Accessing the Feet - Part 3

Building A New Foundation: Accessing the Feet through Feel and Release – Under Saddle

Working through feel and release with a float (slack) in the lead-rope preserves freedom of movement and promotes natural, athletic function in the horse (explained in section 9, Building A New Foundation: Accessing The Feet Through Feel and Release – On the Ground).

Clarity, Meaning and Access to the Whole Horse through Feel

A feel and release foundation also builds in clarity about the meaning of the float in the lead-rope and its precise connection to the horse’s feet. The connection is taught by association of an offer in the float with a specific feel. This is explained in more detail later in this section. The meaning in the float is equivalent to that of the inside rein, or the outside rein, depending on how it is used. The main meaning assigned to the inside rein is to present direction and invite engagement of the hips. The main meaning in the outside rein is to shift the horse’s weight to the hips, and shape the head, neck and shoulders for the next maneuver. Note that the speed for the maneuver is indicated through the intent and feel of life in the handler/rider, not the reins, which are used to shape the maneuver through feel.

These important characteristics directly relate to quality and accuracy in right and left turns, backing and stopping on the float. The result is a foundation for a ride in which the horse has freedom of movement, lightness and correctness in the basic maneuvers.

The more smoothly things are working on the ground in this way, precisely correlating with what will be presented from the saddle, the easier the transition to riding will be. Groundwork was therefore a carefully focused preparation for Spring’s first ride. This is invaluable for a colt that has not yet experienced a rider.

In the case where the goal is to refine the ride available on a more seasoned horse, applying these principles of ‘feel and release’ directly from the saddle can work well too. The blend of groundwork and ridden work just depends on the handler/rider’s skills, the horse, and the best fit between them at the time.

For a more detailed look at ‘feel and release’ under saddle, here is the story of Charlie, from a trainers’ clinic with Leslie, in Aguanga, California.  Charlie was a stellar, locally-owned, backyard trail-horse kindly offered for my use that weekend. Under Leslie’s guidance, we experimented with ‘feel and release’ directly from the saddle.

Riding Through Feel and Release – an Illustrated Example

The owner had lost her confidence with Charlie and he hadn’t been ridden for months. My first ride went like this. I had no access to his hindquarters to the left or right, no turn without fair pressure to the mouth. It also pleased Charlie quite a bit to demonstrate his Quarter Horse roots, as he left the clinic in the dust, sprinting off at a gallop with little warning! Clearly, we were not “together” on many things. 

By the end of the weekend things had changed quite a bit.  Charlie and I traveled together, stride for stride, through feel, and it all felt so effortless. I was astonished by the turnaround. On reflection, it was really very simple; when reciprocal feel is working, it is effortless.

The key to getting reciprocal feel working is to get with your horse’s mind via his feet, in accordance with how maneuvers feel to him when he moves naturally.

The Basics of Natural Locomotion in the Horse

In a feel-based approach the rider learns to feel the horse’s footfalls as he or she rides (a skill that is easier to develop than it may sound). This is useful, because if instead we ask our horse to turn with no regard to where his feet are at that moment, it will be hit or miss as to whether he will be able to offer a balanced turn, an unbalanced turn, a late turn or one that loses impulsion – it all depends where his feet, his weight and the rider’s weight are at that moment.

For example, in order to turn right, the horse’s natural maneuver – with his long stature –  is to balance his weight over his left diagonal (front left, right hind) so he can reach freely with his right diagonal (front right, left hind) into the turn. This is most obvious at the trot, but also occurs in all the basic gaits. To offer this with lightness, he needs that right diagonal to be free, not blocked or pressured in some way, or adversely affected by a shift in the rider’s center of gravity relative to his.

Understanding this simple truth about the horse’s balancing diagonal led me to a shift away from some techniques I’d been taught over the years. If we squeeze or pull the inside rein towards the shoulder or away from the neck, or tap with a toe, stirrup or a crop/stick on the outside, we tend to block or push weight onto the inside shoulder he needs to have free. If we use our outside leg behind the girth/cinch, we block the hip he needs to maneuver freely as he arranges to push across the balancing diagonal into the turn. We also risk creating resistance from a confusing presentation in which we ask for a right turn, while drawing the horse’s attention back and to our left leg.

So how then can we ride, with the placement of those diagonals he needs in mind? What does it mean to shape a horse through feel, and release him to a maneuver?

Some Essentials of Riding Through Feel and Release

The float (slack) in the reins influences the feet in timing with natural cadence (rhythmic sequence of footfalls) to shape the form a horse needs for balance in an upcoming maneuver the rider has in mind. This is achieved when the horse associates the feel of the float in the outside (shaping) rein on the shoulder with:

  • a lifting root of the neck/shoulders
  • a momentary shift of the weight up and back onto the hips…
  • …as the bridge of his nose tips towards the turn
  • and the poll leads the free neck and shoulder into the turn

When these things are built into the feel of a rein on the outside shoulder, the forehand, then, is following float presented by the rider’s inside rein. The feel of a moving float in the inside (leading) rein is associated with the horse’s hind feet stepping towards that float, just as it is in our foundation on the ground. In other words, it is possible then to elevate and shape the shoulders with a clear feel in the outside rein, as well as engage the hindquarters via a clear feel from the float in the inside rein.

The classic instructions many of us receive about blocking incorrect movement or using pressure on the rib cage and reins to massage the horse into a “frame”, or into a maneuver like a circle, become unnecessary when the turns are shaped through feel and requested in time with the horse’s cadence. As he associates the feel the rider offers with how a maneuver feels in his body, and also finds his feet placed where he needs them, the horse already has in mind what the rider wants at the moment it is needed. He can offer it freely, as the rider simply releases, or opens the door to the maneuver the horse is shaped for, by offering float in the inside rein and opening the inside lower leg away from the rib cage and elbow a little. The rider thereby creates an invitation into the space he or she asks the horse to maneuver his body into. He does not “fall on his nose”, stall out or lose balance, when released, because his feet and weight are distributed such that he lifts up and flows onwards with balance.

In essence, the rider shapes a maneuver by feeling of the horse’s feet and releasing the feet to a particular placement through feel.

Here is an example to illustrate.

Developing Turns Through Feel and Release, with “Charlie”

Photo 14: Linking feel to natural locomotion
(Photograph by Adriaan)

In the photograph above, I am getting acquainted with Charlie, a Quarter Horse loaned to me for a trainers’ clinic with Leslie in California. We are starting to understand each other’s feel. I am exaggerating my feel to help him tune in to my (new) meaning. I am putting a livening feel, or vibration, into the float in my right/outside shaping rein. He responds by setting his right front foot in a little. As he offers a little extra life in the right shoulder to do this, he begins to free the root of his neck and tip the bridge of his nose towards the turn.  Freeing the “root of the neck” leads to an elevated wither/shoulders, which makes it easier for him to reach forward with his hind quarter. I am releasing my left leg away from his rib cage in time with his left hind leaving the ground, inviting him to reach forward and under his rib cage as he places that foot. This will set the right diagonal he needs for balance, in order to release the (currently weighted) left diagonal into a turn to the left.

I offer a clear line of sight, which keeps me balanced over his center. He feels this centeredness in my shoulders and hips too. Note that he has tipped his ear and bridge of his nose towards the new direction of travel. His ears are level, and his poll is loose and available. Rather than leaning into the turn over his left shoulder, he prepares, as he sets those next two feet down for balance, to free his left diagonal for a lighter turn. In this shot, my left/inside leading rein picks up a little on the slobber strap attached to the bit, to encourage a release in his jaw. Formerly he was accustomed to feeling pressure on the inside rein towards the turn (which caused him to lean over or drop onto the inside shoulder, instead of freeing it for the lightweight turn he was now learning to make with a rider). This was important as it helped him “bridge” his understanding of an old meaning with a leading rein to the lighter feel and slightly different purpose that I assigned to that rein. I am about to release a full float in that left rein as he reaches forward with his left hind. He was soon clear that a float offered in the inside rein, with my lower leg coming away from the rib cage, was an invitation to reach his inside hind foot into that open space, up, forward and over – as needed. In this way, we could both rely fully on well-placed hips to support weight being transferred off the front-end. With his shoulders free, Charlie was allowing me to shape him as I directed him into a turn.

Exploring Charlie’s New Understanding of Feel and Release

The next day we rode an exercise in which we spiraled from a large to small circle. Charlie had understood the livening feel in the shaping/outside rein, and the inviting feel of my leading/inside rein perfectly. To spiral down, I used the outside shaping rein on the shoulder groove to set his outside front leg and shoulder a little further in, while inviting the inside hind to step more deeply under his rib cage. By releasing my inside lower leg away from his ribs, and offering a float in the inside/leading rein, the already free neck and the sense of open space around his rib cage signaled to him that he could now reach more generously under himself. And he did, with ease.

This placement of his outside diagonal provided balance that we both needed as I tightened up the circle, and with our shoulders aligned, we were able to achieve genuine “straightness” on the circle. As he reached under himself more, he lifted the root of his neck a little more, and in turn, that allowed him to position his already quite flexible poll to lead the turn with more confidence.

By traveling this way, he could elevate his shoulders and back even more, and consequently released his poll into a more vertical position. He also offered a deeper bend through his body which blended with my line of sight, shoulders and hips. Shaping him in this way released his inside shoulder and outside hind to step lightly onto the decreasing circle size.

There was no need for a driving leg aid or rein pressure, no dropped rib cage or inside shoulder to contend with, because he was shaped to stay light.

Quick Results, But Not Rushed In The Least

This accurate response to the placement of his feet through feel was clearly and so quickly understood by Charlie for two main reasons.

First, I linked my feel to his feel, and to his natural locomotion: he knows all about both of these already.

Second, this horse had a lot of natural life available – or to put it another way, he was quite the spitfire and, on our first day, was apt to bolt in a flash! I used this to our benefit though, because I had access to his heightened sense of awareness and I took the opportunity to shape that life through feel and release. Working with him in this way meant that I did not criticize him for that abundance of life by shutting it down, but was able to shape it, so I could release it into the maneuvers I had in mind.

Charlie seemed to enjoy channeling his life into powering up his maneuvers through reciprocal feel vs. getting lost and “scattering”. I sensed his pride in his athleticism. It felt very good to me too!

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