WRANGLING ON THE RANGE #183
FROM "HORSE AND RIDER" - JANUARY 2012
INGREDIENTS OF HORSEMANSHIP
A truly great horseman has three essential qualities: feel,
timing, and experience. BY CLINTON ANDERSON,
THE HORSEMANSHIP METHOD I've developed and shared with you on
these pages over the years isn't just about training horses. It's
also about setting you up to acquire the attributes you need to
become a great horseman: feel, timing, and experience. Feel and
timing are difficult to teach, and in fact you can really only
acquire them through experience.
Though I can't "give" you feel and timing, I can share with you
what's helped me develop these qualities myself, which in turn
will help you develop your own more quickly through experience.
Feel has two basic parts: the amount of pressure you apply to
your horse, and your ability to read how he's responding to that
pressure and make adjustments accordingly.
The goal of a horseman is always to use the least amount of
pressure necessary to get the response you seek. Why? Because
your horse will never get any lighter than the first amount of
pressure you put on him. For example, if you always start with
medium pressure, then go to strong pressure where necessary to
get a response, then the lightest your
horse will ever be is "medium."
But if you start with light pressure, then go to medium and then
strong where necessary, eventually your horse will become light.
The take-away? Always give your horse the option of responding to
a featherlight cue first, before upping the ante.
The second part of feel-adjusting pressure according to your
horse's response and the situation at hand-is what lets you know
how to scale pressure up or down as you go. Sometimes you have to
be more assertive toward your horse; other times you have to be
Your horse's actions, as well as the reasons behind those
actions, will tell you how much pressure you need at any given
point. "Reading" a horse takes a lot of experience. You learn to
figure it out through many episodes of trial and error over time.
A way to speed up the process of developing feel is to acquire as
much outside knowledge as you can while getting your hands-on
experience. Watching someone who's successful at applying feel to
horses on the ground and under saddle, for example, can be
extremely helpful. Feel has a definite look to it. When a person
with feel handles a horse, it's unmistakable once you learn to
To this day, I still study Gordon McKinlay and Ian Francis, my
own mentors from my days in Australia, to learn more about the
nuances of feel. I watch old videos of them working horses and
giving me lessons, scrutinizing their every move and analyzing
where the horse is in relation to their body.
You can do the same at clinics and shows, and by watching videos.
Ultimately, developing feel is a lifelong endeavor-for everyone.
Without good timing, it's next to impossible to teach a horse
anything. Timing refers to the moment you release the pressure
you're using to ask something of your horse. Horses don't learn
from pressure, they learn from the release of it. All pressure
does is motivate a horse to look for the answer.
With good timing, you release pressure at the exact moment your
horse begins to do what you're requesting. The release is his
reward, and it tells him in terms he can understand, "Yes! What
you just did is what I want."
If you miss the exact moment, you can confuse and frustrate your
horse, or even wind up rewarding him for doing the wrong
thing-by, say, releasing bit pressure while your horse is pulling
on your hands, rather than catching him at the instant he softens
to you and rewarding him then.
A key thing about timing is to reward the try, rather than
waiting for a perfect response. This applies especially when
you're first teaching your horse a new lesson. When he gives the
slightest try at finding the correct answer, release all pressure
For example, when I'm teaching a horse how to flex laterally to
the halter and lead rope, I'll release the pressure on the lead
even if he drops his nose down just half an inch toward his
girth. I ultimately want much more than that measly half-inch, of
course. But by rewarding his try, I've let him know he's on the
right track. That creates our starting point.
Once you have a starting point, it's easy to build off of it,
gradually asking for more and more. So, the next time I ask that
horse to flex, I won't release the pressure until he drops his
nose down a full inch. And so on.
To develop good timing, you must be clear in your own mind what
you want your horse to do, plus clear on what it will look or
feel like when he does it. Toward this end, again, watching and
listening to experienced horsemen at clinics and in videos, plus
reading books and articles to get as much clarity as
can, will enable you to make the most of your hands-on practice.
Experience is the must-have quality. Every horse you encounter in
your life will add to your experience. Each horse is an
individual and will teach you a new way of expanding on what you
already know. As a trainer, you must be willing to adapt to each
horse's unique needs, abilities, and attitudes. Even an approach
that worked with 10 previous horses may not work the same way
with the 11th.
Stay aggressive about learning in all the ways that you can, and
your lifelong experiences with horses will turn you into a
This series is adapted with permission from Clinton Anderson:
Philosophy, the book that accompanies his "Fundarnentats"
training package. For more information on educational materials,
or to learn about Clinton's clinics, appearances, training gear,
and horses for sale, go to DownunderHorsemanship.com. Catch his
"Downunder Horsemanship" program (filmed at the ranch in
Stephenville, Texa .) on Fox Sports Net and RFD-TV.
Practice! Hone your feel and timing on the ground and in the