Leslie Desmond believes in a better way. She thinks pressure-and-release, the time-honored method of influencing a horse to do our bidding, too often results in too much pressure. She also believes "making the right thing easy and the wrong thing difficult," a fundamental and useful concept of natural horsemanship, doesn't go far enough.
"You need to make the right thing obvious," says the clinician, who's been helping people deal effectively and humanely with their horses for over 40 years. "The burden should be on the horseman to make things clear for the horse in the gentlest way possible, not on the horse to figure things out by trial-and-error."
Desmond, who published the 1999 book True Horsemanship Through Feel (which she co-authored with the late Bill Dorrance), says there's a key difference between what she advocates and the "put up and shut up" approach often practiced today.
"The goal nowadays, even in the name of so-called ‘natural horsemanship,'is to stop at nothing until total submission is achieved," she says. "What I'd like to know is, When did the horse declare war on the human? Why can't we go about this as a collaboration?"
If it sounds provocative, it's meant to be. Desmond is passionate about her mission to teach people how to "ask and educate" their horses, rather than "tell and intimidate." The key to this, she says, is "feel," which for her is as mental as it is physical. Only through feel, the horse's own language, can you achieve the genuine partnership with a horse that everyone claims to want.
But how do you get there from here? It's not easy, and in fact Desmond, 52, has made that journey her life's work. We're going to share some of what she's learned along the way, offering insights into the psyche of this dedicated and unorthodox horsewoman. If you find yourself intrigued by her approach, there are even things to try with your own horse (see "Curious? Try These to Learn More").
Her take on things is unconventional enough that some may find it off-putting. Still, if you want your horse to enjoy the time you spend together as much as you do, Desmond offers a lot of food for thought.
It's October 18, 2005. Desmond is conducting a clinic for an equine science class at California Polytechnic Institute at San Luis Obispo. She and about two dozen students are afoot in one of the school's large outdoor arenas.
"I'm not big on dominating a horse," she begins. "I've done it, and I've seen where it can lead, and it's not pretty. A horse needs to respect you, yes. But fear-based respect is a dictatorship. The alternative is to earn respect by being a different kind of leader—the kind who serves the needs and interests of the follower."
She asks for a volunteer, and one of the students obliges, taking one end of a lariat in hand while the clinician, 60 feet away, holds the other. With her forefinger, Desmond taps once lightly on her end of the rope.
"Can you feel that?" she asks the student, who nods, smiling. "So can your horse. That's often all you need to get his attention. When you pull on a horse, he learns about pulling. If you want him light in your hand at a gallop, you must teach him how to build a ‘float,' or slack, into your lead and rein, so that he responds as much from understanding your intent as from feeling or anticipating pressure.
"It takes plenty of patience and effort on your part to develop the reciprocal feel that this requires," she continues, "and a lot of focus to make sure your intent—what you want the horse to do—is always clear to him. But once you do achieve this clear connection through feel, almost any horse you work with will become a true partner."
She goes on to show the class how to lead a horse with "float" in the line. "Don't get up too close to him," she says, coaching a student who's leading a roan gelding. "You show respect by not crowding his space. We hear so much about teaching a horse to respect you, but a horse doesn't learn this by being disrespected."
She then explains to the students how to maneuver a horse on the ground.
"When you want him to move, don't crowd into his space," she instructs. "Instead, move him off the space you want by focusing your attention on it—by claiming it, in other words." She demonstrates this, stepping a horse to the side by telegraphing her intent—via gaze and body language—to take control of that space.
"Think about what happens when you're driving a car—you don't bump another driver off the piece of road you want. You indicate your intent, then wait for the space to become available. Similarly, with a horse, make a clear request, then wait for his response.
"If you want a polite horse, then be polite to that horse," she concludes.
This concept—of giving to the horse what you hope to get from him, whether it be respect, softness, or understanding—is a recurring theme with Desmond. Later, she explains more fully.
"Horses are easy to dominate, but that's no reason to do it. It's like the difference between being a loving, supportive parent, and a detached, demanding parent. I'm showing people how they can continue to love their horses as they train them, as opposed to chasing goals at the expense of the horse."
Clearly, her approach owes much to Bill Dorrance, the Salinas, California- based rancher known for his intuitive way of communicating with a horse. But the fact that his methods resonated with her when she first met him in 1995 had to do with her own evolving perceptions, which grew out of a life- long fascination with horses.