Following exercises and taking quizzes to develop feel and timing are all well and good. But once you have begun developing this skill, how do you know where to apply it, when to use it, and how it works best?
The short answer is that feel and timing should be used in every interaction with every horse. Consistency is the method that horses excel on, and feel and timing is the language used to promote it. Every horse trainer you talk to has a method. But I can guarantee that the best trainers are those who employ consistent feel and timing.
Every interaction—approaching in the field, haltering, leading, riding, and everything in between—all this involves appropriate use of feel and timing.
Let me give a few examples to make this clear.
- When a person with feel and timing approaches a horse, they are focused on what the animal is doing and thinking. They can tell if the horse is content to stay put, is thinking about leaving, or is thinking about approaching them. Let’s examine each scenario.
- Staying put is alright. But say the trainer wants to get the horse to come. The first step is getting its attention, and the trainer can use feel and timing to catch the attention and hold it, eventually drawing the horse towards them.
- Leaving is a little more problematic. The trainer uses his feel to decide exactly how much pressure from his advance is going to be too much for the horse. His timing stops him just before that point and he releases the pressure as a reward for not leaving. Sensitivity is essential.
- Approaching the trainer is wonderful, but likely to be extinguished without encouragement. A bit of positive reinforcement is in order (a scratch or a treat), and the trainer is wise to not increase pressure on the horse, which would discourage the behaviour.
- When a person with feel and timing halters a horse, they are still focused on what the animal is doing and thinking. A horse may contentedly put their nose in the halter, may raise their head defensively, or remain stoically solid and do nothing. Let’s look at each of these scenarios.
- Putting the nose in the halter is to be encouraged. The trainer with feel and timing makes it easier for the horse to do this and rewards them on an intermittent schedule to encourage the behaviour to continue.
- With feel and timing, the trainer is able to keep the horse with him while the halter approaches the horse. Again, making it easy for the horse to put his nose into the halter is key, and feel is required to ask the horse to put its nose down and no longer evade the process. Timing reinforces the horse’s progress.
- Trainers with feel and timing are not content to let a horse remain indifferent to them. They motivate the horse to respond, making it easy to do so and ensuring their timing is impeccable so that the horse has the opportunity to learn the benefits of responding to the handler positively.
- When a person with feel and timing asks a horse to walk forward under saddle, they must still be focused on how the animal is thinking. The horse may stall and refuse to move, or spurt forward too fast, or walk forward calmly.
- Stalling is dangerous; the horse is likely to store up its feelings until they burst out uncontrollably. The rider with feel will notice the first signs of this and redirect the horse into moving forward and sideways, for example, to unstick his feet.
- Spurting forward is a related problem, and the rider with feel will be able to understand how much pressure the horse needs to perform the required action, adjusting accordingly.
- Finally, walking forward calmly from the feel applied by the rider is rewarded by appropriate timing.
Those three examples are such narrow glimpses of the horse’s world—literally every interaction, from approaching, catching, and riding the horse forward one step, involves applying feel and timing to first train the horse, and then to keep it trained.
Think carefully about your equine problems and how feel and timing will bring your project along.