Understanding Confinement


Building a New Foundation: Understanding Confinement

The reality for the domestic horse is that he is confined; it is just a matter of degree. We put a halter or bridle on his head, a saddle around his middle, leave him in a stall, tie him to a post, hold his feet to clean them out, get astride the saddle and direct his feet, and turn him out in a fenced pasture. None of these things are natural for him. That he can thrive in almost any level of confinement is a tribute to his immeasurable ability to adapt.

It is widespread practice to introduce the horse carefully to these sources of confinement he will need to cope with in our world. This is often done in a way that teaches him to tolerate something that bothers him, through desensitization, for example to the feel of a rope around his legs. This approach can certainly help him out.

In a feel-based approach, we seek to leave his instincts in tact, rather than desensitize or dull them. How then, can he adapt in the best way to the unnatural confinements in our world, if his heightened sense of awareness and instinct for flight are also preserved? The answer is that we teach him to understand confinement, vs. tolerate or be dull to it. We teach him how to think his way out of confinement or to make himself comfortable within confinement, through his own micro actions, and find inner stillness as a result; we teach him he can be sure that we will help him when he needs us, and how to draw on our help.

Hobbling, developed through feel, is an art in itself when offered to the horse, and for the horse, in the way Leslie is passing on. Leslie’s approach does not relate in any way to the practice of directly hobbling a horse and leaving him to work at figuring out what he can’t do, or to teach submission. Hobbling, Leslie's way, is used extensively with some horses, both to help them rediscover how to use their hips to their best advantage and unload the weight in their front-end, as well as to forge new meaning in a partnership between horse and handler.

A collection of photographs follows to give an idea of how the horses respond to this approach. Please do not attempt this without a full understanding of the process (several preparatory steps are not illustrated) and what to look for in the horse.

These pictures were taken at a trainer’s clinic in California, where Leslie introduced a colt to the hobbling process. He was a tall, friendly yet rather aloof colt, who was not well connected to his natural athletic capacity. Leslie helped him reconnect his four quarters and use of his hips. His interest in humans also changed during the process.


Photo 16: Leslie has already worked through several preparatory exercises, before applying the figure 8 hobble to his left leg. She stays connected with him, supporting him, and keeps the float in the lead-rope so he has freedom of movement, particularly around his head, neck and shoulders. He has found his balance in this photograph. Note that his weight is no longer leaning on his left shoulder: instead he has placed his right foot level with the middle of his chest, to make a triangle with his hips, which he has placed under a little and spread out slightly. This offers a comfortable way to balance his body and settle. As he settles, he starts thinking. Leslie waits a moment for his thought to shift a little and draw on her for help. (Photograph by Adriaan)


Photo 17: Luigi, who has been hobbled a time or two, quickly gets comfortable and seeks Leslie’s help, which he is clearly confident is available to him. (Photograph by Adriaan)

Photo 18: the well-oiled figure 8 hobble (above left);
the expression on the colt’s face after hobbling (above right);
and the expression on the colt’s face after the end of the hobbling session – he watches Leslie! (below) (Photographs by Adriaan)


Leslie teaches a clearly defined process, started without hobbles. We teach the horse to find inner stillness, offer the root of his neck (and with it his thinking mind) and look to the handler for help, in response to the confinement of one foot. Through a series of experiences, he then develops the complete understanding and sureness about how he can shape himself to get comfortable and feel secure, even on three legs, or ultimately in a three way hobble. He learns to use his hips to find that comfort in the form of balance. He learns he can then wait and draw help from the handler to get him out of his bind. With the very careful timing necessary for the intended lessons to be learned, the handler removes the hobble. The horse’s response is consistent and has less to do with relief (he is already relaxed) and more to do with his wonder about the value just offered by the handler.

The horse's understanding (vs. acceptance or tolerance) of confinement runs very deep, when developed in this way. Leslie was working with the colt from Luigi, who was not that experienced a saddle horse himself. Luigi did know about hobbling, Leslie’s way, and was quite sure of himself there. At one point the colt's feet got stuck and Leslie reached out with her rope, trying to keep the float in there, but the inexperienced Luigi got confused for a moment about his intended job, and started to get ahead. He then felt the slack go out of Leslie's rope -- felt the confinement and bind *through* Leslie -- and his confusion left immediately as he maneuvered his hips to put the float back in Leslie's rope. What clarity he had about confinement and what partnership he offered in a dicey moment. A bind is a bind, and if a horse is well versed in thinking and using his hips in response, good results can show at surprising times.


Photo 19: At another clinic, 4 months later, Luigi showed both the depth in his understanding of confinement and a true offer of partnership to Leslie when he maneuvered himself to put the float back in Leslie’s rope at a dicey moment with a colt. (Photograph by Adriaan)

The scope of hobbling in Leslie's approach is far reaching and touches the core processes within the horse, both mental and physical. It reaches a troubled horse’s mind, and builds on the horse’s own conscious access to his full athletic capacity and balance.

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