Well, although they are two different things, “feel” and “timing” go hand-in-hand. Timing is knowing when to pick up on your horse, and feel is knowing if your horse “gives” or not — and when to release. You communicate with your horse using your hands, seat and legs, and you develop good communication with feel and timing. An age-old theory says that you either have feel and timing or you don’t, and that neither can be taught. People believed that feel is some elusive, mysterious ability that some great horsemen naturally possess. That is just not true. While there is no doubt that some highly talented people have loads of natural ability in this area, anyone who puts their mind to it can greatly improve. With time, patience and discipline you to can develop feel and improve your timing.
There are five principles to help you accomplish this:
1. Raise Your Level of Awareness
The first and most important principal to remember is to “pay attention”. Pay attention to what your horse is doing underneath you. Learn to read your horse, to diagnose what he’s doing and what you are doing while you are riding him. To start improving your feel and timing, pay attention while riding. You can only fix something if you become aware that there is a problem, so raise your level of awareness.
2. Follow Through
The next important principal is to “follow through”. To follow through means to stay in or bump with your hands or legs until you get the desired response which is a “yes” to your cue! So pay attention because your horse learns by the release. If you bump or take hold of your horse and he pulls down or away from you and you release at the wrong time you just taught him something, maybe the wrong thing, with your release. If you are careful to release each time after you get your desired response he will become lighter and lighter to your cue. So don’t release until you feel him get light and soft in your hands and feel a definite “yes”.
3. Push Through Resistance
When you raise your level of awareness and demand the desired response you may encounter resistance. I encourage you to stay with it until you get your desired response. If he becomes extremely resistant or dangerous, stop what you are doing and seek the help of a professional. I must say that sometimes a horse argues with me right before a big breakthrough. Once I feel him give, I drop right away to teach him that that was what I wanted. Remember a horse learns by the reward.
4. Use a Fair Approach with Your Hands and Legs
The next principal is to pick up fairly. To pick up fairly means do not snatch your horse out of mid-air. If you need to bump or correct your horse sharply you can do so but first approach your horse fairly. That means draw up on the slack in your horse’s reins slowly until you feel his mouth and he knows you are there, and then you can bump or correct or lightly jerk. A horse can take correction if it is given to him fairly with a warning that you are there at the end of the bridle reins. It is unfair to hit the bridle reins with no warning. He needs to feel you coming and good feel means your approach is slow. I tell my riders to draw up on the reins until they feel the horse’s mouth. Teach your horse to trust your hands and take your correction. He will get softer and lighter than ever in your hands. The same applies to your legs or your spur. If you give your leg slowly and then give your cue, he will be more likely respond willingly. If you learn to ask or speak softly through your hands and legs you will develop a willing partner. Of course there are times you need to get tougher to get your point across, but make that the exception — not the rule.
5. Learn to tell the difference between a refusal and an “I don’t understand”
Be open to the fact that you may not be giving a clear cue, or that your horse just doesn’t “get it.” Make your cues extremely clear and easy to understand.
I hope that helps. Once you’ve pushed to this new level and you know what it feels like, don’t settle for less than that! Refine your feel in your hands and legs and rise up to a relationship with your horse that leads to better performance. It is truly awesome when your feel becomes so good that you can feel your horse trying under you and you and your horse become a team!
To read more from Dana on “Feel” and “Timing”, click here.