Understanding Brain Function in Learning and Teaching Feel

Learning to ride is hard. Learning to ride well is harder. The difference between the two involves developing a sophisticated sense of “feel” – a vague and amorphous term that begs for a working definition. It’s difficult to define, but you know it when you see it. Here’s my take on the subject.

First, I’m going to describe a flow chart that summarizes how the human brain processes information while acquiring “feel.” Second, I’ll give a simplified explanation of how the two halves of the brain function differently during the learning process. 

Next, I’ll explain how new patterns of movement are engraved in the brain. 

Finally, I’ll discuss a specific technique (the “TASK” approach to teaching) to better harness the brain’s natural function in increasing your sense of “feel” as a rider.

The Feel “Flow Chart” (see Figure 1)

“Feel” involves sensory input generated by the movement, position-in-space, and balance of your own body, as well as the movement, position, and balance of your horse. “Feel” also involves intellectual “through-put because every piece of sensory input must be filtered through a “mental Encyclopeida of Riding,” your brain’s library of the theoretical knowledge, understanding, and experience of riding you have accumulated.

Fig. 1 Neuro Flow Chart

During this filtering process, you compare sensory input with the contents of your encyclopedia. Some examples of sensory input include your horse’s energy level, hind leg activity, degree of flexion and/or bend, degree of softness—or the opposite – in the jaw and poll, and left-to-right (lateral) or back-to-front (longitudinal) balance. Learning to feel these kinds of things is difficult enough.

To add to the complexity, good riders must also have a highy developed sense of body awareness.  They need to have an accurate sense of how their own bodies are positioned in the space of the saddle (“proprioception”). Good riders are aware of their alignment and balanced, the erectness and carriage of the head and upper body, the broadness or open-ness of the chest, the amount of flexibility in the lower lumbar spine and pelvis, the degree of muscle tone in the torso, the presence or absence of excessive tension in the muscles of the legs from buttocks to foot, the degree of suppleness in the hips, knees, and ankles, and so forth.

All these bits of sensory input then need to be compared to what your encyclopedia tells you is correct, and if there’s a discrepancy, your encyclopedia refers you to an exercise or movement or position correction or a change in which aid to use, when to use it, and how to “dose” it to improve the situation.  This all happens in a matter of seconds – nanoseconds if you have good feel, to several seconds (or longer) if you’re still in the process of refining your feel.

This sequence of receiving sensory input, referring to your encyclopedia, administering a correction, and then receiving additional sensory input forms a continuous “feedback loop” that terminates only when you get off the horse for the day.  

The loop begins with awareness of sensory input: how does my horse feel today? Lazy or energetic? Responsive or dull? Relaxed or full of tension? and so forth.  Next comes evaluation based on what you are feeling: Is a correction needed? A “no” returns you to the awareness stage. A “yes” leads to analysis: Is it me or the horse? If it’s me, how do I need to adjust my position or use of the aids? If it’s the horse, do I … Change the aid? Use the same aid with more or less intensity? Select an exercise? Which one?

Once a choice is made and implemented, the next step is an assessment of the results: Did I get the response that I was expecting, to a sufficient degree? To answer this question, you need additional sensory input, which brings you back to the start of the feedback loop. 

Left Brain vs. Right Brain

It’s helpful to remember that the human brain has two halves: the left and the right hemispheres. Different functions reside in one half or the other. The right side of the brain is hardwired to the left side of the body, and the left side of the brain to the right side of the body.  Most people seem to be born with one side being dominant – a common example is being left-or right-handed – although to get along in this world, obviously, we learn to use both halves of both our brains and our bodies.

Simply put, the left side of the brain specializes in details, fact, and figures. Many accountaints are strongly left-brain dominant people. The right brain deals better with visual input and imagery, and in taking the bits and pieces and details from the left brain to construct a coherent whole.  Many artists and musicians are strongly right-brain dominant people.  As riders, our concept of beautiful, flowing, artful riding, and our library of visual images of good riding in action, resides in the right side of the brain, whereas our mental encyclopedia lives in the left side of the brain.  The endless feedback loop we need to ride well requires our thoughts to shuttle efficiently and at high speed between the two halves. The speed with which we are able to do so depends on the number of neural pathways between the two hemispheres of the brain.  The more of these connections we have, the faster our brains can process information and the quicker your riding reflexes become.

Engraving New Movement Patterns in the Brain

Imagine an electrical system like that in a house. It’s made up of a network of electrical wires that lead from the device that needs the “juice” to a central circuit box. The individual wires are insulated to keep the electric current moving along the desired pathway instead of “shorting out” and disabling the device to which it’s connected.  The “wiring” in our brains can be through of in the same way. 

When we first attempt to acquire a new motor skill, we have better success when we do things slowly and deliberately, with great focus and motivation. (Ever try to learn something you really didn’t care about?) New pathways in the brain, called neurons, are formed at lightning speed, but a millimeter at a time. The younger you are, the faster this happens – that’s why toddlers can learn new languages much more easily than adults.  The “baby neuron” is like an uninsulated electrical wire – the “signal” leaks out easily and frequently gets lost on the way to its intended destination.  But each correct attempt at repetition lays down a layer of myelin, similar to insulation, around the new neuron.  After a dozen or so correct repetitions, the neuron is sufficiently myelinized to get the signal where it’s supposed to go without detours. With additional practice, the new motor skill can be executed more quickly and with greater accuracy.

How does this process relate to teaching or learning “feel”? Executing this endless feedback loop involves the electrical impulses of your brain’s neurological circuitry.  These impulses must shuttle back and forth from one hemisphere of the brain to the other, and do it at faster-than-lightning speed, if yo have “good feel” and are able to keep your riding errors from becoming visible to the casual bystander.  The more practice you have at a given task, the more myelinized your neural pathways become, and the faster the electrical impulses can travel down those established highways in the brain.  When the neural pathways associated with particular activities are fully myelinized, we call it “muscle memory” – which actually resides in your brain, not in your muscles.

Harnessing Brain Power to Increase “Feel”

It’s interesting to note that the closer a new skill is to an established skill, the more difficult it can be to learn how to acquire it.  It’s rather like tracing – the kind we all used to do as children, when we were learning to write the letters of the alphabet.

Using a pencil, our initial attempt at making an accurate tracing created a faint depression in the paper.  The first time around, mistakes were plentiful, and when we “went outside the lines” we’d stop, lift the pencil, and get back on track. Going over the correct line repeatedly resulted in an deeper depression in the paper, so that after a few times over the same area, accuracy become easier.

Now imagine that you want to trace another line, one-eighth inch outside the first one. If you work too quickly or with too much energy, you find your pencil falling into the depression of the line you followed earlier.  It takes a great deal of concentration to maintain that uniform small distance from the first line.

Altering the way we execute a given task can pose similar challenges for riders.  Say your new horse was trained using lateral aids for the canter depart rather than the diagonal aids you’re accustomed to.  You’ll need to remember to slide your inside seat bone forward before asking for the depart with your inside leg at the girth, while your outside leg, slightly behind the girth, remains passively guarding the hindquarters.  

Because this action is very similar to your habit of placing your inside leg at the girth but using your outside leg actively, you’ll be tempted to fall back into the old pattern.  Changing your “muscle memory” will take advance mental planning – you may have to talk yourself through it a few times before actually executing the action.  Acute mental focus and many, many repetitions are needed before the new way of asking for the canter becomes as “automatic” for you as your previous diagonally aided canter depart used to be. 

A very important aspect to learning or teaching “feel” is the fact that the ability to listen and process auditory input resides in the left brain hemisphere, while the ability to feel and process sensory input resides in the right hemisphere.  Simply put, this means that it’s very hard to listen to instruction and feel what your horse is doing under you at precisely the same moment in time.  In order to give ourselves (or our students) the best shot at success in learning any new skill, including “feel,” we should consider this phenomenon in planning for, or participating in, riding instruction.

The TASK Approach to Teaching “Feel”

 The Riding instruction commonly uses two different approaches, called COMMAND and TASK. The COMMAND method is most common.  Most of us learned to ride this way, and can still hear our early instructors barking, “Head up! Heels down! Elbows at your sides!” The Command method is appropriate for riders who are acquiring a brand-new skill and need to be talked through it one step at a time, or in times of emergency.  It’s also useful for diagnosing “mystery” riding problems when the instructor isn’t quite sure where the problem originates.

In Command mode, the instructor rides the horse “through” the student, feeling each step taken by the horse as though the instructor were the one in the saddle.  The instructor directs the student to make corrections, to give aids, to change or adjust her position, etc.  The students don’t have much of a chance to make a move before the instructor tells her to do it, or to think about what she’s just done, or to focus on what it feels like, before the instructor’s voice is in her ear again, telling her to do something else.

A less common type of instruction in the U.S. is the TASK method.  More commonly found in Europe, it’s distinguished from the Command approach not only by an interaction with the student that has much in common with the Socratic teaching methodology, but also by periods of silence. This type of instruction is useful in helping a student begin to build muscle memory for a task, to increase awareness of what correct (or incorrect) execution of the task feels like. These small moments of mastery in turn help build the rider’s confidence in her own judgment and abilities, and hence her independence, increasing the likelihood that the student can still make forward progress even with the instructor is absent.

A Task-oriented instructor sets an appropriate task for the student, such as riding a three-loop serpentine while maintaining counter-canter.  She makes sure the student understands the task and also knows what criteria will be used to discern whether the execution is correct. The student then goes off and executes the task on her own, while the teacher observes and maintains silence.  The teacher doesn’t interrupt the student mid-task, even if she makes a mistake, but remains quiet so that the student can better process the feeling the horse is giving her, and access her personal encyclopedia in making any needed corrections or changes.  

After the student has completed the task, the instructor will discuss it with her, asking open-ended questions like, “How do you think that went?” and then acknowledging the student’s response. If the student isn’t right on target, the instructor may ask additional questions designed to elicit the student’s input based on what she felt and thought, to guide her into identifying what still needs to be changed, adjusted, or corrected. 

For example”, the instructor might ask, “On the counter-canter loop, how was your horse’s lateral balance?” if she noted that the rider was over-using the inside rein. (Compare this to a Command approach, where the instructor would say something like, “Get off that inside rein! You’re throwing him onto the outside shoulder!” and would make this comment at the moment that she observed the error.)

Using the Task approach, after discussing the first round of attempts at the task, the student will be sent out to try the task again. This process if repeated until some improvement is shown (generally three times), and then lesson moves on to another related task.

All riding instructors and most riding students can easily recall an instance of having said or heard, “There! Did you feel that?” This question is often followed by another: “What did you do to get that?” Sometimes the student knows precisely how she evoked the desirable response from the horse, and sometimes she hasn’t a clue. Learning “feel” requires that the student be able to make the intellectual and the sensory connection between “what she did” and “how the horse responded.” 

Observe Yourself from the Inside 

Another valuable characteristic of the Task method is that it allows time for the student to focus her senses inward. Riding provides all kinds of sensory stimulation; so it can be very helpful to direct all one’s attention to a specific body part or a specific movement which may be at the root of a particular problem.  Then, the rider is instructed to merely “observe” her body from the inside, and not attempt to change it for the moment – merely observe what is, leaving aside what should be. This includes avoidance of any critical or judgmental self-talk.

For example, because I specialize in position/seat correction, I frequently encounter riders with chronic “chair seats.” One time-honored method for correcting this is to have the rider adopt a two-point position.  Chair-seated riders typically have difficulty getting and staying “up” in a balanced way.  One can instruct them to move their whole leg back a bit from the hip, but typically the change can be maintained only while the rider’s entire focus is on that body part.  As soon as a distraction arises, the leg slips forward again, and the rider falls back into the saddle with a plop. 

One Task approach to this problem might involve directing such a rider to focus all her senses on the sensations coming from her lower body.  Which parts of her inner leg, crotch to ankle, are in contact with the horse? Where on his ribcage does the leg lie? How does this portion of the ribcage feel against the leg? Typically, such riders pinch with the knee.  Asking whether the pressure of the leg is evenly distributed, or if there is more pressure in a certain place, can draw attention to this fact.  There’s an old saying to the effect that the first step to changing a habit is to recognize that there is a problem. The Task method’s intense focusing plays into that by accelerating and condensing the recognition stage.

A critical piece of this puzzle is the brain’s astonishing ability to make changes on an unconscious level. Using this “inner eye” observation technique, over repeated trials the brain will make its own corrections, improving slightly each time the task is repeated.  The right brain’s ability to sense connects to the left brain’s ability to analyze and select, and almost miraculously, the chair-seated rider will find her balance over her own two feet in two-point. Then she’s ready for the next task, which would be to alternate frequently between two-point and rising trot, using the same inner observation process. 

The role of a competent instructor in this process is not to be underestimated, for it is very difficult for an inexperience rider to know for sure whether her own body’s response or the horse’s is the one that is correct, if she has never experienced it before. Without more expert “eyes on the ground” to tell her, “Yes that’s IT!” the road to learning “feel can be rocky and rife with detours.  But given such assistance, the Task method can make that road a smoother and more direct pathway.  Because it allows time for the student’s brain to process sensory input, analyze and evaluate, and plan for necessary corrections, it acknowledges the structural realities of the human brain and thus permits the student to learn in the way that is individually appropriate for her.  Incorporating the Task method into one’s teaching methodology permits students to make faster progress towards “owning” their sense of feel, which is an integral part of becoming an independent rider.

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