Taking a fresh start: haltering

The two, three and four year old young horses assigned for the colt starting were herded down from the mountain in the morning to a holding pen.


Photo 6: Here they come! The horses sometimes galloped down from the mountain on their own time or were sometimes herded in, when needed.

Just as well too. It was snowing/sleeting with a bracing wind on the next day of the clinic and all the colts were a little touchy.

The brace Spring had in her front end suggested that she might be expecting me to go to her head or block her movement in some way. So I walked slowly to a spot far behind her tail. That caught an ear and eye in my direction, but no feet yet. After a little while, she got relaxed enough about my lack of intent to “trap” her, that she made the decision to move towards the small shelter nearby, to hang out with her buddies. I followed a little more slowly, so she could be sure I was not driving her, and so I could join her as she brought her feet to a stop – about 20ft away, because any closer and she would have squirted out of the shelter in a hurry.

She was presenting her right side, hiding her left from me. I acknowledged that we wouldn’t even think about that left side she was so worried about. I’d take a quiet step or two towards her, taking care not to look her in the eye or hold my breath. As her thought to leave showed up, I’d step back and tell her she didn’t need to leave, because I already had. After a bit, she could stay longer and I could be within a few feet, as long as I did not step over the threshold into the shelter. So I changed my thought to simply put my foot on the threshold, with no plan to approach her. She could handle that, so it wasn’t long before I was standing right next to her in the shelter.

Spring was aware of my every move, tight and ready to bolt forwards through the spot I had left open for her if I made a move – or had a thought – that was more than she could accept. Yet she was just a little curious. So I asked silently if we could just hang out there, with her buddies. Being close and breathing easy was a big enough next step. I promised her that I had no plan to “trap” her in my halter, under any circumstances, and that I had no plan to touch her either, without her invitation to do so.

She’d tolerate my closer presence for a few moments, then the need to leave would bubble up. I’d make a clear step back out of the shelter, with the same message that there was no need for her to leave, because, again, I already had. The first time I did this, she looked at me with suspicion, as her thought to move her feet faded. I stepped another step back and offered my clear thought: “really, I will not trap you or block you.” After a few similar communications, her eye softened. She decided that my hand on her wither, with my feet behind her elbow was ok, as long as the space around her front end and her exit were unhampered.

Soon, I presented the halter to her, from the same position. Immediately she brought her nose to meet it with curiosity, and I immediately took it away. I timed this to where she was following the halter, and did not wait for her to touch it and snap her head away. Not long after this, she brought her head to the halter and popped her nose right in. She seemed a little surprised in that moment, and I slipped it right off her nose and away. I repeated this twice and waited. I did not need to make a third presentation, because she decided to slide her nose in my halter, freely offering her head around at her shoulder to do so. She was ready. I was still on her right and the knot needed to be tied on her left side. I kept that promise about not presenting myself on her left. Instead, I reached under her chin with one hand and over behind her ears with the other hand. I took care not to cross in front of her face, and felt my way with my fingers, so she knew what I was doing and did not get surprised by a hand suddenly appearing in her left eye. Horses have bilateral vision, with a blind spot between the two eyes. A green colt will often be startled by a person “changing eyes” by reaching or passing through the blind spot and appearing in the opposite eye. Spring understood the plan completely and waited quietly while I tied the knot.

It was a good moment. I turned to offer gratitude to my friend and peer trainer in Leslie’s program, who had been standing quietly, with the patience of a saint, during this 30 minute process, with soft, supportive energy throughout. She needed to catch her own colt, but she knew, as we both did, that her colt’s presence was supporting Spring, and chose to help out in a way not everyone would.

That half hour paid off more than I imagined. The next day I approached from near her hip towards her wither. Her response was to turn her head and look at me curiously, followed in the next instant with a wave of uncertainty and a thought to leave. I stepped back two or three steps and reminded her of our creed: I will not “trap” you and you don’t need to leave because I already have. She took a deep breath, sighed, decided to stay, and was ready for me to approach and halter her from the left.

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