Food, Force or Feel?

A few days ago I read a piece by a positive reinforcement trainer who loosely said there are two options with horses, ‘Food or force’. If that was the case, I would 100% be with them on the ‘choosing food’ option for training my horses. However, I think there is also another option, and it’s that much over used word ‘feel’. This is, in my experience, where all the juicy, sweet, interesting stuff happens.

The thing which keeps me going when it won’t stop raining and I am totally exhausted is this addiction to feel. It is an energetic practice not a theoretical one, which is why it is so hard to pin down. When you commit yourself to developing your practice of feel – finding ways to adjust, adapt, observe, blend and change, well, you may not have time to eat or sleep. ‘Feel’ is a term bandied around a lot in the horsemanship world and is something we are exploring in detail in my online groups and courses and clinics. What does it mean? How can you get a handle on it? Can anyone develop it or does it only belong to the old and wise and very special few?

The answer to that final question is No – anyone can develop better feel between them and a horse. It can be how you present an energetic feeling down a rope or a rein which is actually attractive to a horse – rather than aversive. It is how you can ‘be’ around a horse in their field or barn which is a positive addition to their life. It can be how your body blends and harmonises with their body which gives them information, confidence and sureness. It can upping your energy or lowering your energy in order that your horse sees that you see him and are trying to help him feel better about what’s going on between the two of you. And that’s the challenge – you can’t get on a manual on how to do it. It comes with the huge ‘It depends’ health warning, which is the bane of students everywhere, I know.

Mostly, the development of feel comes from spending a lot of time around horses and really, really paying attention. Attention to how they move, how the breathe, what they are paying attention to. The biggest barrier to the development of a connecting feel between a human and a horse is our huge thinking brains. When we can ‘experience and be’, rather than worrying about getting things right or knowing every last specific detail then we can start to tune into what energy would suit our horses, moment to moment. We get braver about experimenting with who we are around individual horses and how that helps them – or not. We can get really curious about how things feel down a rope or a rein and what conversation that enables with a horse. We can tap into our horses amazing capacity to learn when we get freed of our ‘Do A and B happens’ learning style.

 Feel is also about balance, movement and straightness. There is a lot in there. It’s so tempting to shy away from talking about this stuff as it makes you sound a bit barmy, and it’s not clear enough for many humans. And I absolutely appreciate that this path might not be for everyone. However, it does exist and I am obsessively interested in walking down it further (I’m only knocking on the very first gate) Edited to add – this post is not anti positive reinforcement, or anti pressure and release. My intention was to say ‘and there is more…’ It is not as black and white as Food or Force, there is something else to be explored, I believe.