Feel What? or What is Feel?

Story and photos by Leslie Desmond
Published in the March 1996 issue of The Trail Less Traveled

Feel. Feel? Feel!

“Feel,” you say. “Feel what?”
“Feel of the horse so that the horse can learn to feel of you and the two of you can work together.” That may well leave you scratching your head. But, at a lot of clinics it’s standard lingo. If you’ve already attended a few clinics and think you’re the only one who doesn’t “get it,” rest assured that you’re not.

What Feel Is and Isn’t         

This “feel” thing between a horse and a human is time-tested and is available to us all. If you want it badly enough, you will find it. Sure enough your horse will reflect it back to you when you start to get it figured out. In fact, your horse is out there right now just waiting for you to give it a try.
It’s not an overnight fix-it or telepathic abstraction you can purchase from the classifieds. It’s not magic and it’s not a miracle reserved for certain people who are blessed with special endowments. “Horse Whisperers” are fictionalized characters.
So, what is “feel”? Bill Dorrance calls it “the main thing.” I’ll put that in context. “Handling the horse is the most important thing in my life and getting that horse to feel of you ... that’s the main thing,” the 90-year-old Dorrance said recently.
Dorrance has been feeling horses for virtually all of this century. At age four he was rounding up chickens on a stick horse and, with his brother, Bill still rides, ropes and works with his horse almost every day. So, when he says that “feel” is the main thing, I believe him.
But, why does he say this?
Without feel of the horse, the rider communicates with the horse through force, right up to the point of resistance. At that point, the rider begins to develop in the horse a reaction to pressure that is commonly called a “brace.” Instead, the rider has the option to invite the horse to respond--not so much different from the way you might approach someone you don’t know well but admire.

In this photo, both ridee32cecf180rs and horses are searching for a better alternative. Foreground, notice that the rider’s right rein leverages the jaw open. This young girl intends no harm and the horse, being an old stable mount, knows this. But notice that the horse’s eyes are rolled back, as if to say “What on earth do you want from me? You ask me to go forward, but you prevent it! You pull my rein back while you drive me forward with your heel? What do you want?” The horse in the background attempts to evade pressure in her mouth by dropping her neck at the withers and tucking her chin as close to the chest as possible. Notice the rider’s heels are well away from the sides, but his weight is rocked forward onto the withers and the forehand. The rider’s weight follows his eyes, which are downcast. This makes it exceedingly difficult for the horse to free up the shoulders and rock her weight back, as she is being asked to do.


How it Works

If a person asks the horse to do something and presents the request with patient expectation while observing the horse carefully, the horse willingly exhibits his natural inclination and ability to search for a release of pressure. The person must wait and watch for the instant the horse exhibits the slightest physical or mental change in response to pressure. This change may be a tipped ear, a look in his eye that softens, an exhale or a shift of his weight from one foot to another. Any of these responses warrant the immediate release of pressure, wherever it is exerted.
If the horse is released from this pressure, on time and each time that he happens to hit the desired response, he will adjust his future responses in a way that requires less and less pressure to produce swifter and more accurate results. When this starts to happen, a bond between the person and the horse begins to form. This approach to the horse’s mind is an essential element of truly good horsemanship and will lead a horseman to the ultimate privilege--the experience of reciprocal feel with the horse.
I do not think it is possible for a horse to deeply trust a person without this approach. Without trust, it is not a matter of if, but when there will be a wreck. It is inevitable.
Reciprocal feel begins to develop when force and haste are replaced with patience and the release of pressure at the slightest acknowledgement of your intent (to move the feet, lower the feet, bend the body, stop the feet, whatever). That is how a horse learns to “feel of you” and that is how he learns to derive meaning from your physical touch or presence.
     On Red’s more comfortable side, Lotte Lu shows her young student where to stand when he asks the horse to turn the bridge of the nose towards himself. The purpose of this exercise is to encourage the poll and upper neck area to soften or yield to the left when the child presents the horse with “a feel” to the left. The horse will improve quicker on his bad side if he is first prepared to feel comfortable on his good or easy side.
After successfully asking Red to turn his head loose at the poll, to his left (easy) side, our apprentice is shown succeedina4e606821cg on Red’s right (hard) side. Notice the brace that runs through this horse at the poll, shoulder, ribs, hips and loin. Also, the neck is still arched off to the left even though the head is tipped to the right. He is trying to give his head to the right, but is locked up and only the tip of his nose swings to the right. Red became safe to ride when he could yield with softness from the bridge of his nose, through his body and down to his feet. Anybody who has had a horse flip over on them understands the importance of willingness and flexibility from both sides.
He feels when and where the pressure is applied. He feels how quickly and completely the pressure is removed. Through the consistent, repeated practice of this approach a person will get more of the desired response with less and less pressure until one day it will take only a suggestion in the form of a physical gesture felt or scarcely seen. In his way, the horse learns to participate with you, implement your agenda and converse with you through reciprocal feel. But, only if it is presented to him in a way that he can make sense of it. That is up to you.
Later, with your timing refined and powers of observation well developed, a thought is all that will be necessary to achieve what you want. In time, misuse of the whip, spur and harsh hand will fade from memory. They should fade because they yield the most pitiful results.

Direct and Indirect Feel

It is very important to incorporate feel in your approach to touching a horse anywhere. This means touching his physical body directly and indirectly by touching the horse’s world with your presence, including your tone of voice, mood, appearance, body language, smell and even your intent. These are all things that register in the horse’s keen awareness of his surroundings.
It is not that the horse reads your mind. Rather he feels of you with all his senses and reacts to his perception of truth. The horse has the option of staying with the human or leaving in a hurry.
When the horse responds to a person through direct feel, he is reacting through the touch of your hand--just as he does to the halter rope, reins, grooming equipment or anything else you put on his body. If you pay attention, his response will be clear.
It is also the horse’s option to get out from under you if he feels that what you present to him from astride is offensive. The horse either does or doesn’t want to be with you. He either understands your message (what Ray Hunt calls “the mind behind the hand”) or he doesn’t.