So, we have to learn to feel more through the hands and talk less with them Just as in a verbal conversation, the more talking we are doing the less listening is happening. If you are always trying to tell the horse something with your hands, your hands aren’t receiving much information from the horse. Also, your body contacts the horse (or at least his tack) in more places than at the hands. Your other body parts have to be just as open to communication! In order for your exteroceptors to be freed up to work properly, your muscles (including the brain), need to be relaxed. There is a lot of science behind explaining mechanoreceptors and proprioceptors, so instead of being overly technical, think about it like a traffic jam. There are only so many lanes heading to the brain and spinal cord to facilitate movement and to detect things like pressure, and movement. If you’re already overcrowding those lanes, by telling your muscles to stay active or overthinking your next move, you are going to cause a traffic jam. Then, nothing is moving, and you are stuck! Now you have jammed up the communication pathway and overwhelmed the horse, who is very sensitive to our thoughts, with an overabundance of information. In learning to “feel”, we really need to learn how to listen better and communicate more softly and clearly.
Sensitivity, or your responsiveness to external stimuli, is a significant part of the “feel”, and the exteroceptor that most people put stock in. Do you know when your horse is stepping with his hind feet? Do you use the right amount of pressure from your aids? Often, these are things that instructors assume riders already know, but do you? If your touch and vision exteroceptors are working appropriately, your sensitivity and responses will automatically improve. I see a lot of people whose touch and vision exteroceptors are not engaging properly, yet they are trying to create a highly responsive horse. When they don’t get the desired response, the rider uses more, and/or stronger aids to communicate. That’s like creating a traffic jam all over again!
Riders expect the “feel” to be intuitive, and it feels amazing when it is, but it is a process that can be learned and improved. Some people have a natural instinct, for “feel”, it comes easier to them, but anyone can learn the process with the right state of mind and direction. Unfortunately, both of these are often hard to find in traditional riding lessons.
In a normal riding lesson, the rider is probably already a bit tense because he/she is intent on doing the exercises correctly and gaining approval from the instructor. Even if the lesson is occurring in a stress-free environment for the horse, the horse is now tense because the rider is tense. Now comes the instructor, who is telling the rider exactly how to ride every stride in hopes of creating the desired result. Not that this style of teaching can’t be effective, it can, and it can teach you how to “feel” a certain moment or exercise. What it doesn’t teach is, how to get there without the constant coaching. The instructor is using his/her vicarious “feel” to respond to what the horse and rider are doing. This is why many riders then complain about not being able to recreate their brilliant rides at home. They didn’t learn to feel out those moments, they just responded to what they were being told. It’s not often riders will create the exact circumstance repeatedly. This is why the art of exteroception is so important.
As horsemen, we need to be able to sense, respond, and direct what is happening right now, in the moment. This may seem like a daunting task, but the art of exteroception makes for more relaxed, confident riding, and it isn’t difficult to start learning. In the beginning, be aware of the stages of learning, and don’t chastise yourself for not being where you want to be. Learn to focus, so you can start reaching your goals. Comparing your ride to someone else’s or comparing the shape of your horse to another, is not exteroception. Nor is it the purpose of dressage. Then, keep it simple! As you are learning the art of exteroception, you want to break every movement into its simplest form and ask yourself: What did I notice? What did I feel? Can I make a change? As your journey continues, relax and be confident! Trust your instincts and experiment with what you feel. This is one of the best parts of the equestrian journey and goes a long way toward developing a harmonious connection with horses.
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