Horse Handling and Riding Through Feel

by Leslie Desmond 

We admire the horse for his power and grace, for his beauty, strength and mystical qualities.  It seems that nearly all who are involved with the horse are drawn in by these noble and magnificent attributes. Through the ages, people have wanted to merge with the horse and merge with the horse they have . . .   in work and war, in literature, in sport and in art.

During the evolution of post –war  “modern horsemanship” people developed an impressive  range of seemingly opposite notions about the term “horsemanship” and the best use of  horses for entertainment, sport and recreation. Confusion between the human and equine species nowadays is well established and, when one considers the diverse range of expectations that horses have about their handlers, owners and trainers because of the inconsistent things they all do to him and with him, it is little wonder that people look for help in all directions. For a couple of decades I did, too.

Because the hope for a quick fix leads to the search for one, this quickly spreading phenomenon often leads to a new equipment choice which, in some cases, actually works.  Rarely, however, does the new bit, draw rein, martingale, whip, noseband or headstall configuration produce a lasting solution to the problems that new horse owners encounter. In this business everyone should expect to negotiate with the road as its bumps and turns are revealed.  

To preserve the spirit and the grace of his natural movement when you get around the horse, or touch him, you must first learn to feel of the horse. If we are good students, then the horse is apt to help us develop better feel when we ride him by responding to our slightest effort to “read” him correctly, and to “feel” or sense his responses accurately.

For this reason, I have two goals for myself when schooling young horses.

1.) Establish a relationship with the horse’s mind.
2.) Gain control over the root of the neck, both laterally (left and right) and longitudinally (up and down).

This is my second main goal because it directly affects the maneuverability of the poll, neck, withers and shoulders, ribs and hips. Control over the root or base of the neck has an immediate, decisive effect on the flexion / relaxation of the jaws. In turn, this determines the capacity of the diaphragm to expand and contract. This important because access to the jaw and diaphragm affects the oxygen content in the horse’s blood and brain; and, it also influences the horse’s ability to use the hindquarters and it components —  the lumbar, sacrum and hip regions — efficiently.

Taken together, these pieces are essential to build into a foundation if the handler-rider wants to experience control of the whole horse without a struggle.  An observant handler or trainer working through feel will, ultimately, eliminate the need for force, fear and coercion to achieve compliance with his/her  requests. A person can quickly learn to appreciate and emulate the way horses use feel among themselves. A particularly observant person may infuse the time they spend around horses with a new meaning learned from hours spent watching them interact. Some people become exceptionally good at this.

Why is this so important? Because, if the bottom half of you is going to set atop the upper half of the horse, it better be all right with that horse. A horse can put most riders on the ground in the blink of an eye if he wants you there.

After a few years working alongside Bill Dorrance during the creation of our book, True Horsemanship Through Feel, I was at last able to take a small portion of knowledge about “feel” on board in my horse training career. To my surprise, I discovered that this fantastic way to relate to horses added an entirely new meaning and depth to many of my connections with people. As a result, I now enjoy an even greater interest in the journey.

In the December issue I will expand on this month’s training tip about the importance of establishing freedom in the neck and shoulders of the horse.  Whether you keep a horse for a pet and trail rides, or train and compete professionally, a free head, neck, withers and shoulders are essential parts of a safe, comfortable ride that feels natural!

Preparation for Freeing the Shoulders on Your Saddle Horse 


Article by Leslie Desmond

Photos by Trine Bohnsdalen

“No more than you get done with that horse, you’re doing all right,” he said. I shifted a bit in my saddle, searching for the best response. None came. Bill Dorrance, who I had just been introduced to, leaned over to adjust the bridle on his saddle horse that stood patiently. Bill was perched on a buckboard, from which he viewed the goings on at a clinic that day in Gustine , CA.



Svante Andersson is lowering the base of the neck and head through feel and release. Relaxation is a key! Photo by Trine Bohnsdal 


Fast forward to March, 1996, half a year later, and I was starting to understand. One chilly spring day at his ranch we were attempting to get control of the shoulders on a couple of fine, fresh young horses. Months earlier, he had asked how I got that important piece of the foundation accomplished. Later, Bill showed me how he prepared the horse to understand what he called the ’smaller particles of feel’ to gain access to a horse’s shoulders any time he needed them available, and we talked over the many things a person could notice which indicate that a horse could be too heavy on the forehand to be useful. For example, a horse that – pulls away, cannot be tied, drags a person to the nearest grass and refuses to be lead away, drags its feet in the dirt when backing, steps backwards in a 4-beat cadence and not a 2-beat diagonal pattern, requires a football field to turn at the lope, leans on the person who handles the feet, won’t stand still to be mounted, thinks pull means go, crowds a person and/or begs for handouts.

With a horse blanket over his thin legs for warmth, he sat in a folding chair, and reached out towards the horse, releasing a coil of float in the lead rope towards the nose. Bill didn’t often look at a horse in the eye. He looked elsewhere; and his intent was clear. The horse lowered the base of its neck a little to the left and then a bit to the right. After several soft, lateral responses that had increasingly greater reach and lightness, and long pauses between, Bill changed his presentation, ever so slightly. Still attentive and willing, the horse immediately dropped his nose right to the ground between his own front hooves and dozed off for a minute or so.



Releasing the root of the neck down and right, before mounting.

Bill was not one for pulling down on the bridle reins or lead rope, or pushing down the top of the head or neck. He did not squeeze the poll. I stared in amazement. Lowering the head and neck in this fashion was not, then, my approach to gaining access to the shoulders. It was Bill’s though, and as simple as it appeared I knew it could and ought to be mine, too. Feel and release is not pressure and release. Of that, I was finally certain.

Bill explained that when you have access to a wide and weightless range of motion at the root of the neck on the ground, that ties in to the freely adjustable shoulders necessary for optimum control of any horse – on the ground and under saddle, too.



Asking for the base of the neck to the right, on a float, behind the elbow. 


Although the horse that is being lead is not fully shown, a careful look at the base, or root, of the neck shows that something to the right has his attention. The rider above releases the base of the neck to the left by offering (in this case a little too much, actually) slack, or float, in the left rein. From the saddle, a change in line of sight and a slightly open toe is usually enough to “invite” the horse to refocus and follow the feel to look another direction.

A horse’s feet are apt to go where his attention goes. The shoulders will go where the feet go. A horse’s choice about where and when to move, especially when you are connected to him through your equipment, reflects his understanding and thoughts about the presentation and intent. What sometimes gets lost in the “discussion”? The handler /rider’s access to the poll and bridge of the nose. Hence, the chaos, and the unpleasant push and pulls, tugs of war, and so on that are the norm nowadays, when it comes to many things that a person tells a horse to do. Your rides will be much lighter and more predictable when you avoid the clash of wills on the ground over the horse’s posture, body alignment and choices about where and when to move his feet.

It is easy to see that pulling on the reins sets a horse’s weight forward. Bill said it is the uncommon horse that can elevate the shoulders (which are needed for balance when the hips are unavailable to the rider) and leave them available to be directed freely when his mouth is pulled on. With this lesson clearly in mind, he explained how to keep the shoulder groove (where the base or root of the neck meets the shoulder) in pristine condition. Less fussing around at the head takes care of most of it. When a person displays respect for the horse as he or she passes by, that horse learns a lot about respect for the space that people need. Leading the horse on a longer (8-12 foot) lead rope and leaving him with a clear view most all the time, should take care of the rest.

When a horse remains sensitive in that critical area, he can associate a clear meaning with even the smallest movement of the rein in that region. On a horse like this, is not necessary, then, to pull hard enough to set strength against the jaws.

Starving for understanding and clarity, I reached towards the illusive concept of “feel and release” and discovered a colossal impediment: I was not prepared to replace old muscle memory with new movements. After some experimenting, it was apparent that when I stood back behind the shoulder and the elbow, he had an easier time bringing his head and neck around. I got better results if my hip were in line with the spot where my stirrup hangs – whether he was saddled or not. Once I was out of the way, the colts had enough room and reason to act on their curiosity. Most of the time, when a colt follows the feel of a release to the left or right the inside shoulder is lightened by default. When little, if any, inside rein is needed for that job a saddle horse has a nicer appearance and his expression reveals that he and the rider understand each other – through feel.

It is important to the horse that we observe all of his tries, even the smallest ones, and reward with space and release… not with crowding and touching, excessive motions and talking. If we do things that cause him to nudge us out of the way, he cannot possibly be ready for any new information or set his mind to the tasks we have for him – the most important of which is to settle and wait without restraint while he is prepared to ride or drive.

Under Bill’s ever-watchful eye, I learned to resist the temptation to reach for a colt’s nose and lips – in former times I considered this his “reward” for each correct decision. In fact, it is rude. Many horses will pull away from that gesture, and straighten out their neck as you reach for the head. This sabotages the point of this exercise because the nearest shoulder becomes heavier and less available.

For more information on keeping the shoulders available, listen to CD #2, Track # 7 in “Horse Handling and Riding Through Feel” by Leslie Desmond. Or, study Chapter 4 in “True Horsemanship Through Feel”, by Bill Dorrance and Leslie Desmond . Both are available now, along with Leslie’s 3-volume DVD series, “Horsemanship for Young & Old” at



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