The Space Between: Technical Proficiency, Feel, and Talent

I’ll start by apologizing in advance for what will likely be a somewhat nebulous posting as I’m sort of just jotting my thoughts down as they occur to me.  This week during a lesson a client of mine was marveling that the theory regarding riding a horse into the outside rein while also controlling the outside shoulder is pretty basic in principle and yet the actual implementation of it is quite a bit more challenging to put together.  This line of thinking sort of evolved into a discussion about theory and practice and then down the rabbit hole into why some riders just seem to innately do ‘it’ (whatever ‘it’ may be) while others have to actively think about doing ‘it.’  All of this got me thinking about the concepts of technical proficiency, feel, and talent.

Photo by Avery Hudak.

Looking specifically at dressage, you could say that the basic goal is to train the horse so that it responds to the lightest of aids in harmony with the rider (there’s obviously quite a bit more to it but for simplicity’s sake let’s just go with this).  If that’s the goal then theoretically riding dressage doesn’t appear to be too complicated, which I think we all know is somewhat farcical.  Actually, riding dressage seems to be quite a bit like playing the piano.  In theory anyone can play the piano; one must simply push the correct keys in the proper sequence.  Easy, right?  Of course that description leaves out so many important elements (like timing, coordination, emotion, etc) that it’s comical.  But let’s just say for the sake of discussion that you become technically proficient– that you memorize the notes, learn to coordinate your hands, and practice enough that you can fluidly do so and play a song.  Are you as good as Mozart?  Perhaps, but I would guess probably not.  But why not?  What is that missing element?  Can it even be defined?  Many people would say that it’s talent or feel that’s lacking but what are those exactly and can anyone acquire them or must they be innate?

Photo by Avery Hudak.

As with most things in life I don’t think there’s one correct answer to any of these questions.  My knee jerk response is to say that talent is certainly innate but feel perhaps not so much. Where talent seems to be an innate quality that you’re either fortunate enough to have or not, ‘feel’ seems to be something that can be developed through proper training and practice.  A talented rider would be one that has an aptitude for developing greater sensitivity and feel; basically riding with feel just comes naturally.  But that does not mean that an ‘untalented’ rider cannot develop feel, just that doing so would likely take more time and effort than for someone with more talent. Essentially then, it’s plausible that through practicing and becoming ever more technically proficient you would necessarily (via the process) begin to develop more feel and in doing so actually go beyond being ‘just’ technically proficient itself.  The end result of that could very well be that you become the sort of rider most would consider talented even if you didn’t necessarily start with innate talent.

So what does all this matter?  Well for starters I would say that it implies that talent, while hugely helpful and important, is not mandatory for riding success.  Additionally because talent and feel are two different things, even if you’re not super talented you can certainly work to improve and develop your feel and timing so as to become just as good as some of those who started out with more talent.  I really believe that these are important things to keep in mind, especially when you’re sloughing through a less than awesome training session and wondering if you’ll ever ‘get it.’

What are your thoughts on talent versus feel?  Can feel be taught or is it essentially another word for talent?  I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!


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