That elusive "feel"-ing
“Feel” has to be one of the most difficult-to-define horsemanship terms, as well as the most difficult concept to teach. I am not alone in this sentiment; according to Jonathan Fields in his book The Art of Liberty Training for Horses “feel is notoriously difficult to teach (and) understand. Teaching it to students is like trying to teach them how to hold a bird. They grip too tight. the bird suffocates; they don’t hold enough, and the bird flies away.”
“Feel” to the equestrian is a bit like timing to the musician in that some people seem to naturally possess an instinct for it while others must toil endlessly to wrap their minds around just the concept before they can even start to apply it in practice.
The good news is, almost everyone—with perhaps the exception of those who suffer from some deficiency that impedes their perceptive abilities—has experienced “good feel” versus “bad feel” in contexts beyond the barn setting. For example, Fields points out, “if you are a dancer, you’ve experienced good feel and bad feel on a night out. Some dancing partners make you feel like you’re dancing on a cloud while other make you feel as if you have cement shoes.”
Just like dancing, “feel” in horsemanship includes the two-way communication between horse and handler; it’s an “invisible connection” that gives you “a subconscious understanding of what your horse is telling you at each moment.”
Departing from Jonathan Fields’ definition of feel, I would like to propose that “feel” from the human’s perspective includes at least three parts. The first part is the ability to perceive what the horse is actually doing while you’re riding and handling him. This is the part that some of us are born being able to do and others must learn to do. Some examples of this element of “feel” would include being able to tell if the horse is nervous or anxious, if he’s speeding up or slowing down, if his jaw is stiff or yielding and if he’s crossing his legs during lateral movements. Some people seem to automatically be able to know all of these things without being taught, even when they have limited horse experience.
The second part of feel is being able to interpret what the horse’s current actions and behaviors mean and, based on that interpretation, accurately predict a horse’s subsequent actions. For example, if a horse is tense through his back and swishing his tail, one might be able to accurately predict that the horse is unhappy with something and may be thinking about bucking. If the horse is heading in the direction of home and is stiff in the jaw and speeding up, one might predict that this is a precursor to the horse bolting. Some of this aspect of “feel” will come with knowing each individual horse well enough to know what sorts of behaviors are typical to him and what signs anticipate them, as well as being well-versed in typical equine behavior in general.
The third aspect of feel is one that Fields defines as “how to best communicate with” your horse. Fields adds that “with feel, you know what aid to give, how strong it (should) be, the precise time to give it and exactly when to release to reward the horse.”
This last aspect of feel is only attainable through experience and knowledge. While some people are more naturally able to observe what the horse is telling them and accurately interpret it, only through instruction and experience does one learn how to properly respond to the horse through the right aid, its timing and its release.
A handler with good feel interacting with his horse is a harmonious sight to behold, and one can easily spot the difference between a handler without feel and one with. When a person who has no feel is handling a horse, everything seems very labor-intensive and discordant. Even the simple act of leading a horse will look like a struggle where neither the horse nor the human experience many moments of comfort or relaxation. One of two scenarios will usually play out while someone without feel is leading a horse—the first is that the person will be completely unsuccessful is getting the horse where he or she wishes and the second is that it will appear that the person is dragging the horse to its destination without ever allowing a moment of reprieve from the tautness in the lead line.
In contrast, the handler with feel will give the impression of not working at all to lead the horse. It will appear that the animal simply follows him or her, without the person ever having to take slack out of the lead line. The handler will be so in tune with the horse so as to anticipate and invisibly correct problems before they even occur, giving the impression of perfect harmony between animal and human.
Why is feel so difficult for many of us horseman to obtain and refine? First, I think that in large part, we humans have been evolving in such a way that does little to facilitate the retention of our natural ability to read our surroundings, especially when those surroundings include animals of a different species. We are so verbally oriented that we’ve all but scrapped our need to interpret things like body language and expressions of our fellow humans, so forget about being able to do so with another creature!
The other theory I have as to why feel is so difficult for many people is related to the way in which horsemanship is often taught. Unfortunately, we instructors spend a lot of time telling people what to do with or to horses, how to give an aid, how to accomplish a particular exercise or a move and how to tell the horse what we want of it. Very little time is spent talking about listening to horses or observing them. It makes sense that people would know very little about what the horse is telling them when that kind of information is not the main focus of too many lesson programs.
While in every time period there have been certain individuals with a more developed sense of feel than their contemporaries (think Xenophon in the 4th century B.C. and modern-day Monte Roberts or Jack Brainard), I believe that there is also a generational element to the collective difficulty we seem to have with feel. We spend far less time around horses in modern times than our ancestors did, so interpreting and responding to horsey behavior becomes more of a challenge when we haven’t the experience of the majority of people in the times of horse-drawn buggies.
The good news is, feel can be learned! Spend some time just observing your horse, preferably in the company of other horses, and get to know his expressions and how he communicates with his buddies. You will start to see the subtle ways in which horses interact with their surroundings and with each other, giving you a leg up in understanding his subtle reactions to you when you are handling him. Find a good instructor who will spend some time teaching you how to listen to your horse and interpret what it is telling you, as well as how to properly apply an aid or execute a maneuver. Whenever you do apply an aid, pay as much attention to your horse's reactions as to your own actions so you know the instant your horse has complied with your request. Practice releasing your aids almost simultaneously with your horse's attempt to comply, and never try to do with muscle what you could accomplish with better communication.