In my last post, I explained the importance of feel and timing to horse training. In this one, I will help you begin to acquire these essentials. With practice, they will eventually come to you naturally.
The first exercise I will suggest will work on feel. Without feel, timing is impossible to have (although feel is also useless without timing, so we will work on that soon).
Get on your horse in a safe, enclosed area. There should be no place for him to run to and no way he can get out on his own. Rounded corners are an asset, so he can’t get stuck in them. If you have a friend who knows the basics of moving a horse around a pen with a whip or flag, conscript them also. Their job will be to move you around. If you don’t have such a friend, you will ask the horse to move yourself.
If you are comfortable, place the reins right down on your horse’s neck. Find something else to do with your hands. You can hold onto the saddle horn, or your rope tied to the saddle, or cross your arms. If you are not comfortable with that, leave one hand on the reins for safety’s sake—but the goal of this exercise is to develop feel, and you can’t do that if you are micromanaging your horse.
Have your friend (or your own legs) ask the horse to move out at a walk. Don’t worry about where he is going; your working area is safe and enclosed. He can’t get into trouble. Concentrate on feeling where he is going, what legs are moving, and how he feels under you. Relaxed? Tight? Try to just be a passenger, encouraging him to relax as well.
When you are ready, have your friend draw him slightly in towards them and then turn him away from them into the rail to go the other direction. Go with his movement. Practice this, having no control and simply going. If you are on your own without a friend to control the horse, only insist on the speed at which your horse travels, not the direction. He will probably free up fairly soon after starting this exercise and begin travelling all over the place.
As you become more comfortable, amp it up a bit. Begin turning to the inside and loping out of the turn, halting quickly, and trotting through an inside turn. Keep practicing this until you feel so solid up there that no matter what your horse ever does, you know where he is going and will go with him. You’ve just developed half of feel, or being able to tell where the horse is at physically. The other half is understanding where a horse is at mentally, and I find that simply being aware while spending time with horses will develop this skill.
Let’s work on timing now. Halt your horse and pick up the reins. Lean back, and feel like going backwards. Lift the reins up to find a soft connection with his mouth. He should at least shift his weight back, or step back. If nothing happens, increase your intention and your pressure on his mouth. As soon as you feel him make the slightest change in the direction you want (leaning, shifting weight, picking up a foot), drop your reins. Yes, literally. You are still in an enclosed, safe place. See if you can throw the reins down faster than his foot hits the ground again. This is his reward: the release of pressure. The more accurate your timing, the more willing he will be to try again. So test how good your timing was. Ask him again. You are looking for an improvement (unless your horse is perfectly trained already in basic responses, which is pretty unlikely), and when he gives it to you, try to improve your own response with better and better timing.