Feel and Release… What Does That Mean?

 “Feel” and “Release” are both terms used to mean many different things to many different people and the depth in their meaning is considerable. Put the two terms together in one phrase –  “Feel and Release” – as this approach does, and there is plenty of room for interpretation. Before continuing, I thought it might be useful to include an overview of what the phrase “Feel and Release” means to me, after working with Leslie as an apprentice trainer. 

In the meanings section of “True Horsemanship Through Feel” by Bill Dorrance and Leslie Desmond, there are seven detailed definitions of “Feel”: direct feel, following a feel, feel for the horse, feel (generally speaking), indirect feel, mellow feel and feel of the horse. Leslie tells the story of one of the earlier exchanges she and Bill had about the content of the book they planned to write, when Bill summed things up in one word – Feel – and had nothing more to add, right then. Leslie offered that it might be a very short book!

Another big clue is in Bill’s definition of “Pressure”, also from the meanings section: “This is what we are trying to get away from, so we might not mention it. […]”.

The point is that this approach is all about discovering what Bill called “particles of feel”, to explore the feel of a horse’s natural lightness, shape it and release him to a maneuver without the need for pressure. It is a life-time pursuit that can be both fascinating and rewarding for the dedicated horse-lover.

When exploring the essence of the phrase “Feel and Release”, I find it helpful to tune into two main things about horses:

The Horse’s Capacity to Feel in “Every Square Inch of His Hide”

First is the notable capacity the horse has to feel a fly land on his coat, and to liven up at the very moment he feels of that fly, at that exact location on his hide, just enough for the fly to leave. Think of the finesse in this simple act: the sensitivity he has through a layer of hair, the refinement in his capacity to liven up a few square inches of his hide, while his attention to the feel of his whiskers, lips, the scent he experiences in his careful selection of the next blade of grass to nip off never misses a beat. Nor does his alertness to his surroundings or his readiness to respond with speed to a stimulus, should the need arise. He depends on this capacity to synthesize a clear decision from many complex environmental factors for self preservation. The decision he makes could not be more closely tied to producing the most athletic gallop depart, stop in a stride, or any other maneuver that he might need, to survive. When you think of this, it is a wonder that we would ever need to do more than touch him in a way that was meaningful to him to affect his movement in a desired way – this is in essence the “feel” part in “feel and release”.

Understanding How The Horse Moves In Order To Offer A Meaningful Feel

The second main thing to know, in order to offer this meaningful feel to him, is how the horse achieves graceful locomotion with his long, narrow, 1000lb stature. His impressive grace is admired when he harnesses the power house in his hind quarters with genuine lightness in his athletic maneuvers. His ability to achieve this depends on three things:

  • the placement of his diagonal pairs of feet for balance
  • freedom around his head, available root of the neck*, elevated shoulders and a free mind for maneuverability
  • a connection to his instincts (see preceding paragraph)

When we tune into this flow of feel, with fluency in how he naturally executes maneuvers, we can connect directly with, and shape his natural athletic capacity. Shape him, bring up his inner life through his heightened sense of feel, as you place his feet to support the natural form he needs for the next maneuver you have in mind… and suddenly you can just release him into the maneuver, without the use of pressure from reins or legs. This is partly because the more fluent we are with the feel of his feet, cadence and the form he needs during locomotion as we ride, the more we learn to stay out of his way. However the real key is that when we shape him to the feel a maneuver naturally has for him, his thought shapes up too: then just open the door and release him to it. This is the essence of the “release” part in “feel and release.”  Like a ball rolling down a hill; there’s no need to push it.

Note that these two main things – the horse’s heightened awareness about feel and his capacity for genuine athletic lightness – are tied to self preservation and the associated availability of inner life. If we shut down those instincts, for example, by asking him to shut down the life inside when it comes up, we request at the same time that he dull down his awareness and responsiveness, which dulls lightness too. If the whole horse is not available, there is no feel to release and natural lightness is lost. The goal in this feel-based approach is to preserve (or when possible, restore) genuine lightness.

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