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An American explores timing, balance, and feel in Spain

Published: 3/6/2014
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Editor's Note:
Amy Skinner is an instructor at Bay Harbor Equestrian Center in Bay Harbor, Michigan.  She recently submitted a video resume and was accepted to study at the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art in Jerez, Spain.
The 24-year old is studying for four weeks under Rafael Soto and others. It's been an adjustment, but worthwhile for sure, she said:
"My goals here are to improve my horsemanship and certainly my feel, timing, and balance, and expand my horizons a bit. Generally I don't run around in breeches, more like ripped jeans and chaps."

By Amy Skinner

"So there's feel and timing and when that feel and timing is right you can't imagine how effective it is to the animal. And there's a time when it will work. And there's a time when you're a little too late, or you're too early. It's the preparation. Being ready to fix things up."
                                                                    Ray Hunt

Tom Dorrance was once asked what elements were needed to become a horseman.  He replied "feel, timing, and balance" and he says in his book "True Unity" that years later he still hadn't been able to expand on those words.  They are, in essence, the most important elements in horsemanship, and for me, in life!

I have known about these three words for years, and have been striving and struggling, sometimes more gracefully than others to achieve them.

I have been studying classical dressage at the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art in Jerez de la Frontera, Spain for a few weeks now.  I have been fortunate enough to learn on some Grand Prix level horses with Olympic champion instructors.  In learning piaffe and passage, I have been given an old PRE (Pura Raza EspaƱola or Andalusian) stallion in his late 20's. 
Now, I have always told my students the horse knows if you know or if you don't, and usually it is the rider's lack of finesse or timing that causes the horse to fumble.  In this case, the problem was me, as this old stallion continually gave me the middle hoof.  I could not for the life of me bring life up in this old smarty pants. I huffed and puffed like a fool around the arena, feeling like I was disemboweling him with my spur, while my instructor shouted "more leg! Use your leg!" at me. 
I could not possibly imagine how I could use MORE LEG.  I was all legged out, and I am in fairly good physical shape.  When I finally did get a nice canter transition, I felt like I had to maintain the canter at any expense because I would never get it back!
This old guy was having a good laugh at my expense, and I knew it, but the harder I tried, the worse it was.  In piaffe and passage, without impulsion, without LIFE, there is no collection, and without collection and life in a harmonious blend, there is absolutely positively no piaffe or passage. 
Just flat, horrible crap. 
At the end of the lesson I limped woefully back to the barn while the stallion went back to have a good chuckle with his buddies.
I went home and agonized about it.  I rewatched the lessons in my mind, read about it, thought about it, talked to friends about it, I dreamed about it at night. 
I just couldn't do it. 
On other horses I had done beautiful passage and piaffe in the past few weeks, but this guy was in it to win it.  This poor instructor so far had only seen me ride like a pile of junk. I was determined to do better, but each day I did worse.

I was trying too hard and growing more tense, and I knew it.  I had to change something.  I knew the aids. I knew I needed life.  I would get piaffe a few steps and think, "Here it is.  Here it is! ...Just keep it..One more second."  But I would lose it going forward into passage, every time! 

My instructor would say words like "dancing and rhythm" but to me it was all I could do to keep this guy from falling over dead.

Then I was struck with a truth I had known all along: the aids in RHYTHM, not just horrible flopping around like I was doing.  It was all about Feel - feeling the horse with my whole body, relaxed like I were part of him, so we could dance together. Not fighting against him. The Balance between maintaining the energy in place, and keeping a soft feel without shutting the energy down. And Timing, or rhythm of the aids in this dance.

I set forth after many a cup of coffee the next day to try and try again with new determination, a more relaxed attitude.

I could not believe the different attitude this old stallion was giving me.  He was alert and happy. His terrible and choppy trot which I was commanded to sit the duration of the lesson became smooth and fluid. Canter transitions were a dream. He was alive and happy!  So when it came time to piaffe and passage at the end of the lesson we danced away together, and finally I felt the rhythm.

How wonderful it is to be in the "dance" with the horse, and how beautiful it feels to both the horse and the rider.  Those fading little moments where everything is just right makes the journey so much more worth it!
I know there will be more bumpy moments for me in the future, but I hope from this experience I have stored in my physical memory somewhere how good it feels to achieve feel, timing, and balance, even if just for a little while...

Read additional perspectives on Feel.

Read more on the Dorrance legacy.

Read more about Amy Skinner.

View Reader Comments:

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3/6/2014 Barbara
I really enjoyed reading this! Way to figure it out, Amy!!!
3/6/2014 Sally Goshorn
Love this article! Well-written, insightful, honest, & funny!
3/8/2014 Julie
Wonderfully written and thoughtful reflection on your rhythm and dance. Sounds like such an amazing experience!

"Nothing on four legs is quicker than a horse heading back to the barn" - Pamela C. Biddle/Joel E. Fishman