Training Your Horse with Feel

One book that may be most helpful to you in training your horse is "True Horsemanship Thru Feel" by Bill Dorrance and Leslie Desmond. You can order the book thru this link: Order Book. The following are some thoughts that may help you.

"The person has quite a responsibility to the horse, and the main one is that they need to have an idea what response they want from the horse before they start presenting their feel to him. The idea of what a person wants to have happen has to be in place in their mind first. If that isn't there, why the horse can't be expected to understand what they mean when they present their feel to him."

In recent clinics I was able to attend, Leslie repeatedly mentioned "thought" as the first step when asking anything of the horse. Like with riding a turn to the left, start with the thought, then look to the left, then shape your body and legs to turn where you're looking, and lastly use the reins, hopefully without ever taking out the slack. [Editorial note: This is the same as the "birdie" talked about by and Harry Whitney; and the "focus" as described by Pat Parelli, and many other horsemen.]

When Bill talks about a horse who "can't follow your feel", I think he talks either about overexposed horses who are so scared that you can't get through to them or horses who, as a defense, have mentally withdrawn. Look in their eyes, there is nothing there. Their attention is in another world. These two kinds of horses are the ones who are commonly nearly beaten to death by "firmness" in traditional handling, with no results whatsoever. These horses can't follow your feel. They don't know how; they have mentally "left the building".

When Leslie talks about a relationship of partnership vs. one of dominance, she means (I think) the whole relationship between you and your horse, the prevalent colour of it, its main character. The result of training with feel. This does not mean that you shouldn't be clear to your horse.

It's easy to misunderstand these concepts. And it's easy to forget that it's about a living relationships with as many nuances as there are between humans. No procedural thinking will lead you there. It's not about "what I did yesterday was right, so it must be right today". If your horse doesn't respond to you on a windy day as he did on a sunny day, it's not what you did on the sunny day that was wrong. Or that the horse has "changed" since that sunny day. You may have to plan your training differently. Ask for different things in a different order. Make it as easy to grasp as possible for the horse - THAT DAY. (Yes, this will often set you back - seemingly.) But it's not about going forward or going back along a line of "results" either, it may be about inventing something entirely different that day.

When a horse does not understand, it might be that the person has a lousy presentation which is impossible to grasp for the horse. Or it might be that according to his experience he is not convinced that you're ideas are good ones. He can do better on his own, with you on his back or not. Or you can put his life in danger, according to him. You must show him that your ideas can be OK to follow, and it may require much firmness to show him that. Or he will understand, or he will show aggressive attitude back. The ART is of course to get the first response right away, without having to go through the second. I believe the more you can adapt and change your "training program", the more likely it is that you will avoid that negative "responding to firmness with aggressiveness" mechanism.

I can tell you that Icelandics in the Northern countries are trained in the same way as you all describe TWHs and MFTs. It is said that you will spoil the horse and destroy the gait if you don't do it that way. Reality is that high speed has become more and more the dominant aspect in competitions, in order to give the breed more "public attention" and more money into the sport... Not much feel in that.

A horse that has mentally and emotionally withdrawn from humans: A few times I rode an older small mare like that. She had been rescued from "life" at a rental stable by a real good horseman. She did everything asked, was never a threat. But emotionally she was absent from humans, like she was still on a chain gang. I ached so to have her know I cared, to have her WANT to participate, but she melted out from any mental engagement beyond "doing the moves." It wasn't a joint ride for her. It was just a string of moves - notes but no music. I wished I knew how to make it better for her. Getting off and hugging her was the best I could do. She probably would have been happier without the hug and strokes.

The softness I must have in order to be able to perceive all the different tries my horses make when I request something of them through feel, is not an intellectual process. It takes a softening of the heart, or maybe just listening to what my heart has been telling me all along. If I focus on looking for a try, then I'll likely find lots of tries.

Talking about jigging; or in Icelandics, the tossing or odd tipping of the head, fighting of the bit, bolting: This is an entirely man-made action born out of poor communication, impatience, lack of skill and effective information and any or all of the above in combination. The action is not natural.

There is a disquieting effect of some sort on the horse that the rider has not been able to address and this is usually because the legs are ineffective and the balance is off. This results in too much hanging on the mouth (for slowing down and balance) and not enough actual setting down of the feet. This action is usually the companion of nervousness/tension...when it's this way, neither the horse nor the rider feel or look good, and it's best to avoid developing this in a horse. It can be a bear to eradicate.

Riding the mouth like this a common mistake, and it is widely taught. If you were taught this, just don't blame your teacher because they were taught to do this, too. It can be unlearned, and riding the feet can be learned.

The set up for jigging takes place when the horse is actually urged forward (intentionally, or unintentionally --as in through the draw of another horse, or home, or through one's sloppy legs, weak seat, too much reliance on the stirrups and reins, looking down, all this....) and held back (the result of rider confusion about how to apply commonly misunderstood terms like "half halts", "checking", "rating" or similarly valued techniques used for changing speed without forfeiting the torque). This (holding a horse back) is almost always done without thought to his form and the functions he has out there.