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A Filly with Much to Offer

 

It is not obvious from two-year-old filly’s demeanor in the photos illustrating this article series, that Spring was a troubled and defensive filly. She would launch unexpectedly, teeth bared at anyone who came within a few feet of her body. She had landed those teeth a time or two, moments before, even on a benign elbow poking through the pipe-panel, as someone propped themselves against it on the other side.

“It is in a horse’s nature to get along” Bill Dorrance

Spring had shown me vehement warning numerous times during the course of the week, but had always stopped short of making contact. On day one, when I touched her front leg gently, to run my hand down and invite her to pick up her foot, she had struck out towards my head with her hind leg, while also swinging her neck and gnashing her bared teeth in my direction. Bill Dorrance's message that "It is in a horse's nature to get along" had become a core belief of mine, but Spring would show me what a deeper power that truly has when it runs in your veins.

The thought that it could have all ended right there, with one blow to the head, did cross my mind, but it was a thought that dissolved as fast as it bubbled up. It had not been chance, but her clear decision not to connect her kick or bite. That decision was her offer to get along, from within a moment of instinctive defensiveness, and was everything she had to offer right then. Suddenly I was moved by the heart in this filly. My acknowledgement of this and gratitude to the little filly flowed into a deep knowing that she had no plan to harm me. I had no plan to harm her either. I suspect she could sense this, along with my absolutely undivided attention. I was listening attentively, willing to adjust to offer a better feel. I believe she understood this. On reflection, though it may not have been apparent to the on-looker, there was trust in our connection from that moment on. I never doubted her desire to get along. And with that came a quiet sureness, a belief in her “try” that did not falter.

“If it fits the horse, he won’t take over, and so that’s the person’s main job” Bill Dorrance

Spring’s demeanor could change instantly and dramatically – there was not much margin for error. Her clear feedback in the form of tightness, rolling eyes, pinning ears, curling lip, wrinkled nose, twitch in a hind leg, stomp with a front leg… guided the adjustments I made that led to a better feel that fit her in a particular moment. I do not mean that I walked on eggshells, far from it – the irritating lack of sureness in that would have been enough for this filly to launch an attack. I mean that she was quite the partner, providing I was in tune with her mind, and respectful of the strong instinctive connection she retained to her own self-preservation.

Our progress also hinged on her growing confidence in my ongoing assessment of our surroundings and her awareness of those smaller things that genuinely drew her attention away. Her willingness to search for meaning in my moves and gestures increased and evidence of her defenses began to diminish. If I asked for too much at the wrong moment – which at the start included touching her more or less anywhere – or in a way that lacked the feel she needed, her warning was clear – “stop NOW, or I will nail you”. Believing her, with good reason, I would stop, take a fresh start and adjust to find what fit her. In this way, we made faster progress than I would have imagined possible earlier in the week.

The guided group clinic-format I rather mindlessly anticipated was not on Leslie’s agenda. This clinic would be a blend of trainers working independently with their colts, demonstrations by Leslie to address a specific need for a particular horse, and her availability for one-on-one help when someone needed that.

Having no “assigned task” in mind when working with Spring allowed me to stay true to that earlier decision – let the horse’s response to my feel guide my presentations to her, determine when to move on and what to work on next.

As I adjusted, I was guided by the familiar insight Bill Dorrance offers under “Taking Over” in the meanings section, p359 of “True Horsemanship Through Feel” (by Bill Dorrance and Leslie Desmond). I could do too much (for example, touch the wrong spot on her body) or too little (for example, miss a "particle" on her radar) to trigger Spring’s defenses and cause her to become aggressive. Right in between doing too much and doing too little, we shared a perfect connection through FEEL. The line was a fine one, for me, but when I aligned my feel with her understanding of my intent, we went where we needed together: Spring was generous with her tries and her responses were soft.

Working with Spring for six days was strangely exhilarating due partly to the heightened awareness and focus I needed to maintain at all times, as well as the acute significance in each of Spring’s troubled “tries”.  She sharpened up my senses - forever. It was like thinking the picture on your TV looks good, right until you see High Definition - and once known about, you will always know the difference. Spring showed me horses in HD, well lit, with many more pixels per inch. I will remember her always as the catalyst who helped me extend and weave together the "threads of feel" and launch a canvas for the next evolution in my horsemanship and understanding of what Bill meant by "Feel, Timing and Balance."

Respect, trust and meaningful feel, “layered in like filo pastry”

During the five days leading up to this first experience under saddle, Spring had been carefully prepared on the ground to understand and respect the meaning in a handler’s request through feel. This included handling all four quarters from a distance, up close, down by her feet and from above her ears and back, from the fence. Meaningful feel had been precisely and thoughtfully layered in – like filo pastry, as Leslie puts it – with a clear and deliberate connection to the feel and expectations that would later be presented from the saddle.

Early in the clinic, Leslie and I agreed that adequate preparation in the time available would be challenging with Spring, I had made it clear that I did not view the first ride as a “trophy”. I had no interest in rushing that if she did not feel we were ready at the end of the week. I also privately resolved to bring everything I had to that preparation. Whatever happened, working with Spring would “raise the bar” in my horsemanship – she already had - and that was my reason for being there.

By day six, many key elements were in place to set Spring up for a good first experience with a rider. Our partnership was working well, as long as my presentation to her remained aligned within the narrow margin that fit her. However her touchiness meant that it would take more time to expand on the feel she could fully accept. This would be no different under saddle, so there would be little room for error in a first ride at this stage. While more time to expand that margin would have been useful, I felt good about Spring, about how much we had got to know each other during that week and what we had going between us.

Ironically, this narrow margin and associated risk led directly to an introductory experience under saddle with Spring that I could not have imagined. Not that it was spectacular to the on-looker, in fact it would be less than impressive to the casual observer, and perhaps would not rate as a "first ride" to some. To me though, it was the ultimate parting gift from Spring, as she illustrated with pure clarity the meaning and result of this foundation as it relates to working with the horse's nature, natural locomotion and balance for a light and available ride.

Detailed information about this process is offered in the series of articles that follows, including philosphy, principle and illustrated examples.

Mark Rashid

RashidBookCover

"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

LDaudiobook

"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

bilsbook

"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

FaverotBookCover

“...plus 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

CavendishBookCover

"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