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A Lifetime of Horsemanship

karenmugshotI started riding as a child in France, where much importance was assigned to light, steady hands that held precise meaning and a fluid, yet secure seat – indeed this was put to the test as we galloped bareback along the firebreakers in the forest of Maisons Laffitte! roanaI was awarded my Premier Degré (with Fédération Française de Sports Equestres) at age 11, and started event-riding my 12.1hh Welsh pony, Roana. Riding in the breed performance championships at Fontainebleau, and at the Salon du Cheval in Paris were also highlights.

This start in horses was a perfect foundation for the competitive eventing I then enjoyed in the UK on my dynamite Irish mare, forever close to my heart, Storm Bay.

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It also proved to contribute in unexpected ways down the road.

In 1994, I came to Columbus, OH, home of the Equine Affaire. I happened upon demonstrations of Natural Horsemanship, and was captivated in particular by working with horses at liberty. RashidBookCoverI plunged in and learned all I could about NH over the next several years. I connected most with the masterful insights of Mark Rashid. I find lasting value in notions he highlights such as "Openings" that the horse will be inclined to seek and follow, and his application of the principles of Aikido to release brace, rather than empower it - described best in his book "Nature in Horsemanship".

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But I was missing something. I had reached a wall with my tall, red Holsteiner, Chase. True to form, he was (and is) my guidance system for horsemanship and a life coach like no other! After a hard, lengthy search, and an unlikely series of events, we were at the Equine Affaire in the Colliseum, with Leslie Desmond, co-author of Bill Dorrance’s “True Horsemanship Through Feel”, known as 'Bill’s Book', in an opportunity that would change everything. Chase was crystal clear: this was the missing link.

leslieandcalleLeslie invited me to ride in a week long trainers’ clinic in California later that year - an opportunity I took, with much gratitude. In fact, I chose to "immerse" for the next four years, riding in trainers' clinics across the U.S, hosting others for my students, and traveling to Sweden for private coaching.

karenandcallecroppedLeslie's teachings about how to truly get with the feel of a horse are compelling. She apprenticed with Bill at his ranch for four years, while co-authoring the book. For me, Leslie brought 'Bill's Book' to life like never before, as well as my own awareness of those "smaller things" in a horse that are right there... when we learn to see. That last part is perhaps the greatest gift of all - to truly "see" the horse is to tune into our ultimate teachers of this art.

When I "came up for air", the words in 'Bill’s Book' held far more depth and dimension - and I was ready to 'dig in' to another layer. Right at the start Bill credits the old masters of the French Cavalry as an influence in his work, since the 1950s: "The way [Beudant] explained things, there was no doubt in my mind about what a person needed to do to get these little things working for them and their horse."

This led me to re-visit and re-kindle my early foundation that shares the same roots in Le Cadre Noir. Bill's approach had resonated with me deeply and with such clarity, no doubt this had been a factor. This time I went right to the old masters' original writings. What a treat - both in the way this revived some old lessons with new meaning, and also for the deep appreciation I did not have as a child, for French being such a language of Feel! How grateful I am now to have naturally acquired the language at a young age, along with its nuances, to enjoy these works more fully. As Bill wrote, "The Real Masters Understood Feel".

The common ground between the two perspectives is as fascinating to me as the connections I make about how Bill adjusted to support his approach of Feel & Release and primary goal of leaving the horse's genuine, natural, exquisite lightness intact - in a connection through feel.

Feel and Lightness go hand in hand, and to me, augment every moment spent with a horse. What a fascinating path, and one I  continue to explore.

Mark Rashid

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"I see an 'opening' as anything that allows us to help guide, however briefly, an individual in the direction we ultimately would like to go. An 'opening' can be, and often is, a very subtle form of communication between horse and rider that can easily slip past us if we're not paying attention. 'Openings' can and do work both ways. [...] It amazes me just how small an 'opening' can actually be, whether working with horses or with people, and how easy it can be to create an 'opening' when one is needed."

Mark Rashid

"I truly believe developing the ability to see and use 'openings' effectively is only one piece of what one might refer to as the 'harmony in horsemanship' puzzle. When this idea of understanding 'openings' is brought together with the understanding of two other simlar ideas - making a connection with another indvidual, and the role distance plays in overall communication - I believe it is then that harmony in horsemanship becomes a much less daunting concept for us."

Mark Rashid

Leslie Desmond

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"Bill knew about a place I did not know existed, or could exist, between a horse and a human being [...] Bill included each one of my horses in that information exchange. Over the course of many months,... he took each one by its lead rope and, later, by the bridle reins. Using what he called his 'better feel', Bill showed me and each of them exactly what he meant by what he did [...] It was not long after I made the switch from force when needed (often) to always customizing the feel I offered to a horse, that two tough horses I had misunderstood for years developed into my most reliable mounts."

Leslie Desmond

The lightest hands carry intent that is recognized instantly by the horse, as seen in the maneuvers he chooses to make with his feet. Whether that horse is ridden or handled, the lightest hands can purposefully influence the speed, direction and sequence of each foot with accuracy, in a manner that is reflected in the horse's body and on his face.

Leslie Desmond

Bill Dorrance

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"The Real Masters Understood Feel [...] For example, De Kerbrech, (French officer in the cavalry of Napoleon III) really understood horses. He had it fixed up so the horse could succeed. [...] The first time I read Beudant's book was in the 1950s. The way he explained things, there was no doubt in my mind about what a person needed to do to get these little things working for them and their horse."

Bill Dorrance

“Feel, timing and balance: sometimes it’s best to talk about feel, timing and balance separately, and to learn how to apply each thing separately on the start. But when you apply these three things a little later in your training, then you see that each one of these things supports the other. They are interconnected and all three are real important. You really can’t get along without all three.”

Bill Dorrance

Faverot de Kerbrech

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“...plus le deplacement du poids est facile dans tous les sens, plus l'equilibre est parfait. En vertue de ce principe, on dit que le cheval est 'en equilibre' quand de simples indications suffisent au cavalier pour modifier a son gre la disposition du poids sur ses colonnes de soutien”

Faverot de Kerbrech

[Translation: ...the easier it is to shift the weight in any direction, the more perfect the balance. By virtue of this principle, the horse is 'in balance' when a simple indication from the rider is sufficient to modify the distribution of weight across the columns of support (four quarters) accordingly]

Duke of Newcastle

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"You must in all Airs follow the strength, spirit, and disposition of the horse, and do nothing against nature; for art is but to set nature in order, and nothing else."

William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle

"A confrontational approach ‘Astonishes the Weak Horse […] makes a Furious horse Madd; makes a Resty Horse more Resty […] and Displeases all sorts of Horses’. The alternative however is not ‘to Sit Weak […] but to Sit Easie’, in the understanding that ‘The Horse must know you are his Master’"

William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle