What is a Horseman?

What is a Horseman?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a “Horseman” as:
1. a rider of driver of horses; especially one whose skill is exceptional
2. a person skilled in caring for or managing horses
3. a person who breeds or raises horses

While the dictionary definition is technically correct, a Horseman is more than those things.

Horseman is not a title that is lightly given or easily achieved. To be called a Horseman, it must be earned, and is one of the greatest compliments that can be received.

A Horseman (or Horsewoman) is someone who has learned how horses think, and who has honed their skills to be able to communicate clearly with horses. A Horseman views the horse as a partner, not a tool.

A Horseman is someone who has dedicated a lot of their time to learn about horses and horsemanship, and continues to dedicate their time, because they realize that you never stop learning with these amazing creatures. A Horseman views themselves as a life-long student of the horse.

Through their experience and never ending thirst for knowledge, a Horseman is someone who has learned feel, timing, and balance. A Horseman knows when to push a horse, and when to back off. They understand the importance of getting a horse’s respect, but they can achieve it without causing the horse fear or worry.

A Horseman understands that horses must be allowed to move freely forward, that impulsion is a necessary ingredient for creating a performance horse. A Horseman has honed their riding skills, so that they can allow the horse to move freely and not interfere with the horse’s athleticism.

A Horseman has a positive attitude. They know that the way to go fast with a horse is to go slow. There is always tomorrow. They don’t let their emotions get in the way of how they work with a horse. This lesson might be the hardest one for a Horseman to learn.

A Horseman has learned how to properly care for their horse. A Horseman learns how to recognize the early signs of soreness in their horse, so that it can be treated before it becomes a problem.

The process to becoming a Horseman does not happen overnight. It is a Journey, a life-long dedication. There are many different paths to becoming a Horseman, many different disciplines in which to enjoy these amazing animals. For those of us that are lucky enough to be able to travel this road, the reward is great-a partnership with our horse.

Someday I hope to be a Horseman. I really enjoy this Journey, and each horse that I work with teaches me more.

What do you think? How do you define a Horseman? Please feel free to leave a comment!


Becoming a Horseman: The Importance of Feel, Timing, Balance, and Experience

You don’t have to do much research about horsemanship to hear that it takes Feel, Timing, Balance and Experience to become a Horseman.

Of these words, Balance and Experience are pretty easy concepts to understand.

Timing is a little more complicated, but most riders can be taught the idea of the timing of their cues.

Feel, however, is much harder to define, and hard to teach. Feel is a vague word that is often used by trainers, clinicians, and instructors. Most of them agree that to become a True Horseman, you must develop feel.

It is a word surrounded by confusion, with the connotation of having an almost magical quality, leaving the reader confused and wondering if “feel” is some magical talent that only horse whisperers possess.

In this blog, I will examine different definitions of Feel. Some of these definitions come from Natural Horsemanship trainers/clinicians, and some from top Performance Horse trainers. I will look at the connection between Feel and Timing, take a quick look at Balance, and also at the role that Experience plays into developing Feel, Timing, and Balance.

Hopefully this will help clear the confusion around “Feel” and help you on your path to becoming a horseman!

What is Feel?

In Bill Dorrance’s book “True Horsemanship Through Feel,” he describes feel as “the language of horses.”

In his book, he describes two kinds of feel that we can use to communicate with our horses.

Indirect feel is the feel that we use when the horse is loose, in the corral or round pen, when we use our body language to communicate with the horse.

Direct feel is the feel we use when we have a direct connection with the horse, such as a halter and lead rope, bridle, the rider’s leg and seat, etc.

Using these types of feel, the person can influence the horse to respond into doing different things.

Feel & Collection

For a lot of people “feel” is synonymous with vertical flexion and collection.

I think that this is because it takes a good rider with a decent amount of “feel” to be able to achieve collection with their horse. However, I think that constricting “feel” to collection is a mistake. The rider should be able to “feel” the entire horse.

Let’s consider this quote from Tom Dorrance’s book “True Unity.”

“The older I get the more it’s beginning to dawn on me how most people seem to have so little feel of the whole horse-of what’s going on in what part.” (Page 9)

Later in his book, Tom Dorrance tries to define feel:

”I’ve looked in dictionaries for the definition for the word feel. I haven’t been really satisfied with the definitions I’ve found for this thing I’m talking about with the horse-this thing between the horse and the person. When I talk to people about this feel and the timing, I realize how difficult it may be for them to try to get what I am trying to say.” (Page 12)

Like the Tom Dorrance quote above suggests, Dr. Robert Miller agrees in his book Natural Horsemanship Explained that feel is something between the horse and rider. An entire chapter of the book is dedicated to feel (Chapter 8). In Dr. Miller’s chapter on Feel, he discusses feel from the standpoint of the horse, and has many examples of how riders can use more subtle signals to produce horses with feel, that respond to light cues. He states to “Reward the slightest try by releasing the pressure. That’s how lightness is developed. That’s a horse with ‘feel.’”

Dr. Miller also describes feel from the standpoint of the human as “the ability to detect the response of the horse and to anticipate its consequences.”

Martin Black defines feel in his book Cow-Horse Confidence as more than just physical, more than just where the horse’s body parts are. He states, “We must be aware that, where the horse is concerned, ‘feel’ is emotional, mental, and physical.”

He also describes his training methods as the Feel Approach: “With the feel approach, you support and encourage the horse through each step of the process, motivating him through pressure and relief, and rewarding each ”try” he makes along the way. This allows the horse to make decisions, learn, and understand the purpose of what you’re asking.” (Pages 34-35)

Craig Cameron also agrees that feel is more than physical. In his book, Ride Smart, he explains:

“Feel is more than just a physical touch, it’s also an emotional response and a mental approach to whatever situation you find yourself in with your horse…You’ll have to develop your own lightness and understanding of the horse, or feel. For example, when your horse is giving to the bit in response to one of your requests, the most important thing you can do is give back, or release the pressure you placed on the horse. The release is the only thing in it for the horse. What you’re trying to say to the horse is: ”When you give, I’ll give.” That’s a feel. “When you’re soft, I’m soft.” That’s a feel. “When you yield, I yield.” That’s a feel. It’s something that you’re going to have to work on over a period of time. Be patient with yourself. Be patient with your horse. It’s about give and take and truly a game of feel.
You can recognize that you’re developing feel by your horse’s responses. It’ll take time for you to learn when to use more pressure and when to use less. In the beginning it might take a lot, but in the end it should take less. The result is a feel that’s more of a suggestion and finally just a thought.” (Pages 38-39)

One of my favorite definitions of feel might be the simplest:

“Feel is knowing where all your horse’s body parts are at all times, and if they are in the correct position for whatever maneuver you ask your horse to perform.”
Mike Major, Ranch Horse Versatility, page 80

Jack Brainard agrees with Mike Major’s definition. In Jack’s book, “If I Were To Train A Horse” he states:
“Good trainers develop a ”feel” for the horse, which means they know where his feet are and when to cue (the horse).”

Now that we have examined some different viewpoints from different trainers on feel, what do they have in common?

The rider must be attuned to the horse’s body placement and response to the rider’s cues, and the rider must be able to feel when the horse is doing right, so that the rider can encourage the correct response.

How does the rider “feel” the horse?

The rider “feels” where the horse’s body parts are, so they can be sure that the horse is in the correct position before asking the horse to do something, so that the horse will be a lot more successful at doing whatever we ask, and the horse and rider will both be happier with the result.

The rider “feels” how the horse is responding to the rider emotionally, (is the horse mad? scared? irritated?) then the rider adjusts what s/he is asking the horse to do to change the horse’s attitude.

The rider “feels” how the horse is responding to the rider mentally, (is the horse ready to perform the requested maneuver? has the horse remembered previous lessons that build on the requested maneuver?) so that the rider makes sure that the horse can actually do what the rider is asking them to do, so that they build the horse’s confidence instead of creating fear and confusion.

Siobhan’s Simplified Definition of Feel:

Feel is the ability to know where the horse’s body parts are, to be able to communicate with the horse to move it’s body parts, and to be able to read the horse’s physical, mental, and emotional responses to the rider’s requests.

What about Timing?

If you have taken my How Horses Learn Lesson, you should already have a good idea of what trainers mean when they say that a rider has “good timing.”

Remember the Teaching Moment? That split second immediately after the horse performs the requested response? That split second when the rider should be giving reinforcement, whether it is negative reinforcement by releasing the rein/leg cue, or by petting/rewarding the horse?

If the rider has good timing, they give the reinforcement during the Teaching Moment, to help the horse learn.

In Sandy Collier’s book “Reining Essentials,” she states that “Timing is everything.” In the following paragraph, she describes why it is necessary for riders to develop great timing:

“Remember, horses learn from the release of pressure, not the application of it. And when you release, your horse will associate this reward with whatever he was doing immediately before the release. So if you’re a split second late releasing, you’re confusing your horse and slowing his learning, or even inadvertently ”rewarding” something else entirely.” (Page 12)

Timing and Feel are often mentioned together, because they both need to be used together to be effective.

Mike Major describes how Timing and Feel are intertwined in his book, Ranch Horse Versatility:

“Timing and feel intertwine and are such an important thing. Timing is a state of mind, knowing when to put pressure on a horse-or not. Good timing in training is one of the biggest virtues to develop when you work with a horse. Your training is effective, and it takes less time to accomplish your goals because you understand the right time to ask your horse to do a maneuver. Feel is knowing where all your horse’s body parts are at all times, and if they are in the correct position for whatever maneuver you ask your horse to perform.”

Chris Cox’s definition of feel in his book Ride the Journey also combines the concepts of feel and timing:

“Feel is applying the pressure you use to set boundaries with your horse and knowing when to release that pressure. Developing feel takes time and practice, but you can perfect your feel so that you release pressure the moment the horse gives to you. You might be applying leg pressure as you ask the horse to side-pass, or holding a brace with your rein, asking him to give laterally. In either case, you want to maintain consistency in setting that boundary until your horse gives. As soon as you feel that softening, that give, from your horse, you must release the pressure.” (Page 27)

Siobhan’s Simplified Definition of Timing:

Timing is the rider’s application, and release, of the cues to the horse, keeping in mind that the horse learns from the release, not the application, of the cue.


Balance is a much easier concept to explain. A rider that is balanced is able to move with the horse, instead of getting in the horse’s way. A balanced rider enable the horse to more easily perform maneuvers. A balanced rider is not bouncing on the horse’s back, making them sore, or hanging on the horse’s mouth, giving conflicting signals. The quickest way for a rider to develop balance is by taking riding lessons from a good instructor.
For more about Balance, watch my “Performance Position” video by clicking here.


A rider must ride a lot of hours, on a lot of different horses, to develop feel, timing, and balance. Find a mentor to learn from that is successful in the event/discipline that you want to ride in. Take lessons. Go to clinics and expos and demonstrations. Read every book and article you can. Watch training DVDs. Ask questions. Take my online horsemanship lessons, or contact me about online video coaching.

It takes years of dedication and hard work to become a horseman. It is not something that magically happens overnight or after one lesson.

That’s why it’s called a Journey!

Please feel free to leave a comment-I would like to hear what other people feel about “feel!”

Recommended Reading:

Bill Dorrance, “True Horsemanship Through Feel”

Tom Dorrance, “True Unity”

Ray Hunt, “Think Harmony with Horses”

Jack Brainard, “If I Were To Train A Horse”

Sandy Collier, “Reining Essentials”

Chris Cox, “Ride the Journey”

Mike Major, “Ranch Horse Versatility”

Martin Black, “Cow-Horse Confidence”

Craig Cameron, “Ride Smart”

Dr. Robert Miller, “Explaining Natural Horsemanship”

What is a Performance Horse?

What is a Performance Horse?

Is a performance horse a reiner? A cutter? A cowhorse? A roper? Is a jumper a performance horse?

Is a performance horse defined by it’s discipline? Or is a performance horse simply a horse that has a purpose, a job, that it has been trained to perform?

To me, a performance horse is a athlete that is trained to do a job, and respond lightly to the rider’s requests. (My personal opinion is that the ultimate performance horse is a reined cow horse, that can perform a reining pattern, cut a cow, and control a cow down the fence. Talk about an adrenaline rush!)

The International Performance Horse Development Association (iphda.com) rulebook states: “A performance horse is a trained athlete. All performance horse events require the rider to control their horse while they PERFORM the athletic challenges demanded by a particular sport.”

I like this definition. It doesn’t restrict the horse to a specific discipline, but rather focuses on the horse’s ability to do a job.

What do you think? What is a performance horse to you? Can you describe your ideal performance horse? What makes a performance horse a performance horse?

Don’t just be a Rider-be a Thinker!

When training two wild BLM mustang mares for the 2009 Midwest Extreme Mustang Makeover I learned a very important lesson about horse training-every moment is a training moment. This was especially true for these mustang mares, who were basically blank slates, and every interaction that I had with them was teaching them something, whether it was good or bad. This meant that I had to be more than a trainer or a rider. I had to be a Thinker! Every moment, every action, I had to think about what I was training, or un-training, them to do.

This principle applies to you and your horse too. From the minute that you take you horse out of his stall or pasture, to the minute that you put him away, you are training him.

Do you insist that your horse walks respectfully next to you, or do you let him dance around when you pull him out of his stall/pasture?

Are you aware of how your horse is responding to you all of the time, not just when you are riding?

As you can see by these examples, to truly create a performance horse, you need to be more than just a rider. You need to be a Thinker!

As you work with your horse, ask yourself-are you training or un-training your horse during that time? Think about what you are asking your horse to do, and think about your horses response.

If you remind yourself to be a thinker, and remember that every moment is a training moment, you have taken the first step to training your horse to be respectful, responsive and a joy to work with.

Don’t just be a Rider-Be a Thinker!!!

Farm Wife in Training: Fall=Scramble, Hurry, & Rush to Get Things Done Before Winter! (AKA my excuse as to why I haven’t had more blog posts)

I apologize for the lack of Farm Wife in Training posts. Fall is a super busy time on a farm!

We have had a lot of “little lessons” that are not quite enough for a blog post on their own, so I’ll mix them together.

Lesson #1: It doesn’t matter if today is the only sunny, nice day in the past two weeks, don’t ride the sensitive show horse when they harvesting crops!

We rent out some of our land, since we do not have the time or equipment to plant corn ourselves. The fields all looked naked to me when they harvested crops!

Farm Wife in Training: Fall=Scramble, Hurry, & Rush to Get Things Done Before Winter! (AKA my excuse as to why I haven't had more blog posts)


Farm Wife in Training: Fall=Scramble, Hurry, & Rush to Get Things Done Before Winter! (AKA my excuse as to why I haven't had more blog posts)



Anyways, back to lesson. Let’s just make it a short story, and say that it was finally a nice sunny day. The outdoor arena was still too mucky to ride in, and due to the rain Babs had a week off. I had figured it would be a good idea to ride up and down the driveway and along the field road a little bit to give her some exercise. Tractor spooked horse-horse bucked-I hit dirt. Note to self-make Dear Country Boy ride the feely horses after they have had time off! Oh-and kids-wear a helmet!

Lesson #2: How to Drive a Bale Wagon Loaded with 8 Round Bales (when it was made to haul 6)
Again, Fall is scramble, hurry, & rush time. In this case, that means loading as many bales as possible onto the bale wagon to get them off the field before the forecasted rain/snow.

My job-drive the truck pulling the bale wagon. We are storing most of our feed for the winter in a rented barn at the county farm. So I had to drive a few miles down hwy 23 with this:

Yes-those bales are just stacked, not “strapped down”. Yes, its heavy, pulling the bale wagon, and no, the bale wagon does not have trailer breaks. It took 4 trips to move the corn fodder bales off the field. Our sunlight went away quicker than the skid steer could load bales onto the wagon. It was well past dark when we finally got the last bales off the field-but we beat the forecasted rain/snow! Future Farm Wives-be prepared to sit a truck waiting to be loaded/unloaded, and be ready to drive unsteady loads carefully wherever they need to go.

Lesson #3: Beware of Barn Cats (They are out to get you)
We only have one cat on the farm. Her name is Emma Lou. Apparently Emma Lou used to be a house cat, but somehow got kicked outside at some point. I understand why.

Emma Lou’s favorite perch in the barn is on one of the stall walls. Usually she sits there quietly, looking sweet and innocent. You barely even notice that she is there.

One morning I had Babs in the cross ties putting on all of her blankets before she could go outside and play. It is like wrapping and unwrapping a big Christmas present putting blankets on that mare-except the gift isn’t shaking and moving because an excited 5 yr old is unwrapping it, it’s shaking and moving cause that mare is so excited to go outside. Regardless, putting blankets on and off of Babs is a chore in itself.

The rest of the story I will tell from Babs’s perspective:

It was a pretty typical morning. The feed lady that sometimes rides me came in, put my halter and put me in the cross ties, and started switching my blankets. I have lots of blankets! I have cozy warm stable blankets, a fleece lined hood, and tough waterproof turnout blankets so that I can go play outside. I try really hard to stand still when she puts my blankets on me, but I am usually just so excited to go outside that I can’t contain myself.

So here I am, trying to behave, when all of a sudden out of the corner of my eye I see an flying attack cougar! Before I can react, the cougar is on my back! I panic! What is this cougar doing in my stall anyway? I rear up, trying to get the cougar off my back, but it has dug it’s claws into my blankets!

The wimpy feed lady has ran out of my stall, so much for her saving me!

I then trying bucking, maybe that will get rid of the cougar.  My bucking fit is somewhat diminished because I am restricted by those darn cross ties, so I am really just bucking in place. That cougar is tough-I can’t get it off my back!


I stop bucking, all four of my feet spread out wide. I can feel my nostrils flaring as I try to breathe. The cougar is still on my back.

The feed lady has come back into the stall. I can hear her talking softly, murmuring, but I am too scared to understand the words. THE COUGAR IS STILL ON MY BACK!

The feed lady slowly walks up beside me. I am shaking in place, but standing still. She reaches over my back, and grabs the attack cougar! She pulls it off of me, saving me!

As the feed lady walks out of my stall carrying the cougar, I notice that the attack cougar is really the barn cat. Evil barn cat!

Farm Horse Lesson: Beware of the Barn Cats – They are out to get you!