Accessing the Feet - Part 1

Considering What We Are Building Into Our Ride From The Ground

Whatever meaning we build into the lead-rope on a green colt will show up in the horse’s understanding of the rider’s rein and leg aids later: from the horse’s point of view, there is not much difference between these two presentations. If tension is created on the lead-rope or the slack is taken out, to ask a horse to turn on the ground, a similar tension will be needed in the rider’s rein under saddle. If a lead-rope, flag, lunge-whip or stirrup is used to drive pressure towards the horse to teach him to move forward, a similar driving pressure will be needed from the rider’s leg.

The opposite is also true. If the slack in the lead-rope is offered towards the horse with specific timing, when asking the horse to turn, the rider’s rein will be light when offering a similar feel from the saddle. If the lead-rope (with slack in it) or stirrup is released away from the horse’s rib-cage to ask for movement, the rider’s leg will be able to stay light too.

This correlation is valuable and worthy of careful consideration as we decide how to present what we mean by what we do in our foundation on the ground, because it is also the foundation for the ride we will have accessible from the saddle.

A Different Take On “Release” And How This Affects The Horse

In this feel-based approach, the idea of ‘release’ is separated from its usual coupling with ‘pressure and release’. In other words, releasing a horse need not imply a release of pressure: the use of the float to direct and maneuver the horse is not the result of first creating pressure to drive the search for a release – whether direct pressure, or indirect pressure via the end of the rope or other tool. This is not the easiest concept to make sense of at first, or at least it wasn’t for me – in fact I missed this absolute key in a true feel-based approach until I watched Leslie work this way. As it happens, the first time I had this opportunity, Leslie worked with my own horse. This made it even easier to see how abundantly clear it was that her way of using release without the preceding pressure, or implication of pressure, fit him a great deal better!

When I tried it for myself I quickly found out why. I was wholly unaware of the “static” in our previous communication, rooted in the pressure part I had been using, however small, before my release. The presence of pressure had really served rather unproductively to bring the attention towards the limitless “wrong” choices instead of indicating the one “right” choice sought. When I changed from a pressure-and-release to a feel-and-release presentation, the channel of communication between us cleared quite dramatically – not unlike when you hear static on the radio, wince a little, then search, find the clear channel and breathe a small sigh of relief. The feel in our connection was forever changed for the better.

The Feel Of The Horse

It has been astonishing to me how fast horses are able to tune into clear meaning, simply presented via the float. Comparatively, the methods I used before missed this acute sensitivity to feel and fine intelligence in the horse. The thing about this is… I therefore also missed the true essence of the horse. 

Yet, it is this intuitive connection the horse has to feel and the finesse in his responses, that are part of his appeal, grace and the magnificence we so enjoy.

For me, the natural depth of connection and refinement accessible when working directly with the feel of a horse remain an unearthly draw, and feed a need to continue developing what Bill Dorrance called a person’s ‘better feel’.

Making The Right Thing Obvious For The Horse

With a stronger connection to Spring’s mind developing, I was in a better position to begin asking her to offer her feet through release, and teach her about the meaning in the presentation of the float (slack) in my lead-rope.

Using this basic principle of ‘feel and release’, I offered the float to Spring at the moment she would associate the slack with the way a certain movement felt to her when she did it naturally.  Soon, when I wanted that same movement and offered the float to her, in combination with other specific things in my presentation (explained and illustrated below), the intended meaning started to make sense to her in a broader way. The meaning was readily discernable, clearly reflected in a presentation free of  “noise” relating to those wrong choices she could possibly make, or the anticipation of pressure and the inherent distraction or confusion this could have brought. Some horses can become quite disturbed by this, depending on their nature. With Spring, for example, a hair of pressure or confusion was enough to spark defensive aggression, so using ‘feel and release’ kept us on track with the initial goal.

As Spring discovered that she could take time to think about my meaning without the threat of making a wrong choice, she gained more confidence in responding to my feel. Just as it is with people, the absence of pressure offered her the mental space to think more clearly about how to do what was asked. Clarity comes more quickly in this state of mind, as does sureness in the horse’s offer, as well as sureness that he did the right thing. The enjoyment that comes from a sense of mutual understanding, discovered without being driven by pressure or drawn with the promise of a treat, builds a different connection between horse and handler. This connection becomes the reward in itself (see “The Best Reward for the Horse is… You!”, by Leslie Desmond). And along with that good connection through feel comes the real “gold” – true partnership offered with uncommon scope and heart. I thought I had seen “gold” in the form of “softness”, until feeling the depth of offer ‘feel and release’ brings from the horse – it turns out… it had been fool’s gold. The difference was an exciting and addictive one!


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