Beginning the Journey
I am unsure what led me to attend Karen Musson’s THTF clinic last summer. I had studied dozens of trainers and rarely came across anything genuinely new. Most trainers said similar things and most trainers had similar methods, and every trainer, no matter what discipline, used the same, underlying principles of horsemanship, involving pressure and release, phases of pressure, not allowing the horse to say no, and so on. However, during the two days I was at Karen’s clinic last year, I was introduced to concepts radically unlike anything I had ever heard before, all based on using feel and release: the reward and learning moment for the horse did not rely on the release of pressure or food incentives – the feel of the interaction was the reward. I had long been on the path of eliminating pressure from my training but had little guidance beyond pure positive reinforcement training. However, at this clinic, the spark of hope was planted in me that others were traveling the same path that I was on.
Just like THTF often requires that the horse process for as long as he needs, I found that I too needed time to process what I learned at Karen’s first clinic. In a way, it was too revolutionary for me to immediately incorporate; I was not quite ready. However, this year, I was. At the beginning of the summer, I started incorporating the tiny bit I knew of feel into my horsemanship. It helped that my young mare, Maia, is highly sensitive and had had little traditional pressure training, but we still had much to learn.
This summer, I was an actual participant with Maia in Karen’s clinic. Traditionally, I audit clinics or merely watch DVD’s, finding that I learn all I need to that way, given that much training is more of the same. However, feel and release is one thing I needed to experience for myself directly, in a hands-on experience. Further, the fact that I actually attended with Maia – whom I am truthfully obstinately protective of from any method I feel would pressure her or cause friction in our relationship – is in itself a significant testament to the THTF method.
Practical Techniques Learned
There were so many practical techniques that became far clearer to me during the three-day clinic. I will touch on just a few.
Pressure or release?
Pragmatically, the feel and release approach recognizes that pressure is present to some degree in a horse’s life. Pressure was not necessarily used to “communicate,” which is the job of feel. It was used very sparingly, to create a mental change or facilitate a one-time breakthrough. Even the most sensitive horses seemed to resonate perfectly with this use of pressure, never being offended, but actually freed by the use of it. In this way, feel and release transforms the very pressure it avoids: when THTF does use it, the horse feels released and not pressured at all.
The source of genuine lightness
My concept of “forward” was replaced by the concept of “life.” So often in dressage, I had been admonished to increase my horse’s “forwardness,” and yet doing so came about through more pressure and often merely increased speed. However, by learning about true “life” in the horse, I experienced a new type of forwardness I had never known. This type of life was about lightness, accessibility to the whole horse, maneuverability at the slightest notice, a true desire to work, and a completely free, released body, no matter if the horse was at a standstill or a gallop. Whereas the “forwardness” of before seemed to stem from pressure and end in more pressure, the “life” that I discovered at the clinic was a path to a released athleticism and even delight in the horse.
Sensitivity to space
One concept that is the subject of much discussion in horsemanship is “space,” with people often being instructed to “take your horse’s space” or to avoid letting him “take your space.” Seeking to follow that instruction usually leads to a confrontation and/or a correction where the horse feels driven from his human. Instead, in the clinic, I was shown how a horse often simply needs to be re-educated about his perception of space; for example, if he creeps forward into your space, it may simply be that his natural sensitivity to another’s need for space has been inadvertently “dulled” through his being crowded in traditional practice handling. If we habitually crowd our horse, especially around his head, neck and shoulders, we teach him to do the same to us; before asking a horse to not crowd, we must first respect his space. This works because horses operate through reciprocal feel – they will return to you the feel you give to them. This realization transformed my work with Maia, especially at liberty, where some of our struggles became far easier to understand. Addressing her perception of space altered our relationship as well, for I could stop focusing on her, making her feel driven away, but simply play with the space around her.
Releasing the ride
Finally, my riding completely changed. In some ways, I feel that with much of what I learned traditionally in riding, I now do the opposite: release my legs and seat to go, release my inside leg to turn, release the reins to stop. Yet this transformational riding, far from being confusing, resonates perfectly with Maia, and despite only having a few rides through feel, she has begun to show the floating, feather-lightness of a far more trained horse – or, more truly, she is able to express a genuine lightness that was already there, as I discover how to preserve and release it.
Much more than just individual techniques, however, what truly gripped me from this clinic was how perfectly THTF fits into an ultimate philosophy of horsemanship, a true horsemanship. In fact, as I began to realize the many ways THTF seemed to fit the horse in every way, I began, on my own, in trying to describe it, to call it “true horsemanship.” Only afterwards did I realize the complete irony of my choice – I was simply calling it by its own name: true horsemanship through feel!
What, then, makes this “true horsemanship”?
Clarity for the horse
THTF transforms liberty and bridleless work with horses. It allows for the same communication with the horse whether bridled or bridleless, on line or at liberty. With pressure and release, when there is tack, one set of communication is used (pressure on the tack), and when there is no tack, another set of communication is used (no pressure on tack). However, this causes confusion to the horse, who then has to learn two sets of cues. Liberty and bridleless work then is often unreliable, for there is not tack to back up the no-tack cues. However, THTF transforms this by having only one language, one set of communication, whether there is tack or not. It is no trouble for a horse to understand requests at liberty – without any special training – when he has always been worked on a loose line, with more float in the line – not less – asking for a behavior. It is no trouble for a horse to be bridleless when his rider has never taken up on the reins to stop or turn. This allows for only one language to ever be spoken to the horse – the language of a true horsemanship.
Working with the horse’s natural capacities
Also, one difficulty I had with some training methods is that they required so much explanation to the horse. There was so much to train, so many cues to learn, so many sounds to condition to, so many habits to make; honestly, it was so much work. One of the most fascinating aspects of THTF is its nature of being feel-based communication, not cue-based. There is very little you ever “train” your horse to do: the nature of feel is for the horse to do what he feels released to, based off his instinct. This transforms the horse-human relationship, for the horse does not feel that he is being “trained,” but simply communicated with. Even an utterly untouched horse could from the first moment have a working language with a human, understanding requests for even complex behaviors. This seems to be the truest horsemanship I could imagine -- communicating with the horse at the language of instinct, and what is utterly, completely natural.
A foundation available at all times
With this realization about instinctive communication, I began to understand that THTF is one of the safest horsemanship methods available. Instead of relying on a behavior trained through habit and repetition – a behavior that a horse can often easily forget in a high-stress, frightening situation – THTF taps into the horse’s natural capacity to feel and respond with intelligence, whether in a calm, or reactive state. In fact, the more reactive a horse gets, the easier using THTF often becomes, for when the foundational communication is connected to those feel-based instincts, it remains available to the handler even when the horse’s instincts are heightened, instead of more easily losing the connection to a “dictionary of cues”. Working just as well with fear as with relaxation, this is true horsemanship, indeed.
Creating an attentive partner without submission or incentives
THTF creates a remarkably attentive partner in the horse, a partner who will stand by his human even in the absence of phases, treats, pressure, tack, or rest . Through his understanding of your intent and feel, your willingness to accept his “no,” your helping him to feel free, he becomes a true partner who begins to anticipate what you need and even fill in for you. He has not based his relationship with you on where the rest/comfort is (learning that work is undesirable) or what the phases of pressure are trying to say (deciphering your meaning), but on the need and feel you are presenting. Is this not a true horsemanship, where the horse works to help you as much as you seek to help the horse?
Effective firmness without confrontation
A common adage among horsemen is, “the horse is never wrong.” However, I do not always see this lived out in much horsemanship, for there are always principles about horses that are assumed to need “reprogramming,” as if the horse were created wrong. The most prevalent of these principles is that the horse will push into pressure, people spending their entire training careers and building entire training methods on how to best re-program and re-condition the horse to stop doing this – but by directing that very pressure at the horse. However, is the horse truly that wrong? THTF instead acknowledges those principles, not seeing them as something to confront, but incorporating them as they are, naturally, into the method. Simply put, a horse’s natural response to pressure is to offer pressure, but the converse is also true: a horse’s natural response to release (without preceding pressure) is to offer release. This truth about horses is at the core of feel and release. Understanding the horse’s true nature seems to be a hallmark of a true horsemanship.
When the interaction is the reward
Finally, one of my long-term quests has been to find a horsemanship that makes riding and human interaction as wonderful for the horse as it is for the human. It seems that whatever horsemanship could do that would be the truest form of horsemanship, the most fundamental honoring of the natural horse-human bond. I believe THTF is one of the keys to this. When the horse is constantly released to perform, versus pressured, he becomes increasingly light, increasingly joyous, increasingly willing. Soon, the performance itself becomes the reward, not the promise of rest, treats, or comfort afterward. Through this, the horse learns to truly love his work and love what human interaction can do for him. THTF is a gift to the horse as much as a method for the human. Is this not the best way to be a gracious steward of our horses, using a true horsemanship that is not self-serving?
The Legend Lives
For all of these reasons – both the particular skills as well as the general principles – true horsemanship through feel has utterly transformed my horsemanship and thus changed my life. It was one of the missing links in my journey for the truest horsemanship, a horsemanship which causes as much joy for the horse as it does for the human, a horsemanship that entirely honors the natural bond between a horse and a human. In valuing that, it releases horse and human to unimaginable heights, heights which before were only legend.
But now, the legend lives.
Hannah and Maia, Texas, USA