If you are a student of natural horsemanship, you will have heard the phrase “feel, timing and balance” on multiple occasions. If you are new to natural horsemanship, you will eventually come across this idea. In this article, I will explore what this idea mean to me, and hopefully explain it in a way anyone can understand.
When I began working with horses 25 years ago, the idea of feel, timing and balance was introduced to me. It’s one of those phrases people love to throw about, and in some instances they understand, but it’s only recently that I began to really think about what it means to me.
I’ve read about it in many books, I’ve heard it explained in countless clinics and dvds, but for many it remains an elusive idea that is hard to grasp. It is really only recently I’ve come to my own understanding.
And I think in a way, no matter how often you try to analyse this concept, it is something that just happens one day. Things come together. Of course by the time these things come together, you are no longer thinking about feel, timing and balance, because you have Become feel, timing and balance. It’s just something you do.
I remember how hard it was in the beginning. The ropes were new to me, so long and heavy. My timing was a joke, I couldn’t even tell you what balance meant, and feel, all I felt was frustrated.
I see this in new students and I feel for them. I remember being there. Always too late on a correction, asking at the wrong times, struggling, and so their horse struggles. Luckily horses are very clever and forgiving, so eventually they get there, but it takes so much longer to get there.
It’s like when people are developing their eyes for natural horsemanship. You can go to clinics all day long, but if you can’t see what is not being said, you won’t go away with the real lessons. Your eyes must be developed. One day you realise, you can really see what’s happening beyond what the trainer is saying.
Feel, timing and balance is the same. I’ve come to understand these things in my own way. How I understand them may not be the same as Tom, or Buck or Pat, but it is how I understand them, for me and how I work.
I will start with feel. It almost seems the most obvious, so its so easily over looked. And it was only until yesterday, working with a weanling, I realised something.
I was working with her to go on the horse box. This was my second session with her. Last week I put her halter on for the first time, and started the basics of leading and keeping eyes and focus on me.
This week we did more leading, circling, moving forward, and the trailer. So she had learned to move forward to a click, follow the feel of the rope, and make an effort.
I was asking her forward, to come onto the ramp. I realised, as I have on other occasions, I was staring at the floor, while I waited. I thought, well this is interesting. Im standing here, waiting for her to give me something, but how will I know, I’m not looking at her. I’ve noticed this before. But as we stood, I had time to think this idea through.
What I was waiting for was the feel in my hand, and really, in my personal space, to change. I was waiting to feel her try. It wasn’t something I was looking for, literally Looking for, it was something I was waiting to feel.
I realised I do this a lot. People wonder how I or Bill or Tom can work with a horse and talk to a crowd at the same time. There comes a point where you are no longer looking for cues from the horse, you are feeling them. And for me this feeling comes through my hand. I rarely look at a horse I am working with, it’s all feel.
This to me defines feel. Its a vibe, a willingness (or lack there of), a softness (or brace) that I feel in my hand, and in my personal space.
As I work I point out what the spectators can see, because that’s the road to feel, but for me, I look for the spectators, not for me. I could work a horse blindfolded, and most likely still get on pretty good.
This leads to timing. To most students, timing is obvious, but the tricky thing about timing is that it is totally dependent on feel and balance. Because of this, I am going to discuss balance and come back to timing.
Balance is the most obscure of the three. What is balance? Most take it literally, thinking along the lines of balanced riding concepts. Actual physics of balance, and although I suppose that could come into play, I think it means far more then that.
To me balance means several things.
The first thing it means to me is a balanced state of mind. Remaining calm in the storm. Never becoming frustrated or emotional. Having faith your work is going to pay off.
Horses are like children. When you get emotional, they will take this as a sign. What’s interesting is that they will play up, like a naughty child, however it is more simple then that. When you get emotional (frustrated, angry, stressed out, fearful), you are not behaving like a leader. You are behaving like a human. This causes them to try to take over, which most horses hate, so they become naughty, fearful, frustrated, stressed out…it becomes like a horrible mirror.
So remaining calm (balanced) emotionally at all times is crucial. Never get wound up. Ever.
I’ve learned over the years, it’s always darkest before the dawn. When teaching (or retraining) a horse, there is a period of time where they get worse before they get better. This is almost always the case. And this is when most people get emotional and miss their opportunity for change.
You can’t let this seemingly backwards step cause an imbalance. People watch me and are blown away at the patience and calmness I can maintain for hours if I have to. Horses just don’t get to me. Doesn’t matter what they do, I have the patience and persistence for the long haul.
Balance also means judging when to ask and when not to ask. Or how hard to ask and how hard not to ask. This comes back to feel, and ties into timing. Without feel, people have a hard time knowing when enough is enough. When to wait, how much to ask for.
People are impatient and always want more. Its in our nature. Learning to balance the ask is one of the ways to be successful quickly with a horse.
This is also true for the release. The horse learns when you stop doing what you are doing. But how long do you stop for? When you decide to begin asking again, how much do you ask for? This is a balancing act.
Only time and experience can give this to you. Over the years, I’ve learned to listen to the horse. He will tell me when I’ve asked to much or to hard, and next time I will remember. But only experience will give you the knowledge of when he can be giving you more.
They are good at finding a comfortable place, and then getting stuck there. You have to balance letting them have that bit of comfort with pushing just enough to progress.
The last element is timing. Timing is simply when you do something, or stop doing something.
Without feel and balance, timing means nothing. You can watch for signs, but once you see it, its to late, you have missed your timing. You have to feel it.
Of course the only way to get good is to practice. In order to learn, you have to watch for clues from the horse. You will be late in your timing, but luckily for us, they are clever and forgiving. Late timing is better then no timing.
My timing is very good, because I rely on feel. People say, wow you’re fast. But it’s only because I feel something happening and react. I don’t have to rely on watching the horse, and my reaction is instinctual. I don’t have to think first. I feel, and react.
Timing is probably the easiest to work on, because even when its off, you can still be effective. It just takes a whole lot longer to get where you are going.
This is why I like to work with a horse before an owner. If I can teach the horse, quickly and effectively, the owners bad timing will still get (or at least maintain) the desired effect. Once the horse understands what is expected, he is very forgiving of bad timing (and feel and balance).
Im effective because I am emotionally balanced, I feel for what needs to be done, and through that feel, I time my balanced asks and releases.
This is the basis for all natural horsemanship trainers. This is what they call horse whispering. But its just a skill that develops over time and with experience.
I now do these things without thinking, like driving a car. But with patience and practice, anyone can accomplish these things. Its definitely not magic, but the feeling it gives you certainly is.
Your task, is to find ways to improve your feel, timing, and balance. I hope a little insight about what that means to me can help you.