Accessing the Feet - Part 2

An Illustrated Example

For a practical look at how this works, I offer a detailed look at the simple example of when I asked Spring to engage her hips more (meaning, reach further under herself when she takes a step with a hind foot), in order to shift her weight up and back off her shoulders, for a more balanced ride later.

“Feel and release” is rooted in positive reciprocal feel and making the right thing obvious. I invited Spring to reach forward with her hind foot, by moving away a step to offer more space to her. I combined this with an expression of clear intent, a release of that hind foot towards the space I created (by projecting core energy some distance behind it, not towards the foot or horse) and an offer of more slack in the lead-rope. It didn’t matter how deep a step she took on that first occasion: she was just walking along, when she felt the invitation and sensation of space I offered. It just felt good. Instinctively, she tuned into the foot that created that feel of freedom, lightness and correctness. She realized that when she reached with that hind foot, she delivered more float for herself. Soon she understood that by reaching her hind foot towards the lead-rope as the float began to leave, she could maintain that float she liked, for herself.

The two pairs of photographs that follow illustrate working with a float and using ‘feel and release’ to ask Spring to turn left or right, on the ground. The first pair shows me offering a float in the lead-rope, combined with an offer of space around the head, neck and shoulders – an invitation. Focused energy and clear intent is directed towards a space behind (not at) the horse. ‘Feel and release’ works by offering clarity about the space available to the horse and the space needed by the handler. The second pair of photographs shows how this approach supports a foundation in which the horse can make optimum use of her own natural movement, in a conscious response to her understanding of my intent.


Photo 10: I offer a little more float towards Spring as I ask her to turn and follow. I project energy to my right, to a spot several feet behind her, but not at her. We are just beginning to work with a float. She is not quite clear on the meaning yet, but she has interest. She follows a little with her eye and right front foot, but has no thought to reach her right hind forwards yet, so her hips are not in place to support the turn. If I move the float away from her at this moment, taking the slack out, I would cause her to lean onto that right front foot she is about to set down, tipping her weight forwards into the turn. I wish to avoid that response in a saddle horse, so I am careful not to lay that foundation in from the ground. (Photograph by Trine Bohnsdalen)



Photo 11: Offering her space with the float helps Spring make an important mental adjustment. She is learning how to follow the invitation of a rope that draws her into the turn, while she keeps her natural balance and cadence. She has set down her left diagonal, with right hind a little more engaged, which allows her inside (right) shoulder to travel more freely to the right. (Photograph by Trine Bohnsdalen)


Photo 12: After some work with exercises like the one described in the text, Spring starts to shape herself to follow the float, by thinking about the position of her hips. She is learning how to move in response to my feel in a way that makes the shoulders immediately more available as she follows the bridge of her nose. I offer float to her as I start a change in direction.  By looking towards the wall above the horn on the saddle behind, and not towards her hip, she can focus more easily on the direct feel of the float and my changing body position. She is learning to read my intent (I would be happier with this photo had my hand been lower, and not at her eye-level. However, Spring fills in for me to show that she is much clearer in her understanding of the meaning in my float.) She now tips her ear, eye and bridge of the nose towards the new direction and reaches her left hip under her rib cage, when the float is offered. All of these small but significant changes stem from a release in the root of her neck, which carries through her whole body and to her mind. (Photograph by Trine Bohnsdalen)


Photo 13: Note the change in elevation of her wither, and lateral softness in the root of her neck, compared with the photos 11 and 12. Spring’s expression has changed too, reflecting her better understanding. (Photograph by Trine Bohnsdalen)

Later, from the saddle, an offer of slack in the rein replaces the offer of slack in the lead-rope and the horse reaches towards the rein with the hind foot on that side, just as he learned to do on the ground with the lead rope. The rider’s lower leg opens slightly, away from the rib cage, inviting the hind limb to reach freely into the space.

“Pressure is what we’re trying to get away from, so we might not mention it” Bill Dorrance

The key to “feel and release” is to understand that a release does not have to be preceded by a specific pressure. If you shape your horse in accordance with his natural locomotion, through feel, he already knows what you want. When we consider that so many things we do are not natural to the horse – haltering, tying, saddling, bridling, trimming, loading him in a trailer or a stall, or a fenced pasture area – and are already a form of pressure, there is good reason for an approach in which the handler focuses on “just release” to set the horse and partnership up for success.

Many other groundwork exercises used at the clinic are detailed in Bill Dorrance and Leslie Desmond’s book “True Horsemanship Through Feel”.  Leslie has told many a story of how she and Bill always searched for how to release a horse without the pressure. In the Meanings section, this is clear in Bill’s definition of “Pressure: This is what we’re trying to get away from, so we might not mention it. Maybe you could say “excess of pressure” because that’s what any of it is where it concerns the horse. What we’re in hopes of is that people will want to learn about feel, and how to apply it in a way that a horse can understand it, and that the word “pressure” has no part in that.” Release without pressure is core to Leslie’s teachings today and can be better understood in her sequel to the book, a 10-CD Audio Book “Horse Handling and Riding Through Feel”. See


This article reports clinic experiences only and is not intended for instructional purposes.

by Karen Musson, October 2008, V3.0

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