Improving Feel


Feel. This tiny word is tossed about in a broad range of equine sports and disciplines, and is used in earnest by increasing numbers of trainers and coaches. Improving feel is a vast and intriguing concept that is worth the time to understand, learn and apply.

Improving feel is something most people can learn. To succeed, you need to start with a desire to include the horse’s point of view in decisions and actions that affect his behavior and moods. It is at once a humbling and empowering process of self-discovery and personal refinement.

METHOD OR MADNESS?
For centuries, pressure and release have been the name of the game. It still is in many circles. At your barn or ranch, is it normal operating procedure to get firmer with the horse when he does not understand what is presented? Do you up the ante and then wait it out while the horse struggles to make sense of what you intend? A horse usually can and will, so most people believe they don’t have a reason to think about another approach to “what we have always done”.

PERSONAL DISCOVERIES
In former times, I confess my behavior towards a horse was sometimes crude. I would bump or jerk the lead rope to get his attention or add more emphasis to cues for a maneuver I wanted him to make more quickly. I now realize it was impatience that caused me to pull the reins sooner and kick harder, or present a firmer feel overall. If the horse understood my request but chose to ignore me, I would easily excuse myself.

Considering the wide range of individual horses brought my way, I had to eventually admit it wasn’t the horses. It was me. I was not as reined or effective as I could be – the horse was not responsible. Not one of them had decided to meet me, come to my clinic, or stay in my care. That being the case, I was the one who needed to learn how to adjust and make the best effort I could to it the horses better.

I have read that certain groups of Native Americans kept hundreds of horses near camp, a low whistle away, without the enticements of grain or corrals, fences, halters and ropes. References throughout history cite various armies, marauders, nomads and gypsies who kept groups of horses with them as a dogless shepherd kept his lock and the Tauregs of the desert kept camels. Could it be as simple as mutual dependency, as balanced and beautiful as reciprocal respect, trust and feel?

It was not until I spent a few years alongside Bill Dorrance that I found another way. In hindsight, I realize how much unnecessary confusion and work I was creating for the horses, and for myself, by not setting them up to succeed from the get-go.

THE JOURNEY TOWARDS “BETTER FEEL”

Here are the ingredients and questions that make all the difference:

TIME. You need time to spend thinking and watching the horse. It can be invaluable to have still photos or DVD clips done so you can see yourself in action with the horse. What does the horse do just before, during and after you do something? Is he waiting for you? Are you waiting for him? Are you blocking his response to the move you just asked for? Is he pushy? Are you?

PATIENCE WITH THE HORSE. Is he too slow, or are you in a rush? Is there enough room for him to make mistakes in your training program? Can you learn what you need to do to improve if you become upset with your horse? When things do not go as you planned, what are your real options?

PATIENCE WITH YOURSELF. Do you feel diminished (less important, less fulfilled) as a person if you do not “win” a struggle with a horse or a class at the show?

Honesty. If punishment is truly the best answer, would it need to be repeated?

Ask yourself these additional questions:
• Do you feel better or worse after you get mad at a horse?
• Do you feel better or worse after you get mad at yourself or others?
• Do you know where to go, or whom to call to get help if and when you need it?
• Is equine wellness connected to your own wellness?
• Is it important that someone else’s horse likes you? •
Have you over-empowered your horse?

ENLIGHTENED AWARENESS
Sometimes people need an alternative to techniques that are no longer satisfying or effective. Consider the following scenarios: Have you broken an arm or leg and still had to shift horses around the farm or ranch? Loaned out your round pen and discovered that your lunging techniques lead to loose horses that are headed in the other direction?

Have your horses snapped all your lead ropes, or broken their halters from pulling back? Are you tired of horses that walk or run away at the sight of you?

If any of these apply, it might be time to ease off on the pressure and consider an approach that incorporates more “feel and release”. Feel is enlightened awareness. How can you develop it quickly? By making deliberate actions preceded by clear thoughts. How long does it take? Whatever time it takes to experiment with the results of the judgements you can make at the time.

ENLIGHTENED AWARENESS
Sometimes people need an alternative to techniques that are no longer satisfying or effective. Consider the following scenarios: Have you broken an arm or leg and still had to shift horses around the farm or ranch? Loaned out your round pen and discovered that your lunging techniques lead to loose horses that are headed in the other direction? Have your horses snapped all your lead ropes, or broken their halters from pulling back? Are you tired of horses that walk or run away at the sight of you? If any of these apply, it might be time to ease off on the pressure and consider an approach that incorporates more “feel and release”. Feel is enlightened awareness. How can you develop it quickly? By making deliberate actions preceded by clear thoughts. How long does it take?

Whatever time it takes to experiment with the results of the judgements you can make at the time.

• Can or does your horse do things that embarrass you?
• Does the horse’s viewpoint matter? Why and when? Why and when doesn’t it?
• How do these questions make you feel?

5 TECHNIQUES FOR IMPROVING FEEL
1. Begin asking, stop telling, and leave your watch and cell phone in the pickup.
2. Check your mood barometer as you approach a horse. Remove punishment from the list of acceptable options when things do not go as planned.
3. Set the horse up slowly and in small ways to succeed, so he cannot fail. Are you waiting for him to do the wrong thing so you can make that difficult for him?
4. Do not mix alcohol and horse training.
5. Start keeping a notebook handy to record the small things that go well with each horse you handle and ride. (Use a small recorder if writing is not the best way to keep track.)

Getting a better feel of your horse takes considerable patience, but the time you spend developing this skill will be paid for many times over, in both the personal and professional relationships you share with your horse.

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