There is one skill that sets apart a good horse trainer from a bad one. Actually, the distinction is even more dramatic than that. This skill sets apart an unsuccessful horse trainer from a successful one.
It is feel and timing.
I thought for a while about this before including both feel and timing as one principle, but I could not manage to separate the two. At least at this stage in my training career, they are inextricably linked. You can’t have timing unless you have feel, but feel is useless without timing.
Let’s define feel and timing before I go further:
Feel: The ability to tell, moment by moment, where a horse is at in a particular movement or process, whether physical or mental.
Timing: The knowledge and practice of when to apply and when to release the aid or pressure being used to motivate a response from the horse.
Now you can probably see why timing is impossible without feel. If you can’t tell where the horse is at, mentally or physically, there is no way to know when would be the best time to release the pressure or aid you were using. Because horses are trained by the release of pressure, poor feel and timing makes for poor training and a confused horse.
Feel is also useless without timing. It is possible to have feel without having timing, but then the feel serves no purpose. You may be able to say when on his back, ‘my colt’s right foreleg is coming off the ground now,’ but if your timing doesn’t then kick in and say, ‘if I ask him to turn right now, he’ll be able to do it easier,’ then all the feeling in the world won’t help you train him to turn right.
There are also two parts to timing: when to apply the aid, and when to release it. Because it is the release that trains, the second part is obviously more important. But knowing when to apply an aid is also important so as to make the correct answer easier for the horse to give.
This is why I have grouped these two foundational attributes of a successful horse trainer into one package. There is no secret to learning these; it is not a gift which trainers are born with. Ask any one of them, no matter their philosophy, and if they are observant of what they are doing they will mention feel and timing. They might use a different name, such as pressure and release, but the underlying idea is the same.
And that trainer will also tell you that he learned how to feel and how to apply proper timing from hour after hour of trying to train a horse and practicing, often teaching himself.
Because the attribute of feel and timing is so important to training, I will examine it further in a later post. Although it is a hard concept to teach, perhaps a few pointers will get you on your way, like it did for me.