You don’t have to do much research about horsemanship to hear that it takes Feel, Timing, Balance and Experience to become a Horseman. Of these words, Balance and Experience are pretty easy concepts to understand. Timing is a little more complicated, but most riders can be taught the idea of the timing of their cues.
Feel, however, is much harder to define, and hard to teach. Feel is a vague word that is often used by trainers, clinicians, and instructors. Most of them agree that to become a True Horseman, you must develop feel. It is a word surrounded by confusion, with the connotation of having an almost magical quality, leaving the reader confused and wondering if “feel” is some magical talent that only horse whisperers possess.
In this blog, I will examine different definitions of Feel. Some of these definitions come from Natural Horsemanship trainers/clinicians, and some from top Performance Horse trainers. I will look at the connection between Feel and Timing, take a quick look at Balance, and also at the role that Experience plays into developing Feel, Timing, and Balance.
Hopefully this will help clear the confusion around “Feel” and help you on your horsemanship journey!
So, what exactly is Feel?
In Bill Dorrance’s book “True Horsemanship Through Feel,” he describes feel as “the language of horses.” In his book, he describes two kinds of feel that we can use to communicate with our horses. Indirect feel is the feel that we use when the horse is loose, in the corral or round pen, when we use our body language to communicate with the horse. Direct feel is the feel we use when we have a direct connection with the horse, such as a halter and lead rope, bridle, the rider’s leg and seat, etc. Using these types of feel, the person can influence the horse to respond into doing different things.
Feel & Collection
For a lot of people “feel” is synonymous with vertical flexion and collection. I think that this is because it takes a good rider with a decent amount of “feel” to be able to achieve collection with their horse. However, I think that constricting “feel” to collection is a mistake. The rider should be able to “feel” the entire horse.
Let’s consider this quote from Tom Dorrance’s book “True Unity.” “The older I get the more it’s beginning to dawn on me how most people seem to have so little feel of the whole horse-of what’s going on in what part.” (Page 9) Later in his book, Tom Dorrance tries to define feel: ”I’ve looked in dictionaries for the definition for the word feel. I haven’t been really satisfied with the definitions I’ve found for this thing I’m talking about with the horse-this thing between the horse and the person. When I talk to people about this feel and the timing, I realize how difficult it may be for them to try to get what I am trying to say.” (Page 12)
Like the Tom Dorrance quote above suggests, Dr. Robert Miller agrees in his book Natural Horsemanship Explained that feel is something between the horse and rider. An entire chapter of the book is dedicated to feel (Chapter 8). In Dr. Miller’s chapter on Feel, he discusses feel from the standpoint of the horse, and has many examples of how riders can use more subtle signals to produce horses with feel, that respond to light cues. He states to “Reward the slightest try by releasing the pressure. That’s how lightness is developed. That’s a horse with ‘feel.’” Dr. Miller also describes feel from the standpoint of the human as “the ability to detect the response of the horse and to anticipate its consequences.”
Martin Black defines feel in his book Cow-Horse Confidence as more than just physical, more than just where the horse’s body parts are. He states, “We must be aware that, where the horse is concerned, ‘feel’ is emotional, mental, and physical.” He also describes his training methods as the Feel Approach: “With the feel approach, you support and encourage the horse through each step of the process, motivating him through pressure and relief, and rewarding each ”try” he makes along the way. This allows the horse to make decisions, learn, and understand the purpose of what you’re asking.” (Pages 34-35)
Al Dunning also has a broader description of feel in his book The Ultimate Level of Horsemanship. He says "Much of horse training relies on what I call "feel," which is one of the most overused and misunderstood words in our business. It relates to feeling what the horse is doing and thinking. After you've had a good deal of experience, you will no longer need to be watching a horse's eye to know how he feels; you will be able to sense what is happening with the horse's body and mind while on his back. You'll know what his next move might be, and you'll know when you're asking for too much and when you might be able to ask for more." (Page 31).
Craig Cameron also agrees that feel is more than physical. In his book, Ride Smart, he explains:
“Feel is more than just a physical touch, it’s also an emotional response and a mental approach to whatever situation you find yourself in with your horse…You’ll have to develop your own lightness and understanding of the horse, or feel. For example, when your horse is giving to the bit in response to one of your requests, the most important thing you can do is give back, or release the pressure you placed on the horse. The release is the only thing in it for the horse. What you’re trying to say to the horse is: ”When you give, I’ll give.” That’s a feel. “When you’re soft, I’m soft.” That’s a feel. “When you yield, I yield.” That’s a feel. It’s something that you’re going to have to work on over a period of time. Be patient with yourself. Be patient with your horse. It’s about give and take and truly a game of feel. You can recognize that you’re developing feel by your horse’s responses. It’ll take time for you to learn when to use more pressure and when to use less. In the beginning it might take a lot, but in the end it should take less. The result is a feel that’s more of a suggestion and finally just a thought.” (Pages 38-39)
One of my favorite definitions of feel might be the simplest: “Feel is knowing where all your horse’s body parts are at all times, and if they are in the correct position for whatever maneuver you ask your horse to perform.” –Mike Major, Ranch Horse Versatility, page 80
Jack Brainard's definition of feel is similar. In Jack’s book, “If I Were To Train A Horse” he states:
“Good trainers develop a ”feel” for the horse, which means they know where his feet are and when to cue (the horse).”
Now that we have examined some different viewpoints from different trainers on feel, what do they have in common?
The rider must be attuned to the horse’s body placement and response to the rider’s cues, and the rider must be able to feel when the horse is doing right, so that the rider can encourage the correct response.
How does the rider “feel” the horse?
The rider “feels” where the horse’s body parts are, so they can be sure that the horse is in the correct position before asking the horse to do something, so that the horse will be a lot more successful at doing whatever we ask, and the horse and rider will both be happier with the result.
The rider “feels” how the horse is responding to the rider emotionally, (is the horse mad? scared? irritated?) then the rider adjusts what s/he is asking the horse to do to change the horse’s attitude.
The rider “feels” how the horse is responding to the rider mentally. Is the horse ready to perform the requested maneuver? Has the horse remembered previous lessons that build on the requested maneuver? By using feel to determine the horse's mental state, the rider makes sure that the horse can actually do what the rider is asking them to do, so that they build the horse’s confidence instead of creating fear and confusion.
Chevy’s Simplified Definition of Feel:
Feel is the ability to know where the horse’s body parts are, to be able to communicate with the horse to move it’s body parts, and to be able to read the horse’s physical, mental, and emotional responses to the rider’s requests.
What about Timing?
Timing-when to apply your aids to cue the horse-is critical, and interrelated to feel. If the rider has good timing, they use their aids to help the horse learn.
In Sandy Collier’s book “Reining Essentials,” she states that “Timing is everything.” In the following paragraph, she describes why it is necessary for riders to develop great timing: “Remember, horses learn from the release of pressure, not the application of it. And when you release, your horse will associate this reward with whatever he was doing immediately before the release. So if you’re a split second late releasing, you’re confusing your horse and slowing his learning, or even inadvertently ”rewarding” something else entirely.” (Page 12)
Timing and Feel are often mentioned together, because they both need to be used together to be effective.
Mike Major describes how Timing and Feel are intertwined in his book, Ranch Horse Versatility:
“Timing and feel intertwine and are such an important thing. Timing is a state of mind, knowing when to put pressure on a horse-or not. Good timing in training is one of the biggest virtues to develop when you work with a horse. Your training is effective, and it takes less time to accomplish your goals because you understand the right time to ask your horse to do a maneuver. Feel is knowing where all your horse’s body parts are at all times, and if they are in the correct position for whatever maneuver you ask your horse to perform.”
Chris Cox’s definition of feel in his book Ride the Journey also combines the concepts of feel and timing: “Feel is applying the pressure you use to set boundaries with your horse and knowing when to release that pressure. Developing feel takes time and practice, but you can perfect your feel so that you release pressure the moment the horse gives to you. You might be applying leg pressure as you ask the horse to side-pass, or holding a brace with your rein, asking him to give laterally. In either case, you want to maintain consistency in setting that boundary until your horse gives. As soon as you feel that softening, that give, from your horse, you must release the pressure.” (Page 27)
Chevy's Simplified Definition of Timing:
Timing is the rider’s application, and release, of the cues to the horse, keeping in mind that the horse learns from the release, not the application, of the cue.
Balance is a much easier concept to explain. A rider that is balanced is able to move with the horse, instead of getting in the horse’s way. A balanced rider enable the horse to more easily perform maneuvers. A balanced rider is not bouncing on the horse’s back, making them sore, or hanging on the horse’s mouth, giving conflicting signals. The quickest way for a rider to develop balance is by taking riding lessons from a good instructor.
A rider must ride a lot of hours, on a lot of different horses, to develop feel, timing, and balance. Find a mentor to learn from that is successful in the event/discipline that you want to ride in. Take lessons. Go to clinics and expos and demonstrations. Read every book and article you can. Watch training DVDs. Ask questions. It takes years of dedication and hard work to become a horseman. It is not something that magically happens overnight or after one lesson. That’s why it’s called a Journey!
Please feel free to leave a comment-I would like to hear what other people feel about “feel!”
Bill Dorrance, “True Horsemanship Through Feel”
Tom Dorrance, “True Unity”
Ray Hunt, “Think Harmony with Horses”
Jack Brainard, “If I Were To Train A Horse”
Sandy Collier, “Reining Essentials”
Chris Cox, “Ride the Journey”
Mike Major, “Ranch Horse Versatility”
Martin Black, “Cow-Horse Confidence”
Al Dunning, "The Ultimate Level of Horsemanship"
Craig Cameron, “Ride Smart”
Dr. Robert Miller, “Explaining Natural Horsemanship”