The "HOW" of Learning Rider Feel - Part 1 of 4

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Guest post by Catherine McCrum

There’s nothing like the feeling when everything comes together and you are totally at one with your mind and body. When I’m in that state, where the lightest of intentions turns into effortless action, it’s the most exhilarating feeling imaginable. Some people call it being in a state of flow, but I think of it as being ‘in the zone’. When I’m in the zone, I feel completely in balance, I feel strong yet light and, most importantly, I have this immense sense of freedom that allows me to be totally spontaneous. 

Through many years of skiing and having obtained my international ski instructor’s qualification, I have learned strategies that give me a good chance of skiing in the ‘zone’. But it was only when I did the four year training in Feldenkrais that I started to realise how to help others get in the zone. I’m now known for my work with all types of athletes in addition to skiers. But I’m not here to talk about skiing. I want to tell you how I learned to apply my experience as an athlete, with my 18 years of work as a Feldenkrais practitioner, to my latest passion. Riding.

I have always loved horses. My mother owned them all the way through her childhood and encouraged my passion but, because my father was in the Navy, our life was somewhat peripatetic, making it difficult for me to have a horse of my own. And so, being an enterprising little girl, I chose as my best friend a girl who owned two ponies, so that I could ride one. I was 8 years old and relentless in my pursuit of her and her ponies, Red and Blackie. Many happy hours were spent competing in hunter trials with Red.

After 30 years out of the saddle, during which time I went from being a ski instructor to training as a Feldenkrais practitioner and, more recently, as a Gestalt psychotherapist. I took up riding again. And I found that I still love horses. I absorbed my riding instructors’ information like a sponge and would have taken lessons every day f I could have afforded to. But often, the information was conflicting, so I became confused and wanted time on my own to experiment and find out what worked for me.

A friend who had followed with great interest my renewed passion for riding, offered to give me one of his horses. I ummed and aahed. I tried to calculate the costs (I got that completely wrong – I should have doubled the figure), I hesitated over the commitment, and then finally, after many months of thinking about it, I told him I would love to take on the horse. I was so excited! At long last, I would own my own horse. I could ride with my own sense of what worked, rather than within the constraints of the riding school. I could experiment and explore in the way that has always been successful for me in every sport or creative endeavor I have tried.

How wrong I was. 

As I was a total beginner at horse ownership, I researched livery yards obsessively, finally choosing one that seemed very professional. The owners were friendly and helpful and keen to offer their expertise. I started taking my horse, QQ, into the school and was very happy doing my own explorations so I could find out what he liked in terms of my own movements. I experimented with my breathing and, at the same time, listened to how he responded with his breath to my sensory questions. He seemed to enjoy it, and that was good enough for me. My friend helped me, encouraging me to use all my skills in body awareness to connect with my horse, and to move around the school with him and not to worry about the position of his head. It was great. I loved these sessions with QQ.

Two weeks into my ownership, the yard owner was watching one day and asked me what I was doing. Foolishly, I told her.

‘You don’t know how to ride,’ she said. ‘You need to learn how to ride properly. He’s just wandering around aimlessly.’

This last bit was probably true, but he and I were enjoying it.

She got out a lunging whip, whacked on some side reins and basically beat us around the school for half an hour, shouting instructions. The only point in the session I could raise a smile was when she shouted at me:


In retrospect perhaps that was my one good moment.

From then on, I was pretty miserable. I felt self-conscious and embarrassed every time I went into the school. I hated how they wanted me to ride – squeezing a tube of toothpaste from my leg and stopping it with my hand. With all my understanding of what good movement felt like, this felt absolutely wrong. 

‘Forward, more forward! More leg, more leg! That’s not a working trot! Whip him!’

I’m sure you all know the drill.

So, I moved yards. This one seemed a simple place where the priority was happy horses. The yard owner was kind, and sympathetic to my past experience in the other yard. They were shocked when I told them the previous yard had wanted to work him ‘behind the vertical’. I felt that at last my horse and I were in the right place. It was a great relief.

On the second day in my new yard, I went into the school, took a deep breath, listening and waiting for my horse to breathe. I started to connect with the movement of his back with my pelvis and spine. We were both relaxed and happy as we walked around, getting used to our new surroundings. I used my body to turn him as best as I could, and focused on maintaining a light and giving contact with the reins. But suddenly I felt watched. I looked over and the yard owner was standing there. 

‘Let’s see what he can do,’ he said. ‘Show me his walk, trot, canter.’

I had barely been on my horse for 5 minutes. I was completely unprepared for this interruption, but felt powerless to say ‘no’. So I walked, trotted, cantered. My horse spooked, was resistant and reluctant as he had not had the chance to warm up or get to know where he was. And, once again, the yard owner wasted no time in giving me his opinion.

‘What were you doing down there? You were cantering on the right rein but looking to the left.’ 

I wanted to say I was looking left because I felt so self-conscious that I wanted to dive out of the school and never come back.

Then the killer blow: 

‘Some people have natural feel….and some people don’t. And you can’t learn feel.’

My head filled with judgmental thoughts. As a Feldenkrais practitioner and a naturally athletic person who had skied to a high level, I was reduced in a single moment to feeling totally inadequate, ashamed, and as if I wasn’t doing the right thing by my horse.

It took me a year to get past that, to overcome my self-doubt, and to take my riding into my own hands. And it was a blog from Shana Ritter that started this process.

Stay tuned for the next part in this series to read about what Catherine did next…

About Catherine: Catherine McCrum now participates as an Assistant Teacher in our Artistic Dressage Online Courses Program. She is an accredited Feldenkrais practitioner and has been teaching sport, fitness and movement since 1986 as first a ski instructor/coach and then as a Personal Trainer. In 2002 she finished her Feldenkrais training. She is also a rider and is joining us in this course to help you learn how to recognize how the way you use your body can be interfering with your ability to progress in your riding. She is also a Gestalt psychotherapist with a particular interest in working with developing awareness of how her clients embody their emotional and psychological patterns.

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“The Aware Rider” Free 3-Part Live Video Training Series With Dr. Thomas Ritter and Feldenkrais Practitioner, Catherine McCrum

Part 1. The Aware Rider: Developing Rider Feel - Tuesday, April 30 7:00pm CEST / 6:00pm GMT

In this FREE live training, Dr. Thomas Ritter and Feldenkrais Practitioner, Catherine McCrum will discuss how you can develop feel as a rider. In order to develop feel, it is important to reduce your muscular efforts. A simple example is how much effort do you need in your fingers to hold a glass without it dropping. When you can reduce the stimulus, you are able to sense small differences in quality. It's about finding quietness and composure in yourself which enhances your awareness as a rider.

RSVP to Facebook event:

Part 2. The Dynamic Seat - Thursday, May 2 6:00pm CEST / 5:00pm GMT

Why do riders struggle with their seat despite knowing what's correct?

If your pelvis is not organised then everything falls apart, BUT everything above and below also needs to know how to organise around the pelvis.

We will talk about:

- the seat as the centre for powerful action.

- developing sensitivity

- refining your balance

- finding the least effort for what your'e doing, Rather than thinking that you need to be stronger

- Noticing the small ways that you hold and fix yourself more than you need

- Finding “stillness through motion“, i.e. a visually quiet seat is the result of moving in synch with the horse, whereas trying to “sit still“ results in stiffness and excessive motion in the wrong places.

RSVP to Facebook event:

Part 3. Discovering Balance and Harmony - Tuesday, May 7 at 7:00pm CEST / 6:00pm GMT

In this FREE live Training, Dr. Thomas Ritter and Feldenkrais Practitioner, Catherine McCrum will discuss how riders discover and develop Balance and Harmony in riding.

- developing sensitivity and refining balance

- Do you know what you are doing?

- Does your proprioception match reality?

RSVP to Facebook event:

These events are totally free and are held on Facebook. All will be recorded and can be viewed afterwards but we will answer questions LIVE and we LOVE LOVE LOVE your interaction so if you can, join us!!!

Because these are LIVE EVENTS, you can interact with us, comment, ask questions, joke around, etc. We INVITE your interaction. This is a casual event. Let's get together and CHAT.

Instructions for attending:

1. RSVP to each event. (Links above). Facebook will send you a notification one hour before the live event begins.

2. Sign up for Facebook Messenger Reminders here and you will get a direct link when it begins. (You can unsubscribe at any time by simply typing “STOP”)

3. You can attend direct on Facebook by going to the Ritter Dressage page at at the time of the event.

4. Alternatively you can attend via free Zoom webinar software. To attend via Zoom instead of Facebook, you need to first sign up for the free account at and download their free webinar software. You can attend via Desktop, Laptop, Tablet, or mobile device. Sign up for Facebook Messenger reminders ( )and then to attend, click on the Zoom link we send out in the reminders. During the event you can ask your questions in the chatbox.

5. Bring your questions. Invite your friends.

6. Sit down with your beverage of choice and let's make this fun!