First Step: GATES!

Leslie was fastidious. Right here, right now, our horses needed to understand clearly the meaning of an opening gate. If a horse is pushy at a gate, especially a jumpy colt, you are set up for your face to take a trip through it or the adjoining pipe fence. Do not underestimate and “make do” with asking your horse to move his feet in order for you to open the gate, or scoot around in too small a space to get the job done. No one goes through a fence panel on Leslie’s watch.


Photo 5: Holding pens for the colts, with tall pipe panels and wide gates.

It was a bit of a jolt into the actual facts about working with a colt, or any horse. And Leslie was right. None of the horses knew about offering space around the gate at the start. Instead, they moved towards the action with their weight tipped forwards. Our first assignment was to help the horses understand how to shape themselves through feel to avoid crowding the handler or imminent approach of the gate.

The airwaves were charged with Leslie’s intense delivery of this urgent call to action. No time to visit with the spirited new acquaintance just handed to me on a lead rope. These horses were accustomed to people moving out of their path: safety topped the agenda and addressing this came first. It was quite the baptism of fire, five minutes into the clinic of a lifetime. I admit my sureness lacked vigor at that moment – and as a direct result, I learned something of key importance.

The process was simple enough. The handler was to push the gate wide open with firm intent about the space needed to do so, in order to lead the horse through.

My initial intent was not that clear, rather lost in fact, in that instant, and Spring had been taught by the ranch to stand, while different objects were bumped around her. These two factors combined such that the gate simply bounced off my horse, as she braced, ready for the bump. I realized in that moment, that the vague intent I did have was around my horse needing to move to avoid being hit by the gate, and had little to do with a plan to open the gate. Without my crystal clear intent to swing the gate wide open, the unfocused firmness in my movement of the gate carried no meaning for the filly with regard to moving her feet. Instead she offered exactly what she knew to be the “correct” response: to try to stand still when a person bumps objects into you. All I achieved was to support the status quo…

I admit that my ability to respond to the subsequent surging urgency in Leslie’s coaching in such a learning situation was not so easy (!). Leslie’s mastery with horses is rooted in her ability to project her inner life and it is an education in itself to experience this presence she has – no matter whether it is a direct and intense urgency such as this or an equally penetrating belief in what you can do; an opportunity to shadow her as she releases a horse, or to feel her offer to a horse of disciplined and palpable inner stillness, tenderness, appreciation or reverence – it is an energy that travels from her core straight to your core, bypassing any mental process. To experience this, I believe, is to experience why horses respond to Leslie in the way that they do. Feel is the flow of energy between beings, and the direct line to the whole horse.

That life in Leslie as she coached affected an inner urgency in me. All I had to do was channel that with clear intent. It dawned on me what Leslie had really meant. It’s a bit like martial arts. When you break a brick, your plan had better be to strike *through* it to the ground below, not *to* it, or the power in your fist will rebound right back up your arm. It is also a test of sureness. There is one notable difference of course – the brick can’t move its feet. Here I needed to project the clear intent that this gate was coming *through* the space my horse might be occupying, not *to* the horse. It occurred to me that I might better support that with a clear line of sight to where the gate was headed, rather than at my horse! I needed Spring’s instincts to come up, vs. her learned response through desensitization. If she saw that gate coming through in the same way as a door with the force of a gust of wind behind it, she’d quite likely move to avoid its path. She did exactly that when I adjusted my presentation. The difference was simply in directing my core energy to a spot a substantial distance away from the filly combined with the clarity of my intent.

After a couple more practice runs at focusing on the job of opening the gate, instead of what the horse might need to do for me to achieve that, Spring got very clear that her part of the job was simply to apply her great faculties as a partner as we worked together. Within minutes the understanding between us was crystal clear and she would simply shape her moves right where I needed her to be, as she managed a healthy space between us and stepped lightly as needed to accommodate the moving gate.

And… her braced shoulders were considerably more free: we already had a start on the key to just about everything in a Desmond foundation. I smiled to myself, as my mind opened to how much Leslie is actually doing that goes unmentioned – that tingling burst of “joining the dots”, like a miniature display of fireworks, was familiar by now.

This article reports clinic experiences only and is not intended
for instructional purposes.

Colt Starting Through Feel, by Karen Musson, 03/20/2009 V2.1
© 2009 All rights reserved


Mark Rashid


"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


"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


"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


“ 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


"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