Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Can You Feel Me Now?

A few months ago I read Bill Dorrance's text book sized work, True Horsemanship Through Feel.  At nearly 400 pages, it was a lot to take in.  But I took away an awful lot of ideas.  The main one was obviously "feel."  The things I read about feel helped me work with leading Bear and being more aware of what he was doing and what I could do to him on the ground while we were tacking up and hanging out.

But "feel" is a very vague concept.  And even 400 pages of clearly written prose didn't allow me to get a "feel" for this feel thing.  The Buck clinic changed that for me dramatically.  He talked about feel in the same way I had read about it from the Dorrance brothers and Ray Hunt, but this time I could actually see feel in action.  Many of the exercises he put the riders through allowed me to better understand the kind of subtle touch you should use when asking for a soft feel, and it showed me how it would look when the horse responds.  Most importantly I was able to see what it would look like when you sat there for many, many minutes holding a feel and waiting for your horse to respond.

This was especially good, because yesterday when I started asking for the soft feel I thought I would be there all day.  Of course, Buck (and many other trainers) say that you should approach teaching a horse something new as if it will take all day.  Then when it only takes a fraction of that time, you're ahead of the game.

I had plenty of minutes to ponder all this while I held some light pressure on Bear's reins, waiting for him to break softly at the poll.  Eventually he did.  Then he did it again, and again.  On Wednesday I asked for it every few minutes during our hour and a half ride.  Sometimes it would take seconds to get a response, other times we would be back in the minutes.  I don't think it ever took more than 10 minutes, but it sure felt like it a few times.

Today we went back out to practice the same stuff.  The first time I asked for the soft feel Bear gave it to me almost right away.  The second time, we were back to hanging out for many minutes.  It can make your fingers get sore.

But as the ride went on, the feel got better, and better, and better.  In the second half of the ride, everytime I asked for it he would respond almost instantaneously.  This was great, because he wasn't a super well behaved Bear today.  It was the first day that felt like fall, sunny and 60 with a crisp wind coming out of the north.  It appeared the Bear had been eating for the past 36 hours preparing for tonight's near freezing temperatures, but despite his overly full belly, he was ready to go.  Multiple times he hopped into the trot (this is rare for him), and on a few occasions he even offered the lope.

Initially I would respond by just picking up a nice, soft feel, bringing him to a stop, and then backing him a step or two until he fully gave to the light pressure on the bit.  This is where I could really tell Bear was getting with the feel.  Even at the trot, before he would slow down, he would collect and respond to the feel.  It was really neat.  I felt more connected to him than I have in the past, and despite his hopping around into faster gaits (and occasionally shaking his head at me), I felt very in control.

But I must admit, I was also tired and hungry and these hops into the trot started to annoy me.  So I shifted over to Robin's technique of the one rein stop.  Bear didn't know what hit him.  The first two times I did it we spun around for many circles.  After that, he shaped up really, really fast.  Sometimes we would get to the end of the pasture and I would just ask for a nice turn with the rein and my legs and he would almost get startled and then would offer a beautiful turn with his whole body.  It was excellent.

I worried this would hurt the soft feel I had been working on, but this wasn't the case.  In fact, it was the opposite.  He would respond to lighter pressure, and that response would come very quickly.  When I finally did ask him to trot (on my terms, of course), he was willing and soft and supple through the turns.  We ended up having a great ride.  And I think he loved it.  Bear can definitely tend towards being in charge, but his favorite days really seem to be the ones where I'm a little hard on him.  In the past he might have perceived those days as being something of a punishment, but these last two days I think it felt both firm and intellectually stimulating.

Snoozing after a physically easy but mentally challenging ride.

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