Feel – what exactly is it?

Feel is something that is often talked about in equestrian circles but what exactly is it?  The concept is elusive, and many horsemen have tried in vain to define what it really is, but it is elusive, it can’t be boxed up or written down in any singular expressive sense that can be comprehensively understood.

My interpretation has evolved and changed about as often as I have changed my socks, so I’ll provide my current thoughts on how I interpret what feel is.  I had a kind of epiphany this evening while riding my 11-year-old go-to mare.  I started her as a three year old, and we have enjoyed a wonderful journey with many miles and various activities together.  This horse moves easily in any direction, either off the reins or off the leg, or just a shift in seat position.  With her, or perhaps more accurately through her, I have learned the art, and importance, of the release.

I have learned to avoid holding or trying to contain her in any way, and I still check myself constantly to ensure that as soon as she complies with my request (cue), or even before that, I must immediately stop asking.  In fact, I have tried to take this release a step beyond simply dropping the reins (leg) when she complies with my ask – I now try to drop the cue as she “thinks” about what I am asking.

Now, for beginners that may sound a bit mystical, but the more you seek the “feel” the further you get away from holding any cue.  At first you drop the cue after the horse moves, but as you develop your feel the cue has a shorter duration and you become far more astute at noticing and rewarding the change.  Then you start dropping the cue at the beginning of the movement, then at the movement that preceded the desired movement.

Before getting into horsemanship, I was a student of martial arts, and as a teenager I had learned some very basic Wing Chun, including a blindfold practice called Chi Sao (or sticky hands) – as one advances you work on developing a feel for your opponent’s intentions.  Again, this sounds a bit far out, until you experience it.

Here’s something you can try that will close the circle on my explanation and hopefully demystify what I on about.  Ask a friend or family to blindfold you and standing directly in front of you extend the little finger of their left hand so that you can grip it lightly in your right.  Then ask them to, whenever they are ready, tap you on the forehead with their right hand.

After a little practice you will notice that you can detect through their little finger the slightest change in their body position and call out “stop” even before their right hand can reach you.  This practice enhances your sense of feel, and what you will notice is that any movement that is made requires something else to precede it.  It really is a matter of “mindful awareness”.

Like you, your horse is in balance, somehow.  When you raise your right hand to a forward position you have ever so slightly shifted your balance, you must, that’s just physics.  If you can develop a sensitive awareness of that shift, you can feel something that is about to happen before it happens.  Now if you are always pulling or controlling your horse you will never develop feel.

I hope that idea helps someone understand not just how I think of feel, but I hope you can develop your own explanation and sense of feel to improve your own horsemanship.