What About Those Feet ?

What about those feet? The check list had one hole left to fill…

Offering the feet for the asking has everything to do with a foundation for a saddle horse. It is the beginning of the horse learning to feel of your request to offer any of his four quarters when asked.


Photo 24 Luigi shows how light offering his foot to Leslie can be. This is how much it will weigh to ask him to offer his feet under saddle. (Photograph by Adriaan)

I had tried a few different presentations to work around the challenge with Spring’s feet. We had made progress. She no longer kicked or swung to bite in the direction of my head, as she did at first. I admit this had been a wake-up call: I had been all around her legs with my rope in preparation, standing up, crouched down etc., which was something she clearly knew about already. What I missed was that the meaning Spring knew about in the presentation with the rope was utterly different from the meaning in a presentation with a human hand. The rope had clearly meant that nothing was going to happen to her beyond a “grooming” sensation. The hand had meant something quite different, to her: confinement of a leg for the care of her feet. It doesn’t take much to imagine that, with her livewire sensitivity, overriding the heightened instinct associated with the feel of a “trapped” leg would have been troubling to Spring.

My response to her reaction to kick towards my head and swing her bared teeth at my back, had been to stand bolt upright, yet with an instinctive knowing that I had to be still for her right then, to avoid sending her over the cliff edge. I had then paused, breathed, unweighted my foot on her side and thanked her for not connecting that strike. It could have been over, right there, had it not been for the kindness she offered in her decision to miss, this time. I also took a moment to let her know that I heard her message loud and clear and promised to offer a different presentation that would fit her better next time. For now, I went to her wither, our new neutral, and linked a rub of her wither to a feel of my hand down to her elbow. She could tolerate that, as long as my body was not turned around as if positioned to pick up a foot – and… I was breathing softly. I had quickly learned that inadvertently holding my breath around her caused her to pin her ears directly.

By now, I had experimented, through feel, and could pick up her feet, but only once or twice at a time, and only for a second. In other words she was honoring my tries and offered trust in my intent, but also let me know she couldn’t stand it too well either. I was still running into the trigger rooted so strongly in her mind. It was abundantly clear that the commonly used “advance and retreat” approach to desensitization would not help Spring. The notion behind this approach is to find the horse’s threshold for tolerating something that bothers him, and extend that threshold by advancing and retreating with a similar presentation. Repetition, rhythm, timing and predictability “desensitize” the horse to the stimulus. Spring clearly showed that this process had been troubling to her: so much as a thought to repeat a similar presentation more than once could trigger a complete change in her demeanor. In a flash she would shift from a learning frame of mind to her clear warning and readiness to nail you if you made another move, of any kind.

To a handler who might think, as was suggested to me, that rubbing a horse like this vigorously all over until she got used to a human touch again, be warned: that would be the direct line to her two deepest triggers, human touch and not feeling heard.

But… if you can’t touch her, how will you ever make a saddle horse out of her?

A feel-based approach has to do with accessing the horse buried inside, not adding on another layer to further stifle it. Spring wanted to get along, as all horses do. To miss this in any horse is to miss who they are. For me to make real progress, Spring needed to have her right to say “no”, in order for her decision to say “yes” to have any lasting meaning. Her need to say “no” clearly ran deep, and I wanted to find a way for her to decide to offer me “yes” in a way that would run even deeper. This did not require a change in her identity, it required only that I find a way to release Spring to my request.

I gave some thought to this puzzle of how I might keep the door open to her learning mind and not trigger her reactive thought. I remembered something about a picture Leslie had shown me one time of her working with her own horse in Sweden, in which she used creative ways to ensure that he learned about her meaning with his jaw fully relaxed, and root of the neck freely offered. I decided to try a similar strategy. I “bridled” Spring, with her lead rope – something she quite enjoyed now. She was nibbling her rope bit (therefore unclenched jaw) with her head relaxed and lowered, offering the root of her neck and mind. As I held the rope in her mouth gently for a moment, I let her know I was about to touch her front leg. I changed my touch into a request for her foot... She offered it right away, willingly, no snapping it up, no thought to raise her head from its lowered position, no thought to kick. I set her foot back down gently as I gave her the rope to spit out. Just like with the saddling and bridling, I had focused my thoughts more on teaching her to put her feet down for me, than to pick them up… Perhaps this might help her free up her thoughts about offering a foot, so that she could offer to put it down.

I had unlocked something. She was different, and thinking. I let her soak for a moment. She eventually lifted her head a little. She was ready. I ran my hand down her leg to ask her again and her response was not only to offer her foot willingly, but also to offer the root of her neck, lowering her head to the ground as she picked it up. This was the first time she had allowed a presentation in a conventional way, on the same side as the foot requested. Something had just changed between us, I could feel it. I asked her for her foot for the third time in a row (and made sure I was breathing!). Again, she offered it and lowered her head to the ground as she lifted it. I went to the end of my rope and stood with her for a while, then put her up for the day. The next day she was ready to offer all four feet. She continued to lower her head every time she carefully picked up a foot. A complete change in core behaviour brought about by reaching her mind – which was also dependent on my unwavering belief that she was in there, wanting to get along.

This was good news to be sure. It was day five of a six day clinic and she had come through with flying colours on the last major pre-requisite for a first ride.

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