How to Apply the Elusive “Feel”

Story and photos by Leslie Desmond
Published in the May 1996 issue of The Trail Less Traveled

How to Apply the Elusive “Feel”

This thing called “feel” is elusive and tough to describe. Before I venture to interpret what feel might mean for the horse, perhaps it will help to consider this about the human experience. How would you best describe the smell of a freshly mown hayfield to one who didn’t know? The taste of wheat bread? The look of twilight, the sound of a hawk or the pain of a thorn in your skin?
How would you say a headache feels? How does loud music feel to the ear? How do an infant’s fingers feel against your cheek? Or, what is it that’s different about the feel in the handhold of a cherished friend versus the handshake of a stranger?
Those things all feel a little bit different to each person and even if two people agreed that it were the same experience, how would they be sure? No two people are the same. No two horses are either. For an optimum interaction the differences between beings must be acknowledged and respected.
Our approach to another--be it human, horse or otherwise--must be flexible and consistent; respectful and firm; loving and, when appropriate, lenient. Consider the ordinary events that reach our senses--rain, wind, barking dogs and birdsongs. They have a different effect on each of us. Even deeply felt experiences--hope, love, joy, sadness, fear, insecurity--all register in a slightly different way because of the unique way each of our bodies records and prioritizes information.
Each horse is a separate being too. The experiences in his life are perceived just as uniquely by him as yours are by you. Each individual horse must be approached as just that ... an individual. Humans play a big part in how a horse views his world. They determine whether or not the horse feels safe in it.
Simply, if the horse feels safe with you, you will be safer with him. It’s important to recognize the subtle changes in body movements and facial expressions when he feels more or less comfortable. As you handle him, notice how your mental state and physical actions affect him. This is so important.
Without feel built into a person’s horsemanship abilities, the potential for trust and willingness between a person and a horse will not amount to much. Some people say that “feel cannot be taught,” and I share the view. However, I think a person can learn to apply feel if they have an opportunity to observe someone who is successful applying it to handling and riding a horse.
“Feel” has a definite look to it. When a person handles or rides a horse with feel, it’s unmistakable once you learn to recognize it. If you and your horse get along pretty well, you probably have more “feel” working for you in your horsemanship than you might even know.
Here are some ways you can start building more feel into your daily routine at the barn or in the field ... or wherever you keep your stock. Take an inventory of the effect you and your horse have on each other as you do your chores. Does he move around the stall or the corral at feeding time, or do you move him around the pen? Do you get a bucket or a stool to stand on while you wrestle the bridle onto his head, or does he lower his head and hunt up the bit as you move the headstall into position? Do you hop around on one foot until you get a good hold of your saddle so that you can swing up fast before he leaves? Or does he wait until you’re settled on his back and decide to move him along?
To the horse, the details matter. The little things play a big role in what the horse comes to expect from a person. Over time, they learn to “homogenize” their impressions about people, as people will often do in their approach to horses. Either directly or indirectly, this will lead to trouble.
When the communication between the human and the horse is fuzzy, or dull or imprecise, it is up to the human to initiate and follow through with new terms that can improve it. A horse cannot be expected to assume any responsibility for this. Self-preservation is his main job, and to this end he will do whatever is necessary to survive. It’s up to us to be aware of this natural imperative and to present what we expect of the horse as clearly, consistently and flexibly as we can ... because this is most fitting to the horse.
Leading up and backing freely are good exercises for applying feel. For best results, outfit your horse to start with a bridle that has a snaffle bit and slobber straps.

Leading Up Freely

The objective here is to teach him to be led, not dragged behind you.
The message for his feet to move will come from your hand, placed at the bottom of the slobber strap about 6-8 inches below the horse’s mouth on one rein. Stand to the side, about 45 degrees off one shoulder. Adjust your position by sraightening your elbow and extending your arm from the shoulder as needed. Do not crowd, push or lean on your horse.
Take the slack out of the rein on an angle. If he moves forward freely, release the rein to a slack position with a good-sized dip, but keeping the lowest part of the slack above the knee. Repeat this a few times (practice this on both sides) until he leads up freely, with all four feet as soon as the slack comes out of the rein as you walk away from him.
You might get some other reactions.
He might not understand from the feel of your pull on the rein what you intend him to do with his feet. This lack of understanding can result in his planting his feet hard ...

  •  and stretching his head and neck out toward you with his eyes closed;
  • and slinging his head into you;
  • or backing up.

He might understand that this feel from your hand means for him to move his feet, but instead of walking up freely, he might instead ...

  • take a little step toward you with one foot and leave the other three where they are, and then stop;
  • jump past you;
  • jump straight into your zone and crowd you;
  • leap ahead on top of you.

If his feet don’t move, or he backs up, take the slack out of the rein slowly and offer him another chance to consider what you want. If his response doesn’t change, then give a good, firm pull off to the side. You might have to do this a few times until he understands what you want him to do with his feet. Don’t stand in front of him and pull him straight forward because in this position he is at an advantage to brace against your pull or land right on you if he jumps forward. Be careful not to jerk the rein or snap the slack out of it. The idea is not to punish him but to reinforce your request for him to follow the feel of your pull as soon as the slack comes out of the rein.

Force vs. Firmness

In all that you do with your horse, remember that the use of force is never, ever fitting. To communicate with your horse through feel, force must be replaced with time and patience. This is not to say that there is not a rightful place and time to be firm and, in some cases, firmer. However, and this is important, the more firmness you use with your horse, the more experience and understanding you must have about the role that timing and balance serve in the horse’s understanding of your intent.
The “feel” of firmness is neither applied by the human nor recieved 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 also have some skills with which to implement it. For your own safety you must anticipate his response to your increasing firmness. Otherwise, you could regret it.
This brings to mind an observation Bill Dorrance often makes: “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.” So go slowly. This will give you the time necessary to develop your powers of observation, which is an essential part of applying feel correctly in your horsemanship. Trial and error will provide you with the experience you need to get that better judgment about how and when to firm up.
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 convinces you to plan your moves before you make them.

Backing Freely

Start this exercise on the side of the horse that has the foreleg farthest ahead. This will be most fitting to him, since he’d be inclined to start back with this foot anyway. With your hand at the end of the slobber strap, take the slack out of the rein, drawing your hand straight back toward his chest. Don’t be in any hurry. He may understand the connection between your hand and his feet right off, and he may back that foot up. If he does, release. He also might do any of these other things which indicate that he hasn’t understood that you want him to move his feet.
He might plant his feet and ...

  • raise his head and sling it back and forth with his mouth open;
  • drop his head and chew the bit;
  • bend in the middle of his neck and curl his chin back to his chest;
  • turn his head around to the side to have a look at his belly;

Or, he could have an idea that you want him to do something with his feet, but not being exactly clear what it is he could offer these responses:

  • rear up, stiff legged;
  • strike out at you with one or both forelegs;
  • push against your hand and walk on top of you.

If he moves his head but not his feet, wait. You will experiment with firmness, only as needed to keep him from moving you out of position. It is important to keep his nose lined up with the foot you intend him to move back. Don’t pretend at firmness by trying to pry his feet loose by using force on the bit. He will also be experimenting, searching for the meaning in your hand. At the slightest effort to take weight off the leading forefoot and shift it back, release. Try again in a few seconds, and he will search with his mind until his body again feels for the place that releases him from your hand on the bit.
Lead him forward and try again on the same foot, or shift his nose over a little bit until it’s lined up with the other foot and prepare him to shift his weight back with that foot, same as before. Take the slack out of the rein, offer him a feel to back up, and wait. Except that his head is tipped slightly away from you so that his nose is lined up with the other foot, this is the same teaching process you use for the foot nearest you. It is important to practice this on both sides until he can back up, one foot at a time, with a lighter and lighter feel on the rein. This might take days, or weeks. It all depends.
In time he’ll discover that what worked once will work again. Your well-timed releases for these correct responses will encourage him to search for the feel of your release. Anticipating that, he’ll move his foot back faster and farther and with more confidence each time.
If he rears or strikes, you’ve probably pushed too hard. Don’t punish him. Start over with less firmness and try to get more done with less effort. Replace impatience with patience, replace your hurry with horse time.
If he pushes forward against you when you present him with the feel to back up, meet him with only as much firmness as it takes to back him off his own pressure to the place where you first started and start again.
Stand off to the side and be prepared to straighten your elbow and extend your shoulder to maintain a safe distance without losing your balance. If you’ve lost your nerve because of responses like this, you can regain your confidence by practicing your feel and timing on a horse that has an easier time understanding what you expect him to do. As your feel, timing and balance improve, your horse will also improve.