In Chapter 4 of The Better Deal, we discuss a really simple practice that is so often overlooked when working with horses: watch the feet. Here’s a brief excerpt:
Always keep your eyes focused on the horse’s feet when you work on the ground exercises. Watching the feet is an education. It helps you become effective in your presentation. It develops your feel, timing and balance. The feet will tell you when and where to apply or release pressure. Watching the feet teaches you how the horse arranges himself to move. You begin to learn why you feel certain things or why you have trouble with certain things when riding or driving. If you do not watch the horse’s feet your timing will be way off. In an emergency, watching the feet will give you the split second timing to respond to a horse charging, pulling or kicking. Remember, if we move the feet the rest of the horse will follow. If we try to move the horse before we move the feet, he will brace in defense of himself and also instinctively feel that he is bigger and stronger.
Do not look at your horse’s face when doing these exercises. This will be hard to do: you instinctively want to look at your horse to see his reaction. But when you watch the face, you can’t see how the horse is preparing to move his feet, and you lose your timing in communicating with him. Moreover, the face can cause you to react emotionally to the horse as he reacts to the work you are doing. Feet don’t bring up emotions in people the way faces do! When you get emotionally distracted, you may start thinking what does the horse want from me? why is he looking like that? When that happens, you are asking questions, and you lose your stable, confident presence. If you are not solid, balanced and confident with the horse, he will become uncertain. If he is uncertain he will either try to get away to feel safe, or try to get you out of the way and take charge.
Finally, horses, being prey animals, find it intimidating to be stared at. By looking at the feet you do not inadvertently make the horse uncomfortable with your presence.
Watching the feet has an equivalent when riding or driving: looking where you want the horse to put his feet. If you look ahead at the ground where your horse’s feet need to go, and feel how he is moving, you can arrange him to get there soundly and safely. If you just vaguely go “over there,” you will not be focused on arranging the horse, and you won’t have the timing and feel you get from really thinking about the horse’s feet.
The Better Deal: Practical Horsemanship Training for You and Your Horse offers step by step exercises and practical advice on taking your horsemanship to another level. Take a look at the books page for details.