WRANGLING ON THE RANGE #99
Learn what true feel is, and how to get it.
BY BOB AVILA,
Feel. It's a word you hear a lot in the horse world. What is it,
exactly? It's the ability to know how much rein pressure is
necessary to cause your horse to yield to the bit, and when to
release that pressure (and thus reward him) when he's done so. In
short, it's the give-and-take communication skill that allows you
to "talk" to your horse through the reins.
Feel is something you're either born with, or you're not. Can you
learn it? Yes. Is it easy? No. It's one of the most difficult
skills to learn in riding.
NOT ONE OF THE LUCKY ONES
I speak from experience. I don't think I was born with natural
feel. I'm one of those who had to learn it. To this day, I'm
still learning. I see people with natural feel and wonder if they
know how lucky they are. But something else I've learned: It's
hard for someone with natural feel to teach someone who lacks it.
That's because the natural ones never had to learn it. They've
never had to break it down and study it. It's as easy to them as
breathing or blinking.
I think it's easier for people like me, who've had to learn feel,
to teach it to others. Still, it's not a fast process. The slower
you try to learn, the more it sinks in and makes sense.
So how do you learn it? You can have someone stand next to you
and explain it all day, but nothing your teacher can say will
have meaning for you until you experience feel for yourself.
First, though, you have to remember that feel is just that-what
you can feel, not what you can see. Most novices wait until the
horse's head visibly drops before releasing contact with the bit.
That's too late, because you can feel this action from your horse
before he can complete it-your release must come at the instant
the feeling occurs.
When you lack that split-second feel, you risk confusing your
horse. For instance, you lift your hand. He softens and yields to
the bit. You fail to feel it, and keep pulling. He yields ... to
a point. Unable to find a release (or figure out what you're
asking for), he begins to brace against your hand.
Over time, you'll likely have to ride with a tight rein for
control. Your horse might root or lug at the bit. (For more
information on rooting at the bit, see "Reroute That Rooter,"
page 48.) His overall body will be stiff. He'll raise his head in
an effort to evade bit pressure. He'll be resentful and
resistant, rather than soft, willing, and responsive.
One of the best ways to develop an understanding of feel, I
believe, is to ask someone to physically show you what it is.
Here's one method I've used successfully many times: I get on the
horse behind my student, and reach around to put my hands on the
reins, right on top of the student's hands. I make contact with
the bit until the horse yields, then I release.
Through my hands, the student experiences:
* What it feels like to pick up and put pressure on the reins.
* What it feels like when the horse gives to rein pressure.
* And, how and when to time the release.
If you're working with a trainer or someone else who has this
degree of feel - and who'll literally give you a hand-he or she
might be able to help you with this technique. (Tip: I highly
recommend you use a broke horse that's reliably tolerant of being
ridden double when using this learning technique.) If you don't
have anyone to help you with a hands-on lesson, try to work with
a knowledgeable trainer, or someone with a keen understanding of
feel. If your trainer or helper has access to a good
schooling-type horse you can ride, one that's tolerant of
potential miscues and responsive to the right ones, you'll give
yourself one more way to advance your sense of feel.
Focus on learning slowly, and I mean that literally. At a walk,
gently close your hand as you slowly lift your rein hand, until
you just make contact with your horse's mouth, such that you can
barely feel any pressure on the reins. If he tries to slow down,
press him gently forward into the contact with your legs. The
instant you feel him yield to the bit-you'll feel this as a
lessening of pressure on the reins-immediately open and drop your
hand, to reward him. Walk a few steps, and repeat.
Keep your hand relaxed; a relaxed hand can feel. A clenched one
can't. (Note my light-contact, relaxed-fingers hand position in
the photos.) When you can reliably feel and release to your
horse's mouth at the walk, graduate to the jog, and finally, the
The journey to feel is a long one. The more horses you ride, the
more degrees you'll improve your feel. Each horse you ride will
have his own degree of feel, and you must find it and ride him
accordingly. Until you get that skill, you won't have full
communication with a horse. You'll do more than aggravate
himyou'll also teach him to be heavy in your hand, and you'll
start a whole series of problems that will haunt you through your
So learn to feel. Your horse will thank you for it.
In this article, I focused on feel in your hands. But true feel
is a full-body skill. You have to think about it constantly. You
feel with your hands and seat mostly, but also with your legs,
your feet, your shoulders, and your arms. Every time I sit on a
horse, I jog him and feet for soundness, for softness, for
stiffness-for any problems that need to be addressed.
And that brings me to another point: Often riders with a good
sense of feet aren't the prettiest to watch from an equitation
standpoint. I've worked with a lot of equitation riders. They can
tend to be stiff and posed. But you really can't pose and truly
feel your horse.
Some riders with a keen sense of feel have their own unique
styles that would never win an equitation ribbon. But they can
feel and react perfectly to minute movements in their horses'
bodies. Horses love a rider with feel. Trust me, they prefer that
over a rider who looks pretty! So find yourself a better degree
of FEEL and watch your communication with your horse flourish.
A multiple AOHA world champion in a variety of events. Bob's
other wins include three NRCHA Snaffle Bit Futurities, the NRHA
Futurity, and two World's Greatest Horseman titles. He was
the first recipient of the prestigious AQHA Professional Horseman
of the Year honor in 1995. His Avila Training Stables, Inc., is
in Temecula, California. To learn more, go to bobavila.net.
NOVEMBER 2010 HORSE AND RIDER
To be continued from time to time