You’ve probably heard the term “feel” as it applies to horsemanship. What exactly is “feel?” It’s all about an exchange of awareness and communication between you and your horse: You’re both sensing what the other wants and responding accordingly.
Developing feel can be achieved through a system of asks and rewards. Your horse reads what you’re asking him to do through a variety of ways -- through how you sit, your leg positioning and how you hold the reins, to name a few. Your job is to remain quiet and attentive to the messages you’re sending, feel how your horse reacts to them and reward him when he complies appropriately.
As a simple example, say you want your horse to back up. Make sure you’re relaxed in the saddle and seated correctly. A slight and light pull on the reins should tell him what you want him to do. Sometimes, it may take more pressure. Ideally, it won’t take much for him to get your message. The instant he does is when you release the pressure of the reins, in effect rewarding him for doing what you asked. In this example, your horse felt your request, and you felt him answer. You’ve both engaged in “feel.”
To experience a rewarding feel, you’ve got to become aware of every aspect of your physical and mental connection with your horse. For instance, the horse can feel your intentions through the reins. If you’re gripping the reins like they're your lifeline, what your horse is sensing is that he should be tense, too. He might demonstrate that by pulling on the reins -- not your intention. Your chief tool in feel is to relax. From that state, your mount will be able to read what you’re really trying to tell him, and not be confused by your confusion. Try to be an extension of your horse by allowing him to match your demeanor: you’re calm, he’s calm; you’re paying attention to him, he’s paying attention to you.
Your asks need not be pushed to their farthest limits. In other words, just direct your horse as minimally as it takes for him to comply. In every case, be aware of the pressure you’re putting on him and how your pony is responding, making sure you release the pressure the moment he “gets” it. In the words of Buck Brannaman, “You want to do as little as possible, but as much as it takes.”
Using feel will help you achieve your goal of having your horse respond to your direction willingly and immediately. You just need to relax and focus. You’re not just some lump of cargo your horse is hauling around; you’re the "herd leader," his “better half” (or maybe he’s your better half!). Practice sending your intentions, using your mind, body and reins, and be aware of the force with which you’re asking. You want your horse responding to the same degree: a gentle ask eliciting a gentle response.
You can learn more on this topic from a book by Bill Dorrance and Leslie Desmond -- “True Horsemanship through Feel.” With practice, you and your horse will be interacting as effortlessly as the natural riders who make it all look so easy.
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