01October2022

Feel & Release, and its Importance to the Horse and Rider

Thoughts on Feel & Release and its Importance

 to the Horse & Rider

 

by Leslie Desmond

 

 Whether you are headed for a jump, riding a dressage test, gathering cattle, helping a child learn how to ride, or closing a gate from the saddle, the horse that understands your intent and feel will be there to do whatever is needed at the right time. 

A horse like this makes the best partner and will work very hard for your mutual benefit. If he is or isn't that partner, it is up to the person to help him become that partner. I love my job helping people to discover what a committed partner their horse can be and how to help him cultivate the inborn ability to be that way.

 As a riding coach and horse trainer, in almost three decades of travel around the world, I have met thousands of people and horses. What I have enjoyed most about this opportunity is the vast and intriguing range of different approaches people use when they are handling and riding horses. Incredibly, most of these approaches actually work! 

Horses have an astounding capacity to adapt well to different training methods, presentations and challenging situations. Effective techniques are too numerous to mention here, but there are countless variations in human presentation that horses can accept.

 While I have had some excellent coaches along the way, my search for new information to help me become a better coach continues. In recent years my focused effort to be a better student of the horses I work with has underscored much needed clarity about exactly what it is that a horse does and does not need from me in a given moment. This connection is more rewarding than I ever imagined it could be. Occasionally I take private lessons from friends who know more than I do about how horses work and what it takes to ride and handle them better than I do now. The other inspirational source of new knowledge comes from my own students directly. Their plateaus, questions, goals, and fears challenge me to re-think my old solutions to common and not-so-common training dilemmas. I’ve discovered that many approaches work, but I am convinced that the techniques that horses understands best are all woven together by a common thread called "feel".

A horse understands many kinds of feel, such as the direct feel of the weather on its body, a hand or brush on its face or shoulder, or the bridle rein against the neck and a leg against the ribs. A horse also understands indirect feel, which includes things like variations of body language, the human voice, and also our emotions like joy, fear, sadness and anxiety, and yes, even our thoughts. Another kind of indirect feel that is of great importance to the horse is his perception of the way shared spaces are used. Examples of this include the pace and sound of a human footfall approaching or going away from him, the speed and feel of our other movements, as well as more subtle things like our core focus, line of sight, posture and the way we use our arms and hands, legs and feet in relation to the horse’s eye, withers, ribs and hips during ground exercises. 

All of these aspects of ourselves that we bring to the horse register  in the horse's mind and can influence his decision about how, where, if and when to move his body. These subtle effects on the horse also apply when the rider is mounted; they combine to become the foundation for solid advancement.

It is important to remember that most refined maneuvers can astonish onlookers into fantasizing about the handler or rider in terms of "horse-whispering" and "magic" but, actually, the horse's physical reactions are rooted in its instinctive ability to read a person's intentions clearly. The horse can read human intent and emotion better and faster than most people can read a line in a newspaper. 

The horse's capacity to optimize this incredibly intuitive aspect of his nature is his instinct for self-preservation.  His instinct for self-preservation is the key to everything that concerns him.  It is the key to understanding his ability to know who is around him, what other creatures may be near -- be it another horse or cow, a person, dog, wolf, or other natural enemy.  Self-preservation is the source of his ability to know what other beings are thinking or wanting him to do, expecting him to do, or fearing that he might or will do.  

I hope that all horse owners and trainers will soon decide to give top consideration to this aspect of the horse's inner makeup in their efforts to communicate with him clearly and fairly. I believe this is something anyone involved with a horse will benefit from learning especially if they also commit to using feel and release.

With feel-and-release-based training techniques and the right blend of philosophy and horse health-and-hoof care my students form very close bonds with their horses.  And, for those who already have established a partnership with their horses, these new connections are strengthened as the "same-old" routines are phased out and new communication skills and adventures are welcomed in.

As stand-alone goals, horse handling techniques mean little to the horse until they are presented in a way that the horse can understand. When you understand how your horse works on the inside and apply this knowledge in an incremental and consistent way, the foundation you set up becomes a reliable partnership.  When this happens, confidence replaces insecurity.  Clarity replaces confusion.

When the basics are a woven into the normal pace and details of its daily life -- not only a part of specific drills or boring routines -- the horse begins to recognize and understand the intent behind the feel coming from the person.  This gives him confidence and from there he is likely to stop questioning the person and to follow the feel of the person's lead and leadership.  

When these basics have become a regular practice, the connection between person and horse becomes stronger.   The resulting partnership is based on trust that extends far in both directions. Ultimately, in its refinement, the mutual trust and reciprocal feel between a horse and a person is part of a maneuver that is born the instant it is shared.

In most cases, it is necessary that the coach understand how to teach and how to apply feel in order for the student's relationship to his or her horse develop at the right pace and in the best way.  The student, meanwhile, must invest whatever time is needed to learn all there is to know about the specific needs of the horse.  This requires limitless patience.  

It is also important to be crystal clear about the importance of making mistakes.  

It is impossible to avoid mistakes. We all make them, so we must accept them.  In order to do this, we must cultivate a calm, non-judgmental attitude toward our mistakes.  It is vital that we begin to view errors as opportunities for growth, for greater closeness, and for an ever stronger bond.  Our calm, even eager, anticipation of the next mistake eases tension, soon transforming both the horse and the person in unexpected ways.  

I know this to be true from my own experience and when this happens, everything about the friendship is refreshed . . .  it becomes deeper and a lot more fun!