In his book, True Horsemanship Through Feel, Bill Dorrance writes: “Handling the horse is the most important thing in my life and getting that horse to feel of you … that’s the main thing.” Feel-based horsemanship allows a rider to communicate with his horse through mutual understanding rather than force. While it takes plenty of time and patience, the result makes this approach worthwhile.

The “feel” between a horse and human is time tested and is available to us all. It’s not reserved for certain people blessed with special endowments. If you want it badly enough, you will find it. Your horse will reflect it back to you when you start to get it figured out. In fact, your horse is out there right now just waiting for you to give it a try!

So, what is “feel” Bill Dorrance (1906-1999), the master horseman and rancher from Salinas, California, called it “the main thing.” In his book, True Horsemanship Through Feel, Bill writes: “Handling the horse is the most important thing in my life and getting that horse to feel of you … that’s the main thing.” In 1998, at the age of 92, Bill could still rope a couple of hundred calves at the spring brandings on his mare, Beauty.

Why did Bill say that “feel” is the “main thing”. Because feel is in us, just as it is in horses. Without feel of the horse, a rider communicates through force, right up to the point of resistance. At that point, the rider begins to develop in the horse a reaction to pressure that is commonly called a “brace”. But a rider or handler also has the option to invite the horse to respond – not so different from the way you might approach someone you don’t know well but admire.

Time and again during the course of the four years (1995- 1999) I worked alongside Bill in the dual capacity of scribe and apprentice, he showed me that when these “smaller particles of feel” in each of us meet at a deep level of understanding, there is no need for the use of force, and in fact, it’s never ever fitting to use it.

To communicate with your horse through feel, force must be replaced with time and patience. This is not to say there is not a rightful place and time to be firm and, in some cases, as firm as you are physically capable of being. However, the more firmness you use with your horse, the more experience and understanding you need of the role of timing and balance.

What do I mean by this The “feel” of firmness is neither applied by the human nor received by the horse in a vacuum. For the horse to understand the meaning in your hand, it must be presented along with the right mix of timing and balance. So if you decide to increase your firmness, you must know how to implement it and, for your own safety, what kind of reaction you’re going to get. You find this out through experience, and it’s okay if your judgment is off in some cases. After all, we learn through trial and error. But for your own safety, you must anticipate your horse’s response to increased firmness so you know how and when to firm up.

This brings to mind an observation Bill often made: “It’s really amazing what a horse will do for you if he understands what you want. And it’s also quite amazing what he’ll do to you if he doesn’t.”

Consistency and fairness in applying firmness, coupled with a well-timed release, will build your horse’s confidence in you. As with anything else, there will be a step forward and two steps back throughout this process until your awareness of “cause and effect” between the two of you reveals the value of planning your moves before you make them.

If  you ask a horse to do something and present the request with patient expectation while observing him carefully, he willingly exhibits his natural inclination to search for a release. You must wait and watch carefully as the horse thinks. It takes longer for some horses than others to understand what is meant by what was just done. This is particularly important when dealing with young horses, or any horse that shows signs of confusion about what is expected from him.

Watch for the instant the horse exhibits the slightest physical or mental change in response to pressure, which can range from your mere presence to a pull from your rope, request for a hoof, or the stroke of your hand on his neck. This change may be a tipped ear, a softening in his eye, an exhale or a shift of his weight from one foot to another. Any of these responses warrant the immediate release of pressure, wherever it is exerted.

If the horse is released from this pressure on time, and every time he happens to choose the desired response, he will adjust his future responses in a way that requires less and less pressure to produce swifter and more accurate results. When this starts to happen, a bond between you and the horse begins to form. Submission and obedience are surely important, and also have a role in all this. But when a horse’s submission and obedience are the main goals, there is often more room for error in communication between the horse and the rider/trainer.

How could this be? My observations lead me to believe that a submissive horse whose spirit is still intact does not necessarily place his trust alongside the respect that he must continually show to a domineering master. As yet, I have not seen a horse that deeply trusts and respects a person unless there is a reasonable measure of feel built into the connection. Without a tangible measure of both trust and respect between the horse and the person, it is just a matter of time before there is a wreck of one kind or another.

Reciprocal feel begins to develop when force and haste are replaced with patience and the release of pressure at the slightest acknowledgement of your intent (to move the feet, lower the feet, bend the body, or stop the feet, etc.). This is how a horse learns to “feel of you” and how he learns to derive meaning from your physical touch or presence.

This approach to the horse’s mind is an essential element of truly good horsemanship and will lead the rider or horse handler to the ultimate privilege – the experience of reciprocal feel with the horse. It is then the option of the handler/rider to take it further up the line. When pressure and release is taken to a point of refinement where the intent you have is for the most part felt and not seen, you have entered the realm of feel and release.