The Seeds of Horsemanship

by Jan Young

Published in Eclectic Horseman
Nov/Dec 2007, Issue No. 38

While eating a pomegranate one day, I had an epiphany: feel is what I used to successfully remove the seeds from the pomegranate! It occurred to me that the process had many parallels to that fascinating yet sometimes fuzzy world of horsemanship through feel.

Your first attempts may be frustrating and messy. How do you get inside this thing? How do you get the good stuff out? How do you keep from making a mess of things? Perhaps you only managed to taste a little, but it was so tantalizing, you must have more! So you try again. You experiment and adjust.

In different places, you may have to firm up, but not too much. Every part you handle offers you a different feel. How can you get everything out that is in there? No one can tell you. Do as much as it takes, but no more.

Any pressure must be followed by instant release of pressure, or you will make a mess again. Timing is everything. You will be surprised how light a touch is often required. With some experience, you will even find that you can exert quite a bit of pressure in certain spots when needed and not make a mess--as long as you do it with feel.

Some of you may be scratching your heads, wondering why anyone would approach a horse in this way. You may assume that your approach is good enough and if it doesn't work, it is the fault of the horse. Rather than adjust your approach, you might opt to just try another horse.

Others may be nodding as you recognize your own parallel journey into horsemanship by feel. Whether you stumbled into it on your own or were exposed to it by someone farther along the path, you know it's what you want but you aren't always sure how to get more of it.

Is it even possible to teach someone else that elusive concept we call feel? Some say yes, some say no. Can feel even be defined? How can you teach it if you can't define it? Is it something mysterious, or is it a concept that anyone can grasp?

Actually, feel is a concept that most people are familiar with, although not by that term. Many activities we engage in can only be learned through feel, such as learning to ride a bike, drive a stick shift, or play a musical instrument. Martin Black uses the example of trying to spread peanut butter on soft bread. Tom Dorrance uses the example of learning to balance a broom handle on your fingertip.

Some of Webster's definitions for "feel" can be applied to the pursuit of horsemanship:
*knack, facility or skill, often from an innate ability
*awareness of the spirit or temper of something or of its distinguishing or special qualities
*to discover by careful and tentative investigatory methods
*to be aware of by instinct or inference rather than through actual experience or sensation
*to search for something or guide oneself by touch
*to find by trial and error

To those, I will add:
*working with something instead of against it
*having an open, receptive mind-frame rather than imposing one's own plans whether they are fitting or not
*an approach characterized by sensitivity and awareness of feedback rather than insensitivity or following a step-by-step method

These are concepts anyone can understand. What can not be taught is the actual feel of a horse. Just as you cannot learn the feel of a bike, a stick shift, or a musical instrument from a book, article, video, or DVD, you cannot learn the feel of a horse without actually spending time working at it yourself.

Understanding how to approach a horse can help you develop the feel you need. This understanding has more to do with your mindset than your movements. A fitting mindset will result in fitting mannerisms.

I guess you could say that feel is the F-word of horsemanship. Along with "fitting," here are some other F-words that can help us wrap our minds around this hard-to-define idea: flexible, facilitating, focus, flow, and finesse.

Discuss various approaches and techniques with others to find what has worked for them. You may find that there are many ways that can work. You may also find that what works for someone else doesn't work for you, because you don't have the same feel they do. You will have to adapt your approach to what can work for you until you develop a better feel.

Let's take the mystery out of the discussion of feel and present it as a concept that anyone can learn. However, there is no step-by-step guide to learning it. Step-by-step methods don't factor in the concept of feel; they bring a human agenda to the horse. Working with feel opens you up to what the horse needs at any given moment.

Feel can be demonstrated and described, but there comes a point where you have to experiment on your own. Whether pomegranates or good horsemanship, many people think, "Why bother?" Taste and may find it is so exquisite that you are hooked for life.