Feeling of the Feet

Story and photos by Leslie Desmond Published in the March 1998 issue of The Trail Less Traveled


The things that we have missed in our training program don't show up until we ask our horse to do something we haven't prepared him to understand. This could be anything from calmly stepping into a trailer, slowing down when he's asked, changing leads or just standing still. You can find horse and rider teams just about anywhere who can demonstrate that these sorts of things are possible to do.

If a horse hasn't been scared too badly, or had the "try" thumped out of him, then at the point when he understands where, when and at what speed you want him to place his feet, it is, usually, only the limits of his physical capacity that will prevent him from doing all that you ask.

But when the horse doesn't do these things, it's because he doesn't understand the feel you're presenting to him, and what you intend for him to do with his feet. There is a place to start that he can learn how to shift his weight so that he can move his feet where you want in response to your feel, and you go on together to build, or rebuild, your foundation from there.
The horse learns through feel. Whether it's effective or ineffective feel, that's how he learns. It's what causes him to do what he does. That's true whether you move him through indirect feel--loose in the corral or box stall--or direct feel of your rope and halter, or snaffle bit rein.

How your horse responds to your feel depends on two things: 1) your presentation, and 2) the individual that he is--some horses are very sensitive and others seem to feel very little. You can experiment best with this on the ground, and adjust what you offer the horse in a way that begins to produce the response you want. You'd have to do more to produce a positive change in a dull horse than you would with a sensitive horse. The timing of your release of pressure lets the horse know if what he did is what you wanted. The more you experiment with timing, the better your timing will become.

This will give your horse more confidence in your feel, and his willingness to try harder to understand you will probably improve at the same time.

There is no point in speeding things up, or trying to "finish" the horse when the basic understanding of how to shift weight from one foot to the other in response to your feel isn't clear to the horse.
Teach him to lead up, and to walk out past you, before the lead rope gets tight. Following a feel to lead up with feet that step freely is not the same as being dragged along like a three-wire bale of hay. Whatever the horse comes to expect from your feel, that is what he'll deliver. To advance beyond that very beginning, we need the horse to move those feet in any direction there's a need for him to move.

Start slowly, shifting his weight forward to lead him up, and back to back him up, shifting the nose over the foot that is farthest forward. If the front feet are lined up evenly, look at the back feet to see which foot is farthest back and ready to step up next. Most of the time, the front foot on the same side will be the next foot to step forward. Position the nose over that foot to help him to come with you, or yield from you--in sync with the way his body is already arranged for him to pick his feet up and set them down--just the way he would if you weren't there.

Remember, never jerk on your horse. When your feel is understandable to the horse, he'll want to go with you because it feels better than the alternative. The right thing is obvious to the horse who is well prepared.

hrs13 1To help the horse pick up your feel from the ground and maneuver his feet accurately, take most of the slack out of your mecate, and re-tie the half-hitch in the near-side slobber strap with enough slack left to allow it to hang straight down. Be sure to catch up the shortened reins inside the throat latch on both sides of the neck. When you work your horse on the off-side (right hand side), run the end of your mecate through the off-side snaffle bit ring and double the rope over to create a simulated slobber strap which you'll hold about 4-6 inches below the bit. Your off-side slobber strap will already have been pulled up alongside the cheek piece of your horse's headstall, and is of no use for this exercise. Don't pull it so tight that pressure is felt on the left side of his mouth from your slobber strap.
Last month, Bill Dorrance helped an uncertain young horse to learn to feel of him. Although this 0c3a79f026horse carries a visible brace that reflects his uncertainty, the release he gets as his feet go to the ground encourages a smoother cadence in his footfall. Notice the horse's weight shifts off his right hind foot as the left front foot starts back towards the ground. This leaves the horse with his right diagonal for balance. The next foot to come off the ground after the right hind steps forward will be the right front. The horse moves this foot next to avoid stepping on himself.
When things are slowed down enough, it's possible to observe the small changes that make a big difference to the horse. Here the horse has shifted his weight off the left front foot. The left hind foot is drawn up under him for the support he'll need when the right hind foot lifts up and reaches forward while the left front is going back down. This will create a weight-bearing (right) diagonal balance point for the horse in the middle of the stride.
With both front feet lined up like this, it can be difficult to get the feet "unstuck" 6e6f1fd493without a clear understanding of the horse's balance from his own point of view. Do you want him to step up? Or, step back? If you'd like him to step up, which foot will he naturally want to move next? When you ask your horse to back up, remember that he maintains his optimum balance by alternately moving each diagonal pair of feet--it is a two-beat rhythm, with the left front and right hind moving together and the right front and left hind moving in unison. When he steps forward, his balance is also maintained through his reliance on diagonal pairs of feet, but they are placed, lifted and re-placed one foot at a time. Accordingly, you will want to adjust the position of his nose and the timing of your release for his efforts to understand you.
Do you want to ask him to step up, or step back? Plan: Where is most of his weight inthis picture? Think: Get down on your hands and knees and feel it. What foot just stepped down. Experiment: Which foot is ready to come up? What does that depend on? How would you want to arrange these feet before you asked him for a gallop-depart on his right lead? Hands and knees again. These questions and answers are important to your horse.