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Roadmap to a Better Connection Through Feel

The old masters (read below) shared much in common, not least a life-style in which their daily work required many hours on horseback - and with it the opportunity to refine their feel with rich input direct from the horse. Let's be realistic - most of us do not live in the saddle now, much as we may wish it! So how can we develop "our better feel" and a better connection with our horses today?

karenThis horsemanship journey and sharing it are my passion.

First and foremost, I would like to offer a special note of gratitude to the mentors who have influenced me in the most defining ways - from my early instructors in Maisons Lafitte, and St-Germain-en-Laye, near Paris, and team coaches in classical riding, show jumping and cross country in the UK, to the compelling teachings of Leslie Desmond, co-author of Bill Dorrance's book "True Horsemanship through Feel" in more recent years.

Leslie showed me a place Bill knew about that she "had not known existed, or could exist, between a horse and a human being".  Nor had I . It is an exquisite connection that serves in all things, and brings me more joy with horses than I ever imagined.

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I say by doing three main things:

  • Honor the opportunity we owe to the time and dedication these horsemen put to passing on the benefit of their experience in their writings and via their most dedicated students. The sincerity they shared in their hope to pass on a better deal for the horses lingers in every word.
  • Spend as much time as we reasonably can with our horses - time to allow our creativity to flow. Our horses will be our best teachers, the more we are aware and observe.
  • TAKE IT EASY! This journey we call horsemanship is a life-long endeavour, so let's be sure it's about joyful discoveries now, not pressure to be further along than we are (how can we be!), hard work and struggle! If we desire a light horse, heavy in us doesn't do it! We are not in the cavalry preparing to go to battle and do have the luxury of time... time to breathe. Offering true release to a horse starts with that release in us to offer. So above all, remember the number one directive: ENJOY!
FTB

I invite you to dive in! Come and immerse into the threads of Feel, Timing and Balance, both separately and as we weave them together with The Feel of Release for a light and joyful ride. Discover the direct line to your horse!

Feel and Lightness go hand in hand - one augments the other.  The art of releasing a horse through feel is refined by timely technique as it relates to locomotion and balance, while developing a better feel for the horse enhances technique.

It is all about connection - a good ongoing feel your horse can rely on that serves in all things, from riding in the woods, in the show ring, or over fences to going out to feed at night, trimming feet in the pasture or caring for an injury.

Getting with the true feel of the horse is creative and just plain captivating!Come join the fun!

Feel

Look at these horses. Imagine you are standing right there, aware of every whisker and breath. They are feeling of each other, while feeling back to each other, each offering their unique, exquisite feel to the mix.

feelmeet

All the horses are curious, mentally engaged with each other, and physically light in their readiness for any maneuver in the next moment, when one offers to lead the dance.

Bill Dorrance knew that this availability of a curious mind and the readiness for any maneuver were the source of a genuinely light and willing ride - a ride best released within such a connection through feel with their rider as these horses demonstrate with each other here.

Bill realized that dominance ("Why, there is no place for this idea if you're speaking about horses") and pressure ("That is what we are trying to get away from")  offered by a human before the reward of a release, or hand-fed reward, to mark the desired response are strategies apt to snuff out this instinctively light and available feel a horse has in his nature.

In the context of equine learning theory this is intriguing because it tends to rule out both positive and negative reinforcement as feel-based strategies in the sense that Bill thought about "feel". So what to do?

Bill found the missing link that allows genuine lightness to remain available: an ongoing feel of release that we adjust to fit and shape the horse in the moment. The reward becomes the ongoing moment to moment good feel vs. the intermittent good feel offered as reinforcement.

When the good feel is a constant between you, the reward is YOU, rather than the release of pressure or treat. And that re-defines the connection.

Timing

Adjusting to fit the horse, through an ongoing feel of release blends a number of things for effective timing, including:

1) An accurate read of "the feel the horse has in every square inch of his hide and all through his mind"  

2) An understanding of the horse's sensitivity to space and its use.

3) Clarity about the role of the root of the neck, and how this relates to accessing the feet and mind.

4) How a feel of release can be offered in timing with this flow to shape a horse and release his curiosity - and therefore his genuine lightness - so that is connected to the feel of the handler/rider who offered it.

Balance

The more we build our power of observation and awareness, the more we understand what Bill meant by "particles of feel", and the better our feel and timing will fit the horse.

RoadmapBiomechanics

In the end though, that dream connection, the most exhiliarating kind, will depend on the precision that comes from having the 'supporting' actual facts in our flow:

1) The horse's shape, his way of dynamically distributing his weight during locomotion and how he places his feet.

2) How to influence 1) though feel.

Whether "performance" to you means a quiet ride in the woods, a quality arena pattern or a bold gallop over cross-country fences, your horse's performance and long term health/soundness will benefit from Feel, Timing and Balance achieved through The Feel of Release.

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Do Feel and Timing give you Balance, or do Balance and Timing give you Feel?

Bill's brother, Tom Dorrance, used the analogy of balancing a broom handle on your finger to illustrate how Feel and Timing give you Balance (or not!).

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Bill offers richly detailed examples throughout his book "True Horsemanship Through Feel" and explains seven nuances of "Feel" in the Meanings section - and left plenty more on the table to explore.

Faverot de Kerbrech, whom Bill cites as one of his key influences among the masters of the French cavalry, was a dedicated student of Baucher and the French tradition of lightness. He wrote that “the easier it is to shift the weight of the horse in any direction, the more perfect the balance”.

Master horseman Nuno Oliveira said that "in equitation there are two main things, technique and soul." Both express the emphasis of the French school's focus on a technical understanding of balance in locomotion, relative to rider balance and precision, with a view to developing good timing.

Philippe Karl, Ecuyer for many years at Le Cadre Noir, sums it up: "Equitation only reaches the dimension of art to the degree that it appears to escape the constraints of technique... and to free oneself of technique requires a very high level of technique."

From this perspective, one might say that  Balance and Timing give you Feel.

As I have traveled a long and winding path from what I see as the artfully precise technique of a French foundation to achieve lightness, to what I can only describe as an exhiliarating immersion into Leslie Desmond's entirely different yet connected world of feel and release, Bill's conclusion could not ring more true:

"Each one of these things [Feel, Timing and Balance] supports the other. They are interconnected and all three are real important. You really can’t get along without all three.”

The common ground between the two perspectives is as fascinating to me as the connections I make about how Bill adjusted to support his approach of Feel & Release and primary goal of leaving the horse's genuine, natural, exquisite lightness intact - through feel.

Mark Rashid

RashidBookCover

"I see an 'opening' as anything that allows us to help guide, however briefly, an individual in the direction we ultimately would like to go. An 'opening' can be, and often is, a very subtle form of communication between horse and rider that can easily slip past us if we're not paying attention. 'Openings' can and do work both ways. [...] It amazes me just how small an 'opening' can actually be, whether working with horses or with people, and how easy it can be to create an 'opening' when one is needed."

Mark Rashid

"I truly believe developing the ability to see and use 'openings' effectively is only one piece of what one might refer to as the 'harmony in horsemanship' puzzle. When this idea of understanding 'openings' is brought together with the understanding of two other simlar ideas - making a connection with another indvidual, and the role distance plays in overall communication - I believe it is then that harmony in horsemanship becomes a much less daunting concept for us."

Mark Rashid

Leslie Desmond

LDaudiobook

"Bill knew about a place I did not know existed, or could exist, between a horse and a human being [...] 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 [...] 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."

Leslie Desmond

The lightest hands carry intent that is recognized instantly by the horse, as seen in the maneuvers he chooses to make with his feet. Whether that horse is ridden or handled, the lightest hands can purposefully influence the speed, direction and sequence of each foot with accuracy, in a manner that is reflected in the horse's body and on his face.

Leslie Desmond

Bill Dorrance

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"The Real Masters Understood Feel [...] For example, De Kerbrech, (French officer in the cavalry of Napoleon III) really understood horses. He had it fixed up so the horse could succeed. [...] The first time I read Beudant's book was in the 1950s. The way he explained things, there was no doubt in my mind about what a person needed to do to get these little things working for them and their horse."

Bill Dorrance

“Feel, timing and balance: sometimes it’s best to talk about feel, timing and balance separately, and to learn how to apply each thing separately on the start. But when you apply these three things a little later in your training, then you see that each one of these things supports the other. They are interconnected and all three are real important. You really can’t get along without all three.”

Bill Dorrance

Faverot de Kerbrech

FaverotBookCover

“...plus le deplacement du poids est facile dans tous les sens, plus l'equilibre est parfait. En vertue de ce principe, on dit que le cheval est 'en equilibre' quand de simples indications suffisent au cavalier pour modifier a son gre la disposition du poids sur ses colonnes de soutien”

Faverot de Kerbrech

[Translation: ...the easier it is to shift the weight in any direction, the more perfect the balance. By virtue of this principle, the horse is 'in balance' when a simple indication from the rider is sufficient to modify the distribution of weight across the columns of support (four quarters) accordingly]

Duke of Newcastle

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"You must in all Airs follow the strength, spirit, and disposition of the horse, and do nothing against nature; for art is but to set nature in order, and nothing else."

William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle

"A confrontational approach ‘Astonishes the Weak Horse […] makes a Furious horse Madd; makes a Resty Horse more Resty […] and Displeases all sorts of Horses’. The alternative however is not ‘to Sit Weak […] but to Sit Easie’, in the understanding that ‘The Horse must know you are his Master’"

William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle