Horsemanship through feel has reward for the horse built in!

By Leslie Desmond

When a horse is set up for success, decisions about “if-when-how” to reward the horse become unnecessary.

In any presentation to the horse, feel of one sort or another exists. Whether it is a good feel, or not, whether it is understandable, or not, is the question.  When the inherent feel in a request is clear, both parties to the experience feel it, and feel good about it, and because of it. The reward for both the human and equine is the pleasure, the ease, and the clarity that comes with a clear approach to an understandable task or maneuver. The feel of sureness is what a lot of horses -- and people for that matter – are waiting for.  More often than not, though, people are not inclined to give themselves or their horse the benefit of the doubt until they are confident that they are “on the right track”, and “doing the right thing”.  Ironically, when the benefit of the doubt is offered unconditionally, the “right thing” and the “right track” usually show up sooner.

These questions come up in conversation sometimes. When the horse is clear that you are clear about what you want, is this a good reason to reward the horse for your role in setting him up to succeed? Does the human tendency to distract and unbalance the horse with mounted presentations of affection and slaps on the neck, and to interrupt his focus by clucking and fussing over him in the middle of a meaningful assignment or purposeful work, add to the horse’s clarity about the job?  These are not judgments disguised as questions.  I notice that many “rewards” for “good behavior” often backfire on the horse* but make the human feel a lot better.

How does the experience of working through feel and release become a reward in itself?

A horse is sort of like an onion. If given the chance, he is apt to peel back the superficial layers of behavioral “veneer” that one or more trainers or a series of owners or experiences might have added to the foundation. An observant person notices that most horses will reveal the key things they need to know about at the start of the relationship. It could take some hours or days, it could take weeks, but the more variations in the things you do together and the more places you go, the sooner a horse is likely to reveal himself, genuinely, to you. Therefore, my goal from the first “hello” is to provide the support a horse needs in order to “let down” or relax enough to reveal the “real stuff” that he is made of. (If I don’t know what’s inside him, there is little I can do to help him when the going gets tricky.) I want to know sooner than later precisely who is living under that pretty hide, and I want the horse’s experience of being with me to leave a positive and lasting impression!

I want his understanding of my actions to feel so good that a reward, or praise for “putting up with me” during a ride, or in a groundwork session is not something either of us are thinking about. For this reason, I adjust the feel I offer to a horse so that we can get along well together. Some people might understand it better this way: I do whatever it takes so that it becomes impossible for the horse not to want to get along!

After years of “getting by”, I realized that it “costs” a lot less in the short run -- and over time is the horse’s best reward -- if I simply set the arbitrary schedules and elective pressures from other parts of my life to the side. And, most important of all, I discovered that it was also necessary when I got around horses to say “adios” to ego.  Completely.

I don’t like writing this too much because I find it rather embarrassing to confess that I did not make this decision until frustration with my horses had become a “normal” state of affairs! I was in my mid-30s by then, and the truly high spots we shared were noticeably fewer and farther between.

The good news is that a few years later the best and swiftest results for time and energy expended were mine. It felt like a very long road I travelled, and it was; fortunately, it lead me to the doorstep of the late Bill Dorrance of Salinas, CA (January 19, 1906 - July 20, 1999). 

(Note: Bill Dorrance was a lifelong cattle rancher. His great love of horses began at his family’s homestead and cattle operation in Enterprise, Oregon. In 1931, at the age of 25, Bill joined his younger brother, Fred, in California. By that time, Fred had worked at several ranches around Nevada and California for about five years. According to Bill, Fred had become a really good hand with horses, cattle, and a rope. He had learned from the old vaqueros that were still around at the time how to make all his own gear from rawhide, and he encouraged Bill to do the same.

From that time on, Bill made the improvement of his many ranching skills his number one priority. Before long he, too, became a good hand with a rope. For the next 30 years, Bill refined his horse handling and riding skills. In the last half of his life, he was considered by many who knew him to be a first-class horse trainer and bridle-horse reinsman.) 

If fate guided me up and down the long road to Bill’s ranch on Mt. Toro in Monterey County, California, then it was due entirely to his generosity that I was patiently shown the best way to navigate a much narrower winding path a few quagmires after I arrived.

Bill knew about a place I did not know existed, or could exist, between a horse and a human being. In hindsight, the most interesting part of this story is that the piece of the horse-training puzzle I thought I was missing, Bill said I had all along. According to Bill, it just took someone to point this out. “A fella has to be in the right place at the right time,” he said, “and he needs to be ready, too, all right.” I was ready that day.  Bill kept up an impressive pace with my lessons until he was sure that I had grasped some new skills and developed a keener eye than I formerly had.

Before long, I found myself headed in a new and more fitting direction. After years of struggle with horses and the people connected to them, it was nothing short of marvelous to have a coach who consistently offered me the benefit of the doubt. By consistent example, he showed me kindness and patience in the face of misunderstanding, he slowed things down instead of speeding them up when he could see that my horse and I were not in agreement at that moment, and in these and other ways I was shown how to become a better coach for my own students.  And what’s more, Bill included each one of my horses in that information exchange. Over the course of many months, he took each one by its lead rope and, later, by the bridle reins. Using what he called his “better feel”, Bill showed me and each of them exactly what he meant by what he did.  Each of them understood “it” better than I did initially. The feel of the messages that he left in them could be described as benefit of the doubt, patience, and respect, among others. Each of them exuded a measure of confidence that I had not managed to instill in them. However briefly that remained in my horses after he turned over the reins (the scene of many previous misunderstandings with those horses about my intentions and their mouths), the experience was worth more to me than anything horse-related I had seen to date. No show or video, no book, lesson, or clinic did more to help me recover those nearly lost connections than Bill did by leaving his brand of feel behind. While it lasted, which wasn’t long, it occurred to me that I was standing at the crossroads. Literally. Not figuratively. After that, my connection to horses was never the same again.

Through his use of feel, which he had refined from years of practice, Bill’s message was felt and believed by every horse I saw him handle in the years we worked together. But that day, “it” came back to me from my own horse, right to my hand and lasted right until it didn’t. It was long enough for me to appreciate the deep effect on the horse of the subtle and nearly invisible exchanges of such short duration . . . and that is when I realized that that was the reward.

Intrinsic and invaluable; palpable, undeniable, and clearly understandable. The experience I had with each horse after Bill had visited there before me marked a new beginning for us; we were fresh and full, a team that tingled with a new liveliness. Lightness had somehow come back into them, perhaps it was more of a readiness than I remembered. But whatever it was, it was accompanied by the sense, or feel of renewed hope.

A feel-and-release based approach to schooling and riding horses reveals an enormous potential lurking below the surface on a majority of the so-called “messed up” horses; it eliminates the need for reliance on conventional treats used as handouts for obedience and submission. I discovered that simply being together with a horse in a state of shared awareness of the things that matter to him, keeps his curiosity in what I am doing or asking unusually high.

After I stopped creating unpleasant situations that necessitated a reward, I soon observed that my movements, mood, focus (line of sight), tone of voice attracted an unusual amount of attention and focus from two horses that in former times ignored me.  It was not long after I made the switch from force when needed (often) to always customizing the feel I offered to a horse, that two tough horses I had misunderstood for years developed into my most reliable mounts. That was thrilling.  The horse’s participation in a well presented assignment, then, was all the reward that it needed.

Can you imagine my relief at this discovery?

Horsemanship through feel illustrations: 

Maneuvering a Horse through Feel and Release: "Calle"

Connecting with a Horse through Feel - "Spring"