Friday, February 4, 2022

Trees Can Help Your Horse Find the Feel

By Mary Gallagher

Tree as helpful obstacle

Here at Freedom Farm we are blessed with a wooded playground we call the Emerald Forest. It has provided everyone here with the added benefit of exposing their horses to natural obstacles as well as a quiet retreat to strengthen their relationship with their horses. So with improved weather this month, it was a pleasure to get back out into this beautiful training area. Trees are wonderful obstacles: you can go around or between them, under their branches, over their exposed roots or fallen branches. Today I will share with you one of my favorite ways of using going around a tree to help the horse develop a softer feel.


The basic setup is to ask the horse to walk around the tree, while we remain stationary—provided the tree has a strong trunk and is unyielding to the tension of a rope. A tree like this can be a very solid natural obstacle that provides a clear boundary to help us humans stay more neutral and out of the way.

Ask the horse to walk around the tree.
In the accompanying video, you can see me allowing the rope to slip a little to begin simulating what is expected in softness. To teach softness, the feel must come up slowly. If the feel comes up too quickly, it can cause more tension in the horse, whereas our goal here is to create softness.

The horse can feel through the rope...

Although the tree is rigid, the horse can still feel through the rope to the human connection, and we can adjust the feel to meet our horse’s needs. They ultimately differentiate between the unyielding boundary of the tree, and the human offer of softness through the slip in the rope. 

Softness, and a return, following the feel.
During this exercise, you can observe resistance, flexion, weight shift, balance, engagement, and softness. (Again, watch the video to see what I mean.)

Here's how it works. (Remember, the trick is to set it up and wait.)

  1. Send the horse around the tree with a good amount of line;
  2. As the rope begins to wind around the tree the slack comes out of the rope creating tension, and resistance in the horse. As the horse goes further around the tree the tree creates leverage, and the horse will need to adjust to the shorting of the rope.
  3. Allow the rope to slip a little bit as your horse’s awareness comes up.  This will encourage the horse to shape himself to adjust to the feel on the rope (flexion);
  4. The horse's natural desire to find his way back to comfort causes him to adjust his feet and rebalance for stability (weight, balance). All of these movements require he engage, or feel the amount of rope he has to work with, and adjust accordingly. This takes time for the horse to process so you need to remain in neutral—no fixing or rescuing!
  5. After he's flexed, shifted and rebalanced, the horse will soften and return around the tree, seeking further comfort. Allow him to think through the problem—don’t be in a hurry.
  6. When he is relaxed again, Repeat the process, sending him back around the tree. The horse’s feel through the rope this time will be heightened; not wanting to be caught off guard again he will respect the limitation of the rope and adjust more readily. With each additional send around the tree, he becomes more aware of the feel, and softens more willingly.

Things to remember while doing the above steps...

  • This exercise involves several teaching phases—it is important to allow the horse lots of time to fully comprehend how he comes by comfort—this is the feel part.
  • There is no need to rush the process—the discomfort of the slack coming out of the rope causes the horse to seek relief.
  • Your job is to allow the horse to search out the best feel.
  • The ultimate goal is for our horse to understand that when the feel comes up on the rope—and later on the rein—flexion creates comfort.

Following the feel back.
There are so many ways to teach our horses to carry themselves effectively in partnership with us. Using trees as a natural support for teaching feel not only gives us a handy new obstacle and approach, it gets us out of the arena and into nature with our equine partners. I encourage you to go enjoy nature with your horse—and play with trees!


Here's the video again for handy reference - MG 


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