Basics of Moving a Horse “Off A Feel”

Softness and feel when riding can result in complete harmony with your horse, proper frame, and collection over time.

The concept of moving your horse “off a feel” is often, more times than not, a very abstract idea to most riders and horsemen. The horse is such a sensitive creature, yet many riders still resort to harsh bits and use of spurs to get the response they are looking for, rather than gain connection with the horse. So many folks I see riding today have heavy hands and heavy feet. If you work with your horse using a “soft feel” every time you handle them, it will eventually only take the softest of cues to communicate with your horse, such that eventually your cues will not even be visible to the naked eye or spectator, and hardly any pressure at all will have to be applied to your horse, by rein or heel.

A rider with true connection to his horse should be able to confidently move the horse’s feet, both from the ground, and in the saddle. Moving united, the front feet independent of hind and the hind feet independent of the front.

One should strive to move their horse “on a feel”, where no driving from the rider is required, using a “leading rein”, which we will discuss more later in this blog.

A great place to start working your horse is from the ground. It is also a safe place to start, especially working with unfamiliar horses or starting colts. If you cannot succeed with your horse from the ground, chances are you aren’t going to do much better when you get in the saddle. It is also a great opportunity to check the horse you are working with, and see if they are ready, able, and safe to get on and ride. Bottom Line: practice groundwork routinely, and master the ground exercises. It will better set you up for success when you go to get into the saddle.

Start with the basics, and work your horse with the flag. Keep in mind, while a flag can be used to drive a horse, ultimately we want the horse to work “off a feel” with no driving required by the flag. We do however, want to make sure your horse is “ok” with a flag. To start, wave the flag around, see if your horse gets afraid. We don’t want your horse to be troubled by the flag. If the horse starts to move their feet, simply step toward the hind end of your horse, and roll your horse over their hind end. This makes it difficult for your horse to leave you.

Once you know your horse is not troubled by the flag, ask your horse to simply walk a forward, round circle around you, (full circle exercise) being mindful to offer a leading hand with the lead rope, and your flag in the other hand at the horse’s rear. We always want to “offer” the horse the leading hand first, before resorting to driving from behind. Only use the flag to dive your horse if they do not respond to the leading hand. It’s all about keeping your horse moving. Be sure you are very particular with your horse, making sure there is good forward motion and correct flextion. Your horse should tip the nose slightly to the center of your circle, bending WITH the circle.

Practice backing your horse on a feel as well, by asking the horse to back by simply flicking the lead. Having the ability to back your horse off a feel is a great skill for your horse to have, especially when performing ranch riding and roping.

Another great exercise is to engage your horse’s hind end. Start by using your leading hand to ask for vertical flextion in your horse to the inside. Start walking into your horse’s hindquarters, asking them to step hind leg crossing the other hind leg. You may need to use your flag at first until your horse gets the idea, but in the end you can get your horse to respond simply by walking into their hindquarters and the jiggle of your lead.

Once your horse is walking nice, round circles off a leading hand, we can then take this exercise to the next level by practicing “half-circles.” To perform the “Half-Circle Exercise”, simply get your horse walking a full forward circle with engagement in the hind end. We will then ask our horse to change direction, and “follow through” with the front end, by switching our leading hand and flag hand, pushing the horse’s outside shoulder around. Your horse will engage his hind end and roll around to the opposite direction when performed properly. This exercise cannot be practiced enough, and when mastered is much like “dancing” with your horse, and noticeably will translate into your saddle riding as well.

I hope this inspires riders to understand that there is a always a better way to communicate with the horse. We always have room for improvement in our horsemanship, and room to become better for our horse. Happy Trails!

Gentle in what you do, firm in how you do it. -Buck Brannaman

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