For the past two years I've been on a very different path in regards to my approach to training and riding horses. It started with my desire to reach and retrain a great little horse, Pickle who had recently been plucked from a kill pen. I wanted to find a good path forward with this horse who showed some symptoms of miss-handling and abuse in his past. He lacked confidence and trust
I thought perhaps some work together in a round pen where he could be worked at liberty would help him find a way to be with me. To learn both respect and trust from me, which I might add I needed to learn in my own way from him as well. The round pen did prove a wonderful place to begin a better relationship between us and a place from which we have begun a growing foundation of understanding.
I had not previously used a round pen and am now a convert joining the masses who have known of their benefit for decades.
This however was not the biggest revelation I have experienced in my work with Pickle during these past two years. When I got Pickle I decided to read two books by some of the founding fathers of Natural Horsemanship (although neither called what they did with a horse this). The books were True Unity by Tom Dorrance, first published in 1987 and Think Harmony With Horses by Ray Hunt, first published in 1978. Ray Hunt was Tom's student. In both books they talk about the importance of timing, balance and “feel”. All three are critical to good horsemanship and are always elusive in the sense that arriving at perfection is always just a goal and not a point at which you ever fully arrive. Both Tom and Ray would say they were working towards good horsemanship even though all that saw them ride or had them work a horse would think that they had clearly arrived at or at least close to perfection.
Good timing requires the rider to understand and know exactly where the horse's feet are and accordingly to know exactly when to ask for a stop, a lead or a transition. It takes a lot of listening to the horse and time in the saddle to get good at knowing where the horse's feet are at any given time but with a lot of practice you can at least understand how to get better at it and even how it can be achieved.
Balance also comes along with practice. It is clear enough that sitting upright over the horse's center of gravity can help him balance as he turns and transitions from gait to gait to halts and back ups.
Perhaps the hardest thing to fully grasp though, is what “feel” is all about and how to develop a good feel with an individual horse. Feel is different with every horse and rider combination. Understanding feel is crucial to keeping or making a horse light and responsive and willing. If a good feel is achieved, a horse will be feather light in his response to your request. A glimpse of a good feel with a horse will make you sense you are operating that horse with your mind only. It's a completely different kind of riding than I have ever felt before when you start to get a ride from a horse based on a good feel.
To develop and achieve a good feel with a horse a rider must spend a lot of time on the ground teaching that horse where he can move his feet, forward, backward, side to side. The horse must develop a suppleness and lightness in his movements both side to side and up and down. The horse learns to respond to the lightest pressure. The only reward the horse needs is a release from that pressure and the acknowledgment by the rider (on the ground or in the saddle) of his slightest try at the moment he gives it. This requires very keen attention from the rider.
The amount of pressure with which we ask a horse to yield should be so little, think of being even lighter than touching a dandy lion gone to seed without destroying its form and ramp up from there only to the point of the slightest try or yield back from the horse.
Over time, from a consistent light touch and an immediate rewarding of the horse for every little try he makes, a great communication can develop between a horse and rider. A well developed partnership between a rider and a horse based on a good feel does not even require a bridal to obtain collection.
I hold an image of this beautiful soft feel kind of riding in my head, Buck Brannaman cantering one of his well made horses sideways across a field in full collection with as much elevation in that horse as if he were performing an upper level dressage test, yet there is so much float in the reins as to be able to throw a cowboy hat through them. His body is perfectly upright, balanced and quiet as this horse floats underneath him, no ringing tail, quiet eyes and with a relaxed expression.
To me this kind of riding is a revelation. To me this has become a whole new goal, a new type of riding to try to achieve. This kind of riding is completely free of force and restraints, like any kind of nose band that closes the mouth, or any bit more leveraged or aggressive than a simple snaffle bit. Every problem is solved by fixing the issues in the foundation through ground work and riding. And yes, it is possible to fix any fixable horse this way. With this kind of training there is no use for ramped up bits or mouth restraints.
Collection has never been about constant contact with the horse's mouth anyway, like I and so many others were taught. It is about established communication and partnership through feel, a feel so soft as to appear almost not there, one in which most of the time there is considerable float in the reins. It is a whisper of pressure and release.
I have been making steady progress with this approach for the past two years with Pickle. He can now break into a canter while being held on the buckle with out picking up too much pace. Stop on the cue of my weight dropping back and go into reverse from a canter halt with out touching the reins. There are still miles to go and a lot to work on but I am now so convinced that this is the right way to approach training any horse.
The other day a single photo caption in a book by Bill Dorrance (Tom Dorrance's brother and another founding father of natural horsemanship) upped my understanding of how light one's feel with a horse should be. In the photo a boy is stroking the face of his horse. The caption with the photo said that the boy was touching the horse with too much force as his hand was ridged and did not seem to be softly absorbing the feel of the horse. There should be no brace what so ever in one's touch, it should be fluid.
In fact you come to understand that pressure can be put on a horse without touching him, merely through movements into his space or a certain direct eye contact. This is important to note as sometimes with some horses you need to back off the pressure before you've even made contact with them. I have now come to understand the lightness of pressure needed at a deeper level than I did previously and have had the best rides so far as a result. This stuff when you begin to scratch the surface only starts to become more magical and full of possibility.
Below as a gift to all my riding friends who are curious and certainly with the benefit of their horses in mind, I have listed all the books and DVD's that have influenced this change in my riding and training choices. I hope some of you will give it a try if you are not doing so already. I'm wishing to share in this magic.
True Unity Tom Dorrance
Think Harmony With Horses Ray Hunt
True Horsemanship Through Feel Bill Dorrance and Leslie Desmond
7 Clinics With Buck Brannaman (DVD)
* There are a lot of different gurus of what has become known as natural horsemanship, but these four cowboys above have all come from the same branch of it, both Buck Brannaman and Ray Hunt were at one time students of the Dorrance brothers so there is a lot of continuity in their training methods.