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If there’s one thing Ed Wright stresses more than anything else, it’s “Education, Education, EDUCATION!” This is the foundation of the multi-faceted program that he and his wife Martha have developed, which has remained true over the years, and still stands firm. It’s an approach that is based on educating a horse the “old fashioned way” – with patience. Ed has dedicated his life to sharing this timeless approach with barrel racers and it’s one that continues to deliver consistent positive results at a time when competition that is tougher than ever.
Ed states that “Knowledge tells you what to do, experience tells you when, where, how and why to use that knowledge.”
To develop our horse’s knowledge, we must be willing to develop our own. As riders, the best teachers we’ll ever come across are horses, but only if we are willing to learn from them. Educating a horse then, really has more to do with allowing the horse to educate us. The horse will always tell us the direction in which we need to go, if we listen.
With horses and riders, it’s imperative that this education be something that doesn’t end in our minds, but follows through to the way in which we use our bodies. With an understanding of timing and feel in place, we can go forward and build experience, which creates opportunities to fine tune the details of “when, where, how and why” that timing and feel is applied.
Ed encourages barrel racers to focus on developing three main areas of education in their horses:
- Speed Control
- Direction Control
- Body Shape Control
Ed explains that “Just because a horse was educated properly as a colt, doesn’t mean they’re still educated.” At the same time, just because a horse is ten years old and has packed around a saddle and rider for years, doesn’t mean that he ever received a proper education. Not only must barrel racers learn to recognize when their horse needs to be better educated, they must also learn how to maintain their education, and continue to develop it. If you want to become a top barrel racer, AND a horseman, there really is no destination – it’s a never ending process.
When it comes to developing speed control, or any other area of a horse’s education, it’s not something that just happens by accident. It requires consistent, conscious choices on the rider’s part to ensure that the horse not only speeds up and slows down when asked, but also understands how to shorten and lengthen stride. If a horse doesn’t always oblige to our requests to do so, then chances are good that someone dropped the ball at some point in the horse’s education, or that the rider asked for the change in speed or stride length in a way the horse didn’t understand clearly. As Ed puts it, “The accelerator or brake only works when it’s been educated and kept educated.”
An exercise that is effective for better developing speed control involves performing numerous transitions between gaits. This can be done when traveling around the perimeter of the arena, on the barrel pattern, or even out in the pasture. Simply do just as Ed coaches students, and “Walk… Lope… Trot… Gallop… Walk” for varying distances, and be prepared for your horse to become more responsive to your requests to change speed when you do. As your horse becomes more advanced, you can ask for changes of speed and stride length within each gait.
If you perform these transitions and find that there is a delay in your horse’s response, the key to creating the degree of responsiveness you desire, comes through riding with “feel.” Every horse is an individual, each at a different place in their educational journey. Although there may be guidelines that exist for creating greater degrees of responsiveness, whether to your legs, to the bridle rein, or to your “go” cues, when you’re riding with “feel,” there is no cookie cutter formula. It’s not that there are exceptions to every rule, it’s that the horse creates the rules as you go.
“Feel a horse’s body, feel of it, all the way through, and figure out what kind of feel you have to apply to get the kind of feel you want back from the horse.” – Ed Wright
As riders, we must base the “feel” we present to our horses, on the “feel” or feedback they give back to us. Ed shares that “what the horse does, tells you what you need to do for him.” If the horse is thinking and using his body in a way we perceive as correct, we allow it, if not, we adjust the way we’re communicating to cause it to change.
Depending on the input you receive back from the horse, this may mean increasing or decreasing the ounces of feel you offer, keeping it the same, or reinforcing the feel you’re presenting in a different way in order for your request to be more obvious. The length of time you allow a horse to think about a request before making an adjustment, may depend on whether you feel as though the horse truly doesn’t understand what you’re asking, or if you’re confident he’s already been thoroughly educated and is just goofing off. As Ed says, “Timing depends on what you want to teach.”
When we consistently make our initial requests with the same degree of subtly and lightness, and have a well developed ability to make any adjustments smoothly and with good timing, and return to that initial degree of lightness that we want our horses to respond to, once they have responded correctly, the quicker and easier the horse learns, and the more responsive he becomes – and stays.
An example of a horse that needs more education is one that seems lazy, and lopes around a barrel without putting forth much effort. To increase the amount of energy the horse is exerting, we should become aware of the energy in our bodies. Bringing up the life in our own body is the first step toward causing our horse to bring up the life in their body. If we bring up our own energy and are riding in an athletic, balanced “go forward” position, and the horse hasn’t matched our energy, the next step might be to apply a rhythmic driving feel with our legs, in timing with the horse’s movement. If doing this still doesn’t have meaning to a horse, it’s only because the horse hasn’t been taught for it to have meaning. If you want a soft quick feel from the horse, present a soft quick feel to him. If you want your horse to move with energy and cadence in his step, then bring up the life in your own body and ride with fluidity and timing.
As the late, great Ray Hunt once said…
“You get out of the horse what you put in — the way you put it in.”
Continuing to use your legs on a horse you are educating to move forward with energy for an extended period, while not receiving the desired response, would desensitize the horse to the feel you are presenting. Instead, the next step might be to revisit the round pen to teach the horse to move forward with impulsion off of the feel you apply with a flag, which acts as an extension of your hand. It never hurts to return to the starting point where these understandings are developed to be certain the horse has a clear idea of what you’re asking.
When you are confident in the horse’s understanding, Ed suggests that “when you ask for it, get it, and get out.” Once we receive the quality of forward movement we desire, any continuance of the “feel” that was applied to obtain it, can risk “untraining” the horse and making him dull. Again, it’s critical that we return to the degree of “feel” that we want our horse to initially respond to. Constantly use your “body knowledge” to be aware of what it takes to create the response you’re looking for as you further develop your ability to know “when, here, how and why” to use it.
“Observe, remember, and compare.” – Tom Dorrance
With every step you and your horse take together, you’re either educating or “uneducating” him. The variations of the application of feel you apply can and will vary from day to day and horse to horse, but if you’re on the right track, your horse should be making progress and becoming more educated and responsive to your requests to influence his speed, direction and body shape. Ed adds, that a common misunderstanding in this area, is that of leads. When a horse isn’t on the correct lead, or the rider doesn’t have the awareness or ability to determine which lead a horse is on, it places a huge limitation on how far a horse and rider can progress.
When considering what kind of adjustment must be made to reach our desired outcome, it’s equally important to ensure that as a rider, we aren’t delivering mixed signals. If we’re not experiencing the kind of results we want, either we asked the wrong question (our horse wasn’t educated) or we asked the question wrong (our body language was confusing). For example, a horse might be well educated to travel with life in his body when asked, but if the rider is not in timing with the horse, and bumps the horse’s mouth with their insensitive hands, or if they are unconsciously applying too much contact to the reins, everything becomes more difficult and confusing for the horse due to the conflicting messages from the rider. As riders, when we develop our own timing and feel, it opens doors for better communication and understanding with our horses.
As in the other areas mentioned, when it comes to shaping the body, the horse will again tell you what he needs you to do. For example, if your horse chooses to ignore an initial soft feel that you’ve applied with your leg to ask him to move his feet laterally, you might increase the ounces of that feel to reach the desired response. If the horse’s education level is questionable, instead of increasing intensity from the saddle you might opt to instead refresh the horse’s education on the ground first, so that your request is more clear under saddle. If you’re applying and adjusting your feel in the appropriate way with the proper timing, you’ll continue to receive better quality responses from your horse. Soon you’ll be able to do a lot more with less, and that’s what good horsemanship is all about. When you can do this, not only will you be on your way to developing what it takes to reach the highest levels of barrel racing, but also any other equine endeavor.
A horse that honors our request to go in the direction we specify, is a horse that honors our body language and respects the feel we present. When our requests are not honored, we must determine how we can communicate more clearly to the horse, so that our request becomes more obvious. Although Ed sets forth guidelines for ways of positioning our bodies that typically allow for good communication, there are no hard fast rules for this. “Whatever position it takes for the horse to understand what you’re asking, is the correct position. Search until you find it.” As riders, we must communicate in a way that the horse we are on in the moment understands, and then refine that communication as we go.
For example, if the horse hasn’t responded to an adjustment made with the rein to change direction, take a closer look at each of the four parts of rein management:
Adjusting the length of your hold on the reins, changing the direction of the rein, the ounces of feel applied, or the timing in which it’s applied, or even bringing in reinforcement with your leg, are all ways in which to make your request more obvious. In addition, you may also determine that returning to the round pen is the best option, depending on where your horse is at in their development, the kind of response you receive when you ask a question, and what the ideal outcome you have in mind feels like.
An effective option for a horse that does not honor our request to go in a certain direction (such as one that that tightens up too much around the barrel), involves asking them to travel in a reverse arc figure 8 away from the barrel in the spot they want to get too tight. This can be extremely helpful to remind a horse that it would be in their best interest to go in the direction we ask them. When they do, there is peace and freedom, if they don’t, we can again make a request to move into the figure 8 again. The more we change things up and make requests to move in different directions, the more willing they become to follow our guidance.
The good news is that the better a horse becomes at following our feel, be that of our body, the bridle rein, or our legs, the greater the understanding of feel becomes in other areas. Just as a horse that responds well to us on the ground is more likely to respond well under saddle, and a horse that responds well to us away from the pattern, is more likely to on the pattern, improving our horse’s education and responsiveness in one area, helps to improve it in other areas as well.
As Ed puts it “Horse’s only move at the speed we want, where we want, in the shape we want, when they have been educated to do so.” It’s our job, as riders to instill education, to maintain it, and continue to develop it, all while staying mindful that the horse is our teacher. The horse tells us when we’re doing a good job and when we’re not. Whether our horses have the education they need, necessary to achieve success in barrel racing or any other discipline, depends on what we have done and continue to do with the feedback they provide. The foundation from which our own education and our horse’s education is built, is “feel,” it’s the language we use to communicate. We make adjustments based on what our ideal outcome is and what kind of feedback we receive from the horse as we go. How we “speak” to our horses is based on how they “speak” to us.
“The horse will tell you what he needs – what to do, how to do it, why to do it, when to do it and where, to go on with a program.” – Ed Wright
Without timing and feel, we can scare and confuse our horses and teach them to be pushy, dull and resentful. There are a million variations on how feel is applied, but when applied correctly, it builds lightness, responsiveness and confidence. If you find yourself hitting a road block or struggling with any of the three main aspects of your horse’s education – speed, body shape and direction control, then go back and brush up on you and your horse’s education in these areas. In addition, if your horse doesn’t seem to maintain a level of education, consider how you, as a rider, might be contributing to this, and determine what kind of change is necessary.
Developing the ability to know exactly “what, when, where, how and why” to apply feel is not always easy. In fact, it’s something that many horsemen dedicate their entire lives to perfecting. When we focus on developing our ability to ride with appropriate timing and feel, it helps us to communicate in a way that our horses most easily understand, setting us up for success, in whatever we do with horses.
It’s our hope that describing these fundamental elements of developing a horse’s education through riding with feel, has helped to better define an area, that in the barrel horse world especially, is often otherwise grey. With a good education in place, as long as you continue to develop experience, and put these fundamentals into practice, the road you’re on is sure to lead to confidence and success for both you and your horse.
Ed also highly recommends that anyone wanting to better develop their own education and their horse’s, read the book True Horsemanship Through Feel by Bill Dorrance and Leslie Desmond, also available in the book store here at BarrelRacingTips.com.
If you’d like to learn even more about what feel and timing really is AND how it applies to barrel racing, click here to order a copy of “Secrets to Barrel Racing Success” and receive your FREE Speed Guide instantly with purchase!