Developing Lightness and Feel: Exercises from Geoff Teall

Focus on the horse’s forward motion. Feel him push himself forward rather than pull himself along. The rider, however, neither pushes nor pulls, but rides in balance.

Within the 263 pages of “Geoff Teall on Riding Hunters, Jumpers and Equitation,” Teall covers an impressive multitude of topics aimed at helping riders increase the effectiveness of their time spent in the saddle. 

From setting goals and finding the right trainer to high-level jumper course work, the noted judge, trainer and clinician shares his knowledge on it all, including a “Riding Factors” chapter of the book. Within this chapter, there is no factor that spans as many pages as that of lightness and feel. 

Why so much space dedicated to these topics? Good feel is key to much of what you do with your horse. It’s that, often seemingly magical, ability that the best riders possess to really sense what is happening underneath them, and, as Teall shares, “You must immediately start developing an awareness of the concepts, if you ever want to ride effectively, effortlessly and invisibly. 

Feel and lightness are closely related to each other. In order to be an effective rider, you need to learn to feel just the right amount of hands, legs, seat and weight. The more you can feel what that right amount is, the more lightness you will have in your riding.” 

The ideal combination of lightness and feel is what Teall describes as “the Goldilocks Factor” – it’s neither not enough nor too much, but rather just right.

To help achieve this Goldilocks Factor, here’s a look at two of the exercises that Teall shares within his book. 

Push, Don’t Pull 

When schooling at home, your goal should always be to get your horse working longer, lower and lighter. You want him to work with his muscles stretched out, as opposed to working with his muscles tight or bunched together.

Just as you would stretch your own muscles before doing any strenuous exercise, stretching your horse’s muscles will enable him to perform better. Tight muscles produce a sore horse. Long and stretched muscles produce a relaxed horse. This trotting exercise is an easy way to help you develop the lightest aids possible while you cultivate a feel for riding a horse with long, stretched muscles.

Schooling

1. Ask your horse to trot around the perimeter of the arena. Post the trot. Use your legs to tell him to move forward. Your hands lightly balance him so he doesn’t pick up a canter. Hold yourself centered, relaxed, and balanced on the horse.

2. Pay attention to where the horse’s impulsion comes from. If he is pulling himself along with his front legs, feel how slightly altering your balance or changing your hand position affects him. Practice until you can feel the horse using his hindquarters to push himself forward.

3. When the horse consistently pushes himself forward with his hind end, encourage him to stretch his body. Gently close your legs around his sides. Pay attention to how his neck feels as he trots. Ride him forward so that his neck starts to get longer, not shorter. Think: forward, out, and down.

4. Once the horse is stretching his head and neck forward while pushing from behind, feel the difference in his trot. Practice until you can have the horse push forward with his hind end and stretch forward with his head whenever you ask him to.

5. When your horse will consistently stretch his front end and push off with his hind end, pay attention to your weight. While the horse moves forward, concentrate on keeping your weight down in your heels. Feel how that anchors you to the horse.

6. Once your heels are well down, consciously pay attention to the position of your hands. Feel how light they can be while still being effective.

7. Trot on a circle, tracking to the right. When it feels good going to the right, change directions and track to the left. Periodically reevaluate how well your horse is moving, how well you can feel him, and how strong and correct your position is.

The Point

This exercise makes you aware of where the horse’s impulsion comes from. You always want the horse to work from his hind legs and move forward from his hindquarters. The more you can get him working through his topline, the more comfortable and relaxed he will become. Moving forward correctly will also keep him sounder longer. If you develop a feel for riding a horse lightly while he is working correctly, soon that will become the norm. Then you will always ride with that feeling as your goal.

Looking and Seeing

This simple exercise over fences is an excellent way to focus on riding with lightness and feeling the horse underneath you. It has the added benefit of developing your peripheral vision and honing an awareness of your surroundings.

Preparation

Set up a line of two low fences, four or five strides apart. In the early stages, you may want to just use ground poles between jump standards.

Schooling

Find an object (such as a tree or a fence post) at the end of the line. Pick up a canter and focus your eyes on the object. Continue to look at the object. As you allow the horse to navigate the line, pay attention to what you see with your peripheral vision. Notice everything—for instance:

  • See your horse’s head in front of you.
  • See the oxer to your right that you don’t want to run into.
  • See the cone on the left that your horse might spook at.

While your eyes are looking straight ahead and your peripheral vision is registering possible hazards, let your body feel what the horse is doing. Among other things:

  • Feel how he reacts when he sees the fence in front of him.
  • Feel how he responds when you close your legs on him.
  • Feel the moment of suspension in each stride.
  • Feel him tracking in a straight line toward the object you are looking at.
  • Feel him accepting your hand and moving forward off of a light leg.

The Point

This exercise encourages you to be hyperaware of what happens as you ride a line. Remember, you only look straight ahead to where you are going. You also pay extra attention to your surroundings while you feel what is happening underneath you.

Find more exercises like these, and much more, in “Geoff Teall on Riding Hunters, Jumpers and Equitation,” available for purchase from Trafalgar Square Books, here


About Geoff Teall 

Geoff Teall is one of the leading hunter and hunt seat equitation trainers in the country.  Horses and riders who have trained with Teall have gone on to win championships, medals and ribbons at major events including Devon, the ASPCA Maclay Finals, Capital Challenge, the Pennsylvania National, the Washington International, the USET Talent Search, and the National Horse Show. In addition to training, Teall is an “R” judge for both hunters and hunt seat equitation. He travels extensively in North America and Europe teaching, judging and conducting clinics.