One of my favorite book titles about horse training is True Horsemanship Through Feel by Bill Dorrance. When it comes to horse training, there are basically two areas where people have fundamental problems-establishing leadership with their horses and what I’ll call their feel. By this I mean the consistency and timing of their cues. So much of direction given to a horse whether its during ground training or while riding is given through body language, and this is where many people- beginners and experienced alike – have problems.
Let’s start our discussion of true horsemanship through feel with relaxation and confidence. So much of interaction with horses comes about through energy. When a person feels nervous or uncertain, it shines in their body language. This can be indirect – a horse can sense you’re fear the second you walk out in the pasture. And of course when in direct physical contact you’re state of being has a huge impact on the horse. A person who feels fear or uncertainty communicates this to the horse through the lead rope when walking their horse. And of course while riding, the horse will literally feel your tension through your muscles and the way you’re sitting.
It’s natural for inexperienced horse owners or those who’ve been around equines longer but had bad experiences to feel fear or nervousness. In that situation, it’s important to change your energy. Deep breathing is one way to do that. Practice deep breathing exercises and transmitting relaxation throughout your body, through your arms and leg muscles. A horse instantly picks up deep breathing as a relaxation cue. You can watch Eric Bravo’s training videos and see how he is able to ask a horse to slow down or stop simply by breath. When riding, deep breathing is an excellent tool that can change your energy. Many people ride holding their breath and don’t even realize it. When holding their breath, back and leg muscles tighten up, and they hold the reins a little tighter. All of these cues are picked up by the horse and tell her there’s reason to be worried. The end result is trouble like bolting or bucking is more likely.
One of the most important areas where feel plays a role in horsemanship is through timing and release. Cues are given using pressure and horses learn through the release. This is true on the ground where we teach the horse the cues he needs to respond to, and in the saddle where cues are used to direct the horse. People mis-time the applied pressure making things confusing for the horse. They may hang in their too long. For example, you apply pressure to the hip asking the horse to yield (move the hip away from you) and he executes the move, but you keep the pressure on him as he’s moving. Or another example is you ask your horse to back up, and keep shaking the rope after he’s backed up. This leads to confusion. The handler should release the pressure at the instant he does what you’re asking.
Another problem is people don’t hang in there long enough. If you apply pressure and the horse doesn’t do what you’re asking, and you release, the horse has just learned that by resisting he gets the reward-which is the release of pressure. To get a horse that’s nice and light, releasing at the right moment is critical.
Another aspect of timing is being consistent. Many riders are inconsistent with their cues, and this confuses the horse. Think about how you’re asking your horse to turn, go faster or come to a stop. Are you always consistent with these cues, or are you a sloppy rider, bouncing around up there kicking and clamping down when you’re not intending to ask your horse for anything? Keep in mind that horses are insanely tuned in to the slightest sensation from our body.
When doing your training don’t neglect the right side of the horse. Dorrance said: “You’d work both sides of your horse so both eyes get used to seeing you… He would get so he could see you anywhere and it wouldn’t bother him”. A horse has two brains – left and right. Do every training exercise equally on both sides. You can even practice mounting and leading on the right side.
To sum up, if you’re calm and relaxed, and you keep your cues consistent with the right timing-your horse will be light and responsive.