There’s no doubt that feel and timing are the fundamentals of good horsemanship and there are few horse trainers who don’t emphasise their importance. Whatever your discipline or chosen training method, developing a good feel and accurate timing are sure to be the keys to your success, and you can’t have one without the other. Being able to read your horse is useless without having the skill to co-ordinate your aids at the correct moment; on the other hand, what use is good timing if you don’t know when or why to ask, resist, or release?
What few trainers talk about is how subjective ‘feel’ can be. Timing is simple if you are looking only for a physical change – for your horse to take a step back, put his foot on a pedestal, or move up a gait. But what about when the thing you are looking for is more than just physical? What about when you are looking for your horse to soften mentally, rather than physically; to not just perform a movement, but to perform it with energy, calmness, or fluidity; when you want to affect a change in your horse’s thoughts, not just their physicality?
Timing your release or reward can only be accurate if you can define exactly what is is you are looking for. Do you want your horse to just take a step back or do you want your horse to want to take a step back? Are you looking for your horse to back up in a way that is biomechanically correct or simply yield their space? Are you searching for softness in the mind, lightness to the aids, or expression of movement? A good trainer should be able to explain exactly what they are looking for and be able to relay this to their horse. And before you assume somebody else’s timing was wrong, be sure you know what it was they were looking for in the first place.
I had a situation recently when my instructor was getting frustrated with my apparent lack of feel and timing. I was working with my horse to collect and come ‘on the bit’ and he kept repeating the same corrections without ever seeing the results that he wanted. For my part, I felt it was improving and was becoming increasingly frustrated that he wasn’t seeing what I was feeling. In exasperation, I asked him to ride my horse, hoping it would help clarify where I was going wrong. It did, but not quite in the way I had hoped. I realised that I wasn’t feeling what he wanted me to feel. I was searching for a different answer. I was searching for softness in the mouth, a give in my horse’s attitude that wasn’t just physical, but mental. And yes, I was allowing other elements to fall by the wayside in my quest to get inside my horse’s mind. I wasn’t interested in her rhythm or suppleness or impulsion, or whether she put her head down or opened her mouth. I was interested in what I was feeling in her mind.
To me when I ride my horse with a contact, I imagine the bit like a fine string connecting our thoughts. Resistance in the horse’s mind feels like she is gnawing away at the string, trying to cut the connection. Willingness feels like the string is flowing through to her hooves, like her entire body is within my fingertips. And at this early stage of training it is fleeting, momentary, invisible to the untrained eye – just flashes when the ‘gnawing’ stops and softness begins. This is what I was searching for and in my mind my timing was spot on.
My instructor was looking for a physical reaction. I tried it his way and found that with the ‘correct’ aids, I could very quickly get my horse to physically do what I wanted. I could engage the hocks, lift the back, ask for the head to lower, push my horse forward. My horse was taking the bit, swinging through the back, rhythmic and energetic in her movement. This is what everyone calls ‘on the bit’, right? My instructor was pleased. Finally, I was being proactive and my horse was responding. I wasn’t sure – I could feel the physical difference, no doubt, but the magic was gone. The physical connection was stronger than ever, but the mental connection was lost. Her mouth was physically responsive, but it no longer ‘spoke’ to me. Where there was a physical lightness, I now felt a mental block.
So who was right? There was no denying that my instructor’s methods brought about a physical change in the horse that was instant and immediately noticeable. My horse was moving better, engaging the correct muscles, and carrying me with ease – all very positive steps in the right direction. So, was what I felt wrong? Was I simply taking a different route to the same result or was I heading off down a wrong path? Was my lack of experience showing or was my natural intuition highlighting something that he had missed (or perhaps purposefully dismissed)?
It made me think about the documentary ‘Classical Versus Classique’ in which Philippe Karl of the French School of Légèreté and Christoph Hess, head of the German National Equestrian Federation (FN), meet to compare their different training methods. Both are incredibly accomplished in their individual fields, both train horses to the highest levels of dressage, but yet each trainer is in complete disagreement about how to achieve the end goal and what that end goal should be. Never have I seen a more complete demonstration of how subjective feel can be.
But the question is: if feel is so subjective, how can we possibly learn it?
My advice is to break it down into the different elements of feel. When you are riding or working with your horses, consider all these different elements; stay open and try to listen to your horse; follow your instincts and explore the places where they lead you.
Learn to feel the physical through practice – which diagonal you are rising on, which canter lead your horse has picked up, whether you are sitting straight, whether your horse has enough impulsion to perform a movement, how many strides before a jump, etc. This is step one.
Step two is trying to feel how the horse is responding mentally and this is much more difficult to quantify or teach. Can you feel when your horse is tense, when he is thinking about spooking, when he is fully concentrated on you or preoccupied by something else? Can you feel the difference between resistance and softness in your horse’s mind; when your horse is thinking forward instead of just responding to your aids?
The final stage of feel transcends all of this. It’s the difference between those moments when I feel my horse will do whatever I want him to do, and the moments when my horse is so connected and in sync with me that he will just want to do whatever I have in my mind. Can you get to a point with your horse where your thoughts become theirs? Can you feel the intangible connection that exists in a true partnership? For me, that is the ultimate achievement of feel and timing. And the best thing about it is that at this stage there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ – it simply is whatever you feel it is, and it doesn’t matter one bit what anyone else sees or thinks.
Photo courtesy of Saparevo via Flickr.