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The Importance of Meaning in a Foundation

We were fortunate to have the opportunity to ride the mature ranch horses in the glorious 10,000 acres of mountains, set aside for the herd. In fact, due to an early arrival, I had the happy opportunity for two such rides. The first was on one of the old-timers, the second was on a 4 year old in training, ridden only by the ranch trainer and his assistant to date: this offered an interesting window into the ranch’s training program. Neither of the horses was inclined to offer a mindless nose-to-tail type ride. Each was quite engaged in moving along as part of a herd. If you left them alone they’d amuse themselves in mild discussion with their peers, and if you asked them to do something else, they filled in. They were steady, sure-footed mounts as we rode up and down the mountains. These horses understood the meaning in their jobs. Their habitual turnout on 10,000 acres, when not working, had much to do with their contentment. All the horses were trained at the ranch: a 40 strong string of valiant trail horses.

stringPhoto 7: Flying D Ranch string of trail horses comes down from the mountain (photograph by Trine Bohnsdalen)

My two year old filly’s rendition of the same foundation was clearly unlike the horses on the string. It felt more like that natural life in Spring was all bottled up, corked – and ready to uncork at any moment. She was clear that her job was to try to keep her feet still no matter what the handler did, no matter what their energy, no matter what their feel. However for some horses, like Spring, it is not in their genes to “fill in” to this degree. She remained inseparable from her true nature, in which she experienced her world through feel. Asking a horse of this type to substitute this instinct for a learned or cued response that did not match the true human feel in a presentation offered, had her confused by the lack of meaning, in terms of feel.

Spring’s inability to contain her instincts had manifested itself in hair-trigger defensiveness. She interpreted my movements, as if she had learned them in a text book, rather than feeling of my intent. She had adjusted in this way to cope with the confused meaning – based on feel – in prior presentations. For example, human feel in which the handler’s energy came up went with the expectation that her energy was to go down. She had learned not to rely on human feel for meaning and to produce instead a textbook response to a specific cue. Her uncertainty in this triage of conflicting information was evident. Self preservation remained utmost in her mind. Tuning out human feel and watching on full alert for body cues had become a survival mechanism. In this perpetually unsure state she was unavailable, in terms of a learning frame of mind, because as she stifled her instincts, her natural curiosity was also sacrificed. With her flight response bottled up, her only course for self preservation was to fight. An ounce more pressure would achieve nothing other than to ignite aggression: her warnings were clear.

Spring’s feel tingled in every square inch of her hide and no training method would ever change that – unless it broke her spirit first. To be a good saddle horse, her livewire feel and life needed to be freed up, shaped and released in a way that had meaning for her.

To take a fresh start and teach Spring a new foundation, I would first need to find her under that cloak of confused auto-responses. My goal was to offer a feel that fit her, restore her instinct to take the natural life down to her feet: to move freely when she needed, so she would no longer need to channel that life into braced defensiveness or compress it into a “J” in her tail in her effort to hold it in. The key would be to allow her life to come up freely, blend with it, shape it and release it to the maneuvers I had clearly in mind. This is what it is all about: “feel and release” achieved through meaningful reciprocal feel.

This article reports clinic experiences only and is not intended
for instructional purposes.

Colt Starting Through Feel, by Karen Musson, 03/20/2009 V2.1
© 2009 All rights reserved

 

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

bilsbook

"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