Applying Feel and Release in the "First Ride"

The filly stood still, and we were both relaxed as I reached my leg across her back to slip my foot into the off-side stirrup. I sat down gently in her center, then took my other foot off the pipe-fence and committed it to the near-side stirrup. I was quietly astride the chestnut two-year-old Spring, in a large round pen. We soaked quietly for a few moments.

Spring and I were under the masterful guidance of Leslie Desmond, on the sixth day of a colt-starting clinic for Leslie’s apprentice trainers from the US and Europe, at “Flying D Ranch”, in Bozeman, Montana, 2008. 

Applying Feel and Release to the "First ride"

I invited Spring to shift her weight as she naturally would to shape herself for a right turn. Carefully, she adjusted our combined weight to her left diagonal and freed up the right diagonal for my request*. I had asked for shape, distinct from movement. She had reciprocated, offering the feet I asked for, and waited to discern where I might like her to set them down. I thanked her silently, then sat centered on her, sitting upright. Spring set her feet down squarely. Then I asked her to shift again, as if preparing to turn left. She balanced our weight on her right diagonal and offered me the left diagonal. Then I asked for straightness again, then the right diagonal, then for straightness, for the left diagonal and for straightness once more.

She was like a kitten now, carefully kneading a pillow on the spot, all feet available and freely offered in a move that hinted of piaffe.


Photo 3: . I sat down gently in her center, then took my other foot off the pipe-fence and committed it to the near-side stirrup.

*[A diagonal is comprised of either foreleg and the opposite hind; the designation ‘right diagonal’ or ‘left diagonal’ refers to the front leg associated with the diagonal pair].

During this exercise, her first experience with a rider, Spring had the opportunity to experiment and gain sureness about responding to a feel she now felt from her back. She understood that there was no pressure or hurry in my feel, consistent with our work on the ground – just time to think about where to shift her weight for balance, in order to offer her feet in response to my intent.

She was well-prepared for me to add a request for movement now. First, I would shape her for a maneuver, then add life and release her feet to flow according to her shape. In preparation to ask her hips to the right, I sat in her center and drew my left shoulder back as I turned to look to the left, about 20ft away, in line with her hip. She was thoughtful and unhurried as she balanced and prepared to move under me. I felt her readiness as I offered my clear intent for her to move her hip away from the spot I focused on. I released my lower left leg and heel away from her rib-cage with a little energy a time or two.

Her response was to take a careful step with her hips to the right, just as she had done during our groundwork, when I had moved my rope away from her left hip and rib-cage, or lifted a stirrup away with energy and intent, to release her hips to the right. In response to her clear offer, I carefully sat straight for a moment and she straightened underneath me. I looked right and with my right leg asked her hips to shift left. I sat straight for a moment. We were back to the comfy spot we had started from and settled there together, straight and in balance. 

I could feel that her right hind was stepped out behind a tad. Spring was so tuned in, I wondered what it would take to ask her to move that foot forwards one step. With an intentional, clear thought, and the barely perceptible lift in my core and right hip, I asked her to step her right hind up and under herself. With thoughtful and careful placement, she responded precisely to my request. Spring stood squarely on all four feet once more – waiting, tuned in and ready.

I invited her now to take a straight step backwards. First, with a mindful invitation, and lift from the nape of my neck and between my hips and lower rib, I asked her to prepare for this maneuver by reciprocating this feel with an elevation in her wither and ribs. This change in posture shapes the horse to step backwards with ease and is particularly helpful for a green colt. It encourages a horse to release his shoulders UP, before stepping back. When this occurs, he is shaped to elevate his back, which releases the tip available in his pelvis. Quality in an athletic stride is then easy for him to offer. The feet then generously clear the ground, with no dragging of the hooves. This is an important detail that reflects the amount of lightness that will be available to the rider in turns and stops later on.

With Spring shaped in this way, I invited her to back up a step by tipping my core backwards slightly (the kind of adjustment in the core with a slight lift in the pelvis that allows a skater to slide backwards, while staying balanced over his/her feet). The feel to this was important, to do everything I could to free her back and allow her to move as easily as possible (see above). I pictured and imagined the feel of her diagonal pair of feet taking a step back. Spring took a second to think about what she felt, then with clear understanding, poise and sureness, she picked up one diagonal, then the other in two steps that glided backwards. She shifted her weight onto her hips as she set her feet down. Her forehand was still and available, as she waited for my next move.

I thanked her very much, sat still for a moment and dismounted. She had offered plenty for her first experience of a rider.

It was not the typical "first ride". I was mesmerized by the qualities demonstrated in Spring’s responses during this short exchange, and their implication for the development of a saddle horse.

With nothing more than the life available from my core and the barest change in my leg aids, Spring had understood me clearly, and offered her feet exactly to fit my request. Her ability to shape herself to go left, right and straight in balance, as well as to back up freely, was available to me from the first presentation under saddle. She moved forwards and backwards with an elevated wither, four feet generously clearing the ground and placed her feet accurately through feel. This light feel and precision had evolved naturally from a foundation built-in on the ground through feel and release during the preceding five days.


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

Colt Starting Through Feel, by Karen Musson, 03/15/2009 V2.0
© 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