Horse Handling and Riding Through Feel


by Leslie Desmond

We admire the horse for his power and grace, for his beauty, strength and mystical qualities.  It seems that nearly all who are involved with the horse are drawn in by these noble and magnificent attributes. Through the ages, people have wanted to merge with the horse and merge with the horse they have . . .   in work and war, in literature, in sport and in art.

During the evolution of post –war  “modern horsemanship” people developed an impressive  range of seemingly opposite notions about the term “horsemanship” and the best use of  horses for entertainment, sport and recreation. Confusion between the human and equine species nowadays is well established and, when one considers the diverse range of expectations that horses have about their handlers, owners and trainers because of the inconsistent things they all do to him and with him, it is little wonder that people look for help in all directions. For a couple of decades I did, too.

Because the hope for a quick fix leads to the search for one, this quickly spreading phenomenon often leads to a new equipment choice which, in some cases, actually works.  Rarely, however, does the new bit, draw rein, martingale, whip, noseband or headstall configuration produce a lasting solution to the problems that new horse owners encounter. In this business everyone should expect to negotiate with the road as its bumps and turns are revealed.  

To preserve the spirit and the grace of his natural movement when you get around the horse, or touch him, you must first learn to feel of the horse. If we are good students, then the horse is apt to help us develop better feel when we ride him by responding to our slightest effort to “read” him correctly, and to “feel” or sense his responses accurately.

For this reason, I have two goals for myself when schooling young horses.

1.) Establish a relationship with the horse’s mind.
2.) Gain control over the root of the neck, both laterally (left and right) and longitudinally (up and down).

This is my second main goal because it directly affects the maneuverability of the poll, neck, withers and shoulders, ribs and hips. Control over the root or base of the neck has an immediate, decisive effect on the flexion / relaxation of the jaws. In turn, this determines the capacity of the diaphragm to expand and contract. This important because access to the jaw and diaphragm affects the oxygen content in the horse’s blood and brain; and, it also influences the horse’s ability to use the hindquarters and it components --  the lumbar, sacrum and hip regions -- efficiently.

Taken together, these pieces are essential to build into a foundation if the handler-rider wants to experience control of the whole horse without a struggle.  An observant handler or trainer working through feel will, ultimately, eliminate the need for force, fear and coercion to achieve compliance with his/her  requests. A person can quickly learn to appreciate and emulate the way horses use feel among themselves. A particularly observant person may infuse the time they spend around horses with a new meaning learned from hours spent watching them interact. Some people become exceptionally good at this.

Why is this so important? Because, if the bottom half of you is going to set atop the upper half of the horse, it better be all right with that horse. A horse can put most riders on the ground in the blink of an eye if he wants you there.

After a few years working alongside Bill Dorrance during the creation of our book, True Horsemanship Through Feel, I was at last able to take a small portion of knowledge about “feel” on board in my horse training career. To my surprise, I discovered that this fantastic way to relate to horses added an entirely new meaning and depth to many of my connections with people. As a result, I now enjoy an even greater interest in the journey.

In the December issue I will expand on this month’s training tip about the importance of establishing freedom in the neck and shoulders of the horse.  Whether you keep a horse for a pet and trail rides, or train and compete professionally, a free head, neck, withers and shoulders are essential parts of a safe, comfortable ride that feels natural!