Good Horsemanship

Leslie Desmond Clinic Report,

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For a couple of years we have been hosting clinics at our rancho and making a big effort to create an atmosphere where folks can feel comfortable, both physically and emotionally. We want to expose folks to new ideas with great horsemen/women. We encourage horses and humans to reach deep and try hard.

So, when you bring your horses to Rancho Doblado, you don’t really go to a "clinic". You go to a retreat. We have a rarified atmosphere where we’re all safe, fully present, with no interruption of in and out traffic/energy like you get at a public arena. Whatever direction the clinic energy takes is allowed to build on itself, instead of dissipating. Beth Anne is fond of saying, “Whatever folks bring to work on with their horses will become the format of this clinic”. And so it was with Leslie Desmond.

Leslie began on Thursday with 4 hour demonstration where she introduced the concepts she finds most valuable when working with horses. Leslie worked with two horses, a mellow 16-year-old roan mustang, experienced riding horse, and a fired up 6-year-old TWH. First up, the mustang, who pretty much figured he knew what folks wanted. When you asked him to move out on a circle around you he was happy to oblige you and took off at a nice trot. When you asked him to slow down, he peeled off the rail and kindly walked in to stand beside you. Most folks would be happy with this. He was doing what he had been taught to do, over and over again.

Leslie pointed out that this sweet roan wasn’t following a feel, but instead responding by conditioning. He was full of try and he just figured that A+B = C, all the time, every time. Even though he wasn’t giving her what she was asking for, he was giving her what he knew and for that she could not fault him. This is good, until it isn’t. If you needed to change things, you might run in to some trouble.

"Set them up to be more with you in the moment rather than a skillfully conditioned horse that is limited in his usefulness. It overlooks the individual, overlooks the moment, and overlooks feel."- LD

His owner spoke of wanting to fix his imbalances. Leslie said the imbalance was not just left to right ­ it was front to back. He moved and stood heavy on the forehand. The mustang wanted to be with humans, close. Even when the roan was asked to stand back, he kept asking if he could move up close. Again, this was where he knew the good spot was, so no fault of the horse. Humans had taught him to crowd, through handfeeding or handling him at the head. Becoming aware of this crowding will help the humans begin to change it.

One of the problems with a horse crowding you and loading his weight on the front end can come when he needs to leave, he is not prepared to rock back and step away. He will probably end running in to or stepping on someone if he is startled because that is where his weight is. Then it becomes the horse’s fault for running in to the human, when he had no choice because he was set up that way.

This would become a major theme of the weekend, with horses of all ages and stages: Horses taught to be front end heavy and accommodate humans on the left side.

An exercise that has become very popular much to the detriment of some horses is disengagement or what some folks call "Hindquartering", or “Over Disengagement Syndrome” (ODS). If you practice it enough you can teach your horse to bury their front end at the stop and turn. Become aware of where your horse’s weight is throughout his movement. When he moves forward you want encourage his life to come up, his withers to raise, and his weight to shift back. You want to encourage him to be prepared for a change at any moment.

Our habits and behaviors teach our horses. Consider standing at his shoulder, versus at his head or neck, to pet him to encourage the horse to think back and change his weight distribution. Handle your horse from his right side more often. Don’t grab his head to hug him, or to halter/bridle him. Wait on the horse to come to you. And please, oh please, stop hand feeding them.

"Put his treats in a bucket. If you hand feed, you give way to your horse. You ruin your ride." -LD

Editorial note: Hand feeding is not the same as clicker training

So how do we make the front end available? One way is to back your horses up, concentrating on the withers to see if they left. Look at the front feet, are they dragging or are they stepping up and back? Ask for a backup until you get a diagonal pair. The balance point is 2 feet moving together as they step backward. Lift his head as he is standing there crowding you. How heavy is it? That’s how heavy he is to stop.


“Look to see if he stops square. And is he ready to move? Do you have a stop built in to your start, and a start built in to your stop? That is an athlete. “-LD

Leslie is very particular about how we approach our horses. When encouraging the horse to move forward, take the ground behind the horse rather than crowding in and confronting the foot and the horse itself. Taking the space behind makes it not personal. Learn to direct your horse with your body, not your rope. Learn to use your “body English”, tip your hat, flap your elbows, nod your head. Learn to move your horse from the bridge of your nose.

Leading is educating the horse that it’s his job to keep the slack in the rope. We want to teach the horse that it is his job to keep the float in the rope. Keep offering the float and go with him until he learns to go with you. Leslie talked a lot over the weekend about not wanting to pull on or whack horses anymore. She is done with it. She has found a more polite way in teaching the horse about feel. When the horse learns to keep that slack in the line, when the human learns to offer the slack and encourage the horse through their body not their equipment, when the horse learns to follow a feel, there will be no more pulling or pushing. They will move together.

Leslie demonstrated how snaps on our lead lines create noise when we ask our horses to follow a feel. She fed the horse some slack in the rope and tossed the led line to the right. It swung back left, then right, and back and forth some forty times before settling in the center. That was 40 right and left directions the horse had to ignore after the initial direction to go right. Cut the snap off the lead and your rope will settle sooner.

Another major theme that ran through every single thing we did with Leslie for three full days was working with our intent. Intent comes from your gut, and when you are clear about what you want, your horse feels it. Do you have a plan? Is your intention clear? Are you prepared to guide your horse, to blend with your horse, to ride your horse, when he brings up the life?


One of the riders, in trotting and cantering around the arena, thought she needed to make the corners by using her reins to turn the horse. Actually, she was balancing on her horse’s mouth. Leslie would rather see the rider shape the horse with out pulling. Think of your turns long before they actually occur. SHAPE THE TURN WITH OUR THOUGHTS and our BODY PRESENTATION. Trying to keep the horse on the rail by using the outside rein to the rail shapes them the wrong way.

With another rider Leslie asked him, on the ground, to run forward and then come to a stop. Leslie coached the rider to bring his own forehand up when stopping” (like when you want a stop when you’re riding.) "Plan your stop ahead of it." When forward and backward accompany left and right is when you are balanced.

“The degree to which you can have a stop or a downward transition has its foundation in the ease with which you have a backup without pressure­ with the withers available.” -LD

When riding, if the horse is dropping his shoulder, the rider is looking down. If you look down and pull you close down the shoulder. Bring your line of sight up. "UPPER ABS AND LINE OF SIGHT IS WHERE THE HORSE’S WITHERS COME UP TO LIVE IN THE RIDER."–LD When you are inviting the horse to rise up and lift under you, be aware not to push on your stirrups to lift yourself up. Instead, think of raising your sternum and breathing. Think of sitting on the back of your thighs. Feel the withers come up to you with float in the reins.

LIFE UP/LIFE DOWN comes before left/right/up/down. Leslie used the metaphor of driving a car. You must turn on the ignition and get the motor running before you try to steer and drive. When your horse goes, the human must­ BLEND­ with the energy, don’t fight. Go with the horse and then direct the feet.

Learn to blend with your horse. "YOU ARE THE ARCHITECT OF YOUR OWN WRECK"-LD

As you bring the life down in your horse, learn to get in time with the feet and set them down. To set the feet "The hands follow the shoulders forward and down, NOT like "pulling weeds" which would be up and back. Work at first to build this in 2 hands, setting each foot down as they land. Then use 1 hand in the center of the rein, back & forth, and SET THE FEET. Count as it stops.

“Think of a trot depart like a butterfly in your hand, and release it.” -LD

Proper posting is as if the horse tosses the rider up and the rider catches herself with her lower abs with a free knee and an ankle that doesn’t bend. Your knee and hip are open.

"If you lay in a foundation, you can take a colt on its first or second ride & have it lope out, change leads & come to a stop and get off without ever pulling on his mouth."-LD




Preparation. Position of readiness.

You need to have galloped full out or ridden a runaway ­otherwise "collection" is an intellectual event. IF IT’S A GOAL, YOU MISSED IT." If you’re working on it, you don’t see what it is.

"COLLECTION SHOWS UP AS AN EVIDENCE OF GOOD HORSEMANSHIP." Ride well, prepare the horse, start, stop, go left and right, back and forth with increasing refinement. We looked through Bill’s Book with Leslie for photos showing collected horses.

"Collection: 1. The life HAS to be available first otherwise there’s nothing to collect. Therefore - 2. You need 100% forward before you have something to collect."


"Your ground work reflects what he expects from you riding." Prepare yourself so the horse puts his own nose in the halter. Bend, focus, softness. Get a picture of him turning his head to you. It all means something to the horse.

When you are standing with him loose: Get a plan. What is the goal for his feet? How will the horse need to shape himself? What will that look like? What will that feel like?

Keep in mind, when you’re hard on yourself, you’re hard on your horse.

Speed/Force vs. Feel/Time

On the ground to move the horse, instead of thinking of moving the horse, claim the ground under a foot. Keep the float in the lead and keep your directing hand low so you don’t block the horse’s vision. On a green horse, you might have to do more to make it clear. Free up the feet. Throw the horse the float and think about taking the ground behind her left hind foot. Don’t look the horse in the eye. Don’t run after her. You can’t push her feet with a rope. Use my focus from my core to invite. Keep the float, ­ toss it,­ set it. Release the horse."

Separate what you do when you ask for just the head versus the head and feet. You may want to ask him to give his head around without the feet. Keep the float in the rein and move your horse around. Show your horse how to keep the float. Then work on a loose rein.

In teaching the horse to keep the slack in the rope, you might throw him slack first for a back up on a float. If he tries forward first, that’s OK. He is moving his feet: the engine is running. Then invite him to step backward.

On the ground, if you are working to get the life up in your horse, you can use the stirrup. A simple slap, a quick lift up, will help you get life up.

Leslie told one student when they went to send their horse off with a rope and carrot stick both, it telegraphed to the horse that she had no trust that the horse will do it.


Teach the horse to come to you and pick up their bridle/halter. Be polite. Stand at the elbow of the horse so you don’t block their head/sight and there’s room for the horse to bend their head and neck towards you. Offer the float. Present what you want. If you want the horse to be soft, you have to ask for their head softly. Don’t make it conditional, "I’ll give it back", to their head. Loop the bridle strap over the nose, and ask them to­ offer to you. Be careful not to trap the horse when she’s soft. Encourage the horse to stay with you. It’s Ok if the head leaves, just start over until they can hold it there for you. (This took only about a week for Beth Anne to get Goldie and her filly Bella to pick up their halters from their shoulder. Just hang in there. Also, Beth Anne bought some rope halters that tie on the right side, so just in case she forgot, she would be reminded by her equipment to handle her horses more on the right side. It is working.)

Head lowering (asking it down) doesn’t always connect to the feet. One mare would drop her head to the ground, but she still turned away when the bridle came. The bridling problem showed her soft head down wasn’t connected to her feet. The head down was an isolated exercise to the horse, it wasn’t connected to any particular application. Learn to connect it to bridling, like explained above, and the horse will get softer and respond better to your feel.


We observed with Leslie that many of the horse’s bodies/muscles were physically longer on the right side from being always handled on the left. "It makes her harder to ride straight because the horse doesn’t have right AND left even." If the horse is shaped arcing the body to the right, head offset to right, weight on front left leg, lengthening the left side to accommodate a human standing on their left in front of their shoulder, the horse will be heavy on the forehand and keep her left hind out in back. WITH THE LEFT FOOT ALWAYS BACK, THERE’S NO WHERE TO BALANCE. The right lead will be harder for the horse, the left lead will be heavy on the front end. The horse needs a mental change first. You can teach her ­how to better use her hindquarters to balance: give her a new reason for balance.

First, Leslie gave stringent warnings not to try this at home without an experienced person who knows how to properly hobble a horse. She also commented on how many horsemen and women over due this part of the training, meaning the leave the horse hobbled too long. The horse learns from the release. The moment the horse moves towards balancing themselves properly, spreading those hind legs and making a triangle with the three legs down to support itself, you take the hobble off.

Then Leslie hobbled up the right front foot so the left hind comes more centered and can support her and the right hind comes up under her more. Where does the horse look for support? HER FOOT TIED UP CHANGES HER BASE OF SUPPORT. In taking away the other leg for that diagonal to retrain use of the left hind.

When you observe your horse as you halter him, watch what leg they put most of their weight on. Is it always the same? How loose is their tail? Watch where you stand so you don’t throw your horse into the opposite diagonal.

Leslie put the rope on the mare’s left hind & flipped the rope on & off her back. Put the rope around the mare’s middle. Leslie stands of the right side since the mare isn’t used to having folks there. Then, the mare started standing with the left hind under "RESTORING THE LOST DIAGONAL:" The change was tuck her butt, lift her withers and think of leaving. She tried hard to keep Leslie in her left eye. Leslie told everyone that is OK.

When riding, watch which front foot the horse stops on. To draw the left hind foot under him, get his RIGHT front foot to stop last.


Rock the saddle to set the feet. Be able to support your weight with your arms. Try to push up off your pommel. If you can’t get up like this, your weight will wind up in your horse’s mouth. Left shoulder to her left shoulder. Turn the stirrup toward you. Put a hand in the mane and use the stirrup like a stepladder to get your hip bone over your heel. Pull up from the side and the pommel. Your weight is on your arms. Pull my stomach in ­ pull up ­ look up. (If you can’t do pushups, do "letdowns" until you can.)


Bella had already become longer on the left from being led and handled mostly on the left. Handle her from the right. She was also very quiet about being handled on the head and around the face. The foal was quiet, tuned out and dull. She was not ready when approached. "When a colt is a bit dull, like Bella, we can get comfortable in an expanded/false comfort zone and think the colt is gentle. We need to be able to get her and ourselves comfortable with her life up in our presence. That is when we are safe.

Beth Anne asked Leslie how she felt about imprinting foals. Leslie believes that imprinting has been created for folks who don’t know how to handle the life in their horses. It takes the life right out of them. "KEEP YOUR COLTS LIVELY. OTHERWISE THEY LEARN TO TURN IT OFF AND HOLD IT IN” LD. Get them comfortable with that life, coming up and coming back down, in your presence."

SADDLING" THE FOAL- Rope around her middle = saddle & unsaddle. "Loose Jaw - -Loose Poll - -Loose Mind"

Someone asked, ‘If you shouldn’t look at the colt, how can you be sure that they are not going to charge over the top of you. Leslie answered, ­ "Leading is driving from the front. I DO know where she is! I can hear her and I have peripheral vision. Look toward her without looking AT her. Look at her feet. Take the ground, don’t push on the foal, if you need to move her.

Don’t forget, when working with your horses, if you tie them or hand the lead rope over to another, to release the horse from you. Say goodbye and make it clear mentally with a picture in your head that you are leaving. This is the polite and considerate to your horse.


On the very last day, Leslie guided horses & their owners through an exercise of working with the herd of horses at liberty. Students were to visualize what they wanted to have happen with the horses. Then when they approached the herd in the arena (using the flag sparingly if at all) they took direction from Leslie and learned through feel how to split the herd, combine the herd, sort individual horses, and work within the herd to direct the horses. Some of the students stood with their backs to the herd of horses in the arena and cleared their mind. Then they were to picture in their mind where the horses were. Leslie asked a series of questions, such as how many horses are facing you? Or how many horses are walking? She encouraged the students to feel the horses one by one, to feel where the horses were and which horses were looking at them. She asked the students to make the space for the horses to project their position and message, so the student could receive it. The students tuned in and were able to call out what was happening in the herd behind them, with their eyes closed. The experience was as powerful as it was because every auditor and rider sitting there was absolutely in the present moment.

Leslie left us with a whole lot to think about, as well as some practical changes to help balance our horses. Her approach to students and horses is revealing, funny, intense, thoughtful and 100% devoted developing their sense of feel. Leslie will be returning to Descanso Saturday and Sunday, Feb 2nd & 3rd 2002, 9:30 am to 4:30 pm each day, for two days of demonstrations at Granny Martin’s Museum, where Vaquero Days was held. If you need directions you can contact me. It is just a over the hill and down Japatul Valley Road from Rancho Doblado.

To learn more about Rancho Doblado and the events we have scheduled for 2002, please visit our website at http://www.ranchodoblado.com

The End. ;-)

For more information and horsemanship tips for handling and training your horses:

BillsBook Email List, Discussion of the book True Horsemanship Thru Feel
Clicker Training List, Improving your communication and training skills

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