Thinking Versus Feeling

A few days ago, I picked up a book in the library entitled, “Show Jumping: The Great Ones.” The book was dated enough to have one of those fabric covers with that gold colored lettering, faded from sunlight and noticeably worn from years of study. As the title would suggest, the book dedicated each chapter to a famous Show Jumping rider, whom the author felt, whether by competitive results or possession of a less-tangible quality, that they were worthy of the title ‘Great.’ I don’t know the history of Show Jumping all that well, but I of course I recognized the name Bill Steinkraus, as he’s one of most famous riders in our country and I had read his book, Reflections on Riding and Jumping, many times. But what I gained from reading the chapter on his career, which I hadn’t previously from his training manual, were the ways in which his personality affected his success.

In addition to being a world-class horseman, Steinkraus is also a proficient violinist. He felt that, “[The study of riding and violin] were not that different. With the violin there was manipulation of the hands, with riding the manipulation of the body of the horse and the body of the rider. Both demand the development of physical mechanisms, along with much practice and dedication.” From reading the rest, it’s clear that Steinkraus had a wiser understanding of the sport’s intricacies than many other riders of that time did. Even today that special personality is possessed by only a handful of riders. It’s difficult to phrase in words, but it’s as if those individuals understand horses, and the riding of them, at a far more complex level than their peers and the rest of us do. Their understanding is not simply natural, but carefully practiced, thought-out, and taught.

Perhaps that is the true art of the sport, finding the perfect balance of thinking and feeling. We’ve all seen people who ride with such natural ‘feel’ they don’t have to think about the technique behind it because they just make it happen. It seems like a blessing, and it probably is in a lot of ways, but to improve on what you already have requires that you are consciously aware of what it is you have and the aids you are applying to get it. Conversely, there are riders that think so much about the technique that they miss the moment for understanding the feel of it. For the ‘great’ riders, thinking and feeling are the same and they constantly bolster the other to improvement. It’s hard to teach ourselves the level at which we should ‘think’ or ‘feel’, but maybe that really is the key to future success.




  • JoiseyGirl says:

    He’s an amazing rider – and writer! (Can’t vouch for his violin playing, but I’d bet anything he was no slouch there either.) I recall reading (maybe in Reflections…) that he worked full-time at an office job and got to ride only on the weekends – and that during his long trip out to the barn, he’d think about how he’d ride his horses. So he’s probably exceptionally analytical for a rider and must have really made the most of all his rides. That said, I’m sure he also had a tremendous foundation of “feel” or muscle-memory, and his amazing equitation attests to that. But what strikes me most in his photos is his face, which reflects tremendous concentration and focus…

  • 22947 says:

    I spent a lot of time recently watching the George Morris training sessions with up and coming young jumper riders in FL. As everyone knows, George is the master of equitation, and never lets anyone forget that! After watching this, and promising myself I would improve my equitation, I began to notice in lots of eventing photos, horrible equitation that would make Mr. M flip his lid. He said that American riders are notorious for jumping ahead of the motion, which is very evident in many photos not only of stadium, but cross country as well. Hello dangerous! Could we lesson the rate of falls cc if we improve rider position? I think that’s a definitely. Also, leg position is a key factor in GM’s critque–it is afterall, your base of your position. Eventing photos with proper leg position are few and far between.

    I know from growing up in the H/J world, most riders spend a portion of their lives in the Eq rings. Are eventers missing out on this?

  • eventer79 says:

    This is a really great and insightful point. I probably spend just as much time thinking about my riding, how to break down problems, how to make adjustments, how to see results, than I do actually doing it. And it’s something I’ve noticed a big difference in in the last few years — I have become much more of a thinking rider than I was before and as a result, I see much better progress. It’s so much easier to just be a reactive rider and just go with the flow, but I never really was able to break through the wall and really move forward the way I can now.

  • Catie says:

    In regards to #2.

    I’m a refugee from the equitation ring and hunter land. One of the first things I was told when I made the leap to cross country was that they were going to have to change my jumping position and the way I ride. It’s been a struggle, trying to blend what I’ve learned as ‘right’ with this new definition of ‘right’.

    I still ride without stirrups and struggle with my leg position. I hate seeing pictures of myself out of place when I’m jumping, particularly in stadium where I have no excuse, but others don’t see the problem. I’m safely over the fence, I didn’t interfere with my horse, what does it matter? Some of the differences might be cultural.

  • dee says:

    John, I loved it. You are right. I think that a lot of our riders are either natural, which seems such a blessing till something isn’t so natural, and they have to think…..which can be really hard, or the one’s who OVERTHINK everything. I suspect the rider with both abilities is very scarce.

  • anon says:

    with regard to No 2

    best way to improve cross country is to get out and ride in the open over terrain. position is important but balance is even more important and a secure lower leg will get you through most terrain and good balance will make a good position easier. cross country riding isnt always pretty but its about being safe. As Eric Smiley always says ‘get out of the arena’. I have found riding with shorter stirrups, National Hunt style is great. its a quick way to see how good your balance is and a great way to improve it. hard on the muscles tho!

  • Katie says:

    Loved the picture of Bold Minstrel. He was an event medalist, a jumper, and also conformation hunter champion at the garden – and if my memory serves, he was discovered/started by LaFreda Williams and her father. Talk about versatile!

  • JoiseyGirl says:

    In regard to #2… I’m impressed by how much emphasis George Morris puts on dressage these days. He seemed pretty ambivalent about it when he wrote Hunter Seat Equitation. But in the Horsemastership sessions, he kept saying things to the effect of, “It’s all about flatwork. If you have a good dressage foundation, jumping is no big deal.” (I wish the hunt seat trainers of my youth had a clue about flatwork instead of sending me out in a perched position, from which I regularly fell onto my head…)

  • Anne says:

    Bold Minstrel – what an athlete! As a kid, I dreamed of him, Michael Page’s The Grasshopper, Mike Plumb, and Good Mixture. Great athletes all.
    Is LaFreda Williams available via this page? Not sure if she’ll remember me, but she was a terrific influence on me in Pony Club and I’d love to meet up with her again. If anyone knows how to contact her, please pass my address: Thanks!

  • Becky says:

    I agree and have had similar reactions to my questioning my previous instructors when looking at pictures of myself jumping my horse. It seems a lot of eventing coaches just don’t have an eye for equitation nor the patience for it. I have also had a hard time finding a good equitation instructor that will let me “in” as in haul in to their barn to take lessons so I can be a better rider, they are either too busy with their own equitation/hunter clientele or not interested in helping an eventer.

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