Natural Horsemanship Profile: Leslie Desmond

Chasing horses in circles is not for this horsewoman. Here's how Leslie Desmond goes natural horsemanship one better.

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.

In Europe, where she lives half the year, Desmond coaches riders in horsemanship through feel as part of her wilderness adventure tours. Here she lopes up-river in the Lappland wilderness region of Sweden. H&R Archives

“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” at bottom).

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.

[A KINDRED SPIRIT: Warwick Schiller’s similar horse-centric methods.]

No Dictatorships

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’ll ask this gelding to step his hind end over, not by pulling, punishing, or poking, but by using feel and intent. H&R Archive

“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.”

“I offer him more ‘float’ in the line, which releases his head toward me.” H&R Archives

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 who was known, like his brother Bill Dorrance, for his intuitive way of communicating with a horse. 

But the fact that Bill Dorrance’s methods resonated with her when she first met him in 1995 had to do with her own evolving perceptions, which grew out of a lifelong fascination with horses.

Pluck & Ponies

Born in Nuremburg, Germany, in 1954, Leslie Desmond was the eldest of two children. Her mother was an art history and French literature student at the time of her birth; her father, a Russian interpreter in the U.S. Army stationed in Europe.

As a horse-fascinated child, the love horse horses grew as Leslie did. H&R Archive

Leslie and younger brother Christopher grew up in rural New England. 

“She was a gutsy kid,” recalls her father, Peter Desmond, who encouraged both children to get involved with animals. “She’d disappear into the forest on her horse and be gone all day on her own.”

At 8, Leslie came under the influence of Ivan Taylor, a retired U.S. Cavalry officer from Vermont. In his mid-80s when they met, Taylor, who’d lost a leg in World War I, wore a single black boot “that was always spit-shined,” Desmond recalls. His gentle way with the quick ponies he taught young Leslie to ride left a lasting impression on her.

“I never heard him raise his voice, never saw him strike an animal,” she says. “Jerking on the reins wasn’t tolerated. He also pointed out to me the many tiny things that horses can ‘read’ in a person.” 

Leslie drank it all in, and it became the root of her deep understanding of how horses and humans communicate.

During this time she was also devouring horse-oriented fiction and nonfiction from the local library. Moved by the classic Black Beauty, she wrote to thank the author for revealing the horse’s hard, sad life in England. “I didn’t know the book was a novel, or that Anna Sewell was long dead,” she says. “I worried myself sick over Black Beauty.”

The avid reader wrote to other authors, as well, including Marguerite Henry (of Misty of Chincoteague fame) and C. W. Anderson (Heads Up, Heels Down), asking and receiving advice on horse training and care. “It helped fill the void after Ivan died,” she says.

At 10, she competed in her first show, riding her aged Thoroughbred gelding Brown Jug 14 miles over back roads to reach the local event.

“When we arrived, I just let us into the arena–no stop at the show office, no number,” she recalls. “Then I popped with pride when we won a fifth in the potato race.”

Bitten by the show bug, she turned for help to a neighborhood trainer who used methods that were as yet foreign to the young horse lover.

“These included a lot of whip and spur, chain-jerking, and longeing with head and neck restraints,” she recounts. “To earn that trainer’s respect and praise, I began putting more and more pressure on my horse. 

“Finally, while spanking my horse one day for cantering faster when I wanted him to trot, the truth of it hit me. I’d forfeited a cherished friendship with my horse to please this trainer and achieve training goals.”

It was an epiphany she’d never forget.

[RELATED: How fear short-circuits your horse’s ability to learn.]

Finding Her Way

From age 11 through 14, she spent summers starting young horses and teaching beginners at a day camp in southwestern Massachusetts. After her family relocated to Missouri in 1966, she began riding with jumping coach Bill Burton, competing successfully in junior and open jumping divisions.

Impatient in her academic studies, she wound up skipping her senior year of high school in 1971 to enroll in Bennington College in Vermont. Intending to study art, music, and dance, she left the school a year later when investigative journalism caught her interest instead. Her reporting on a local horse-abuse case helped to put the offending trainer behind bars.

In 1976 she graduated from Boston University with a degree in journalism, after which she worked as a freelance environmental reporter while training horses and holding other part-time jobs. She toyed with the idea of a career in maritime law before opting to stay with the horses; in 1984 she married a polo-playing farrier and opened a riding school in western Massachusetts.

The couple divorced in 1991 (“right man, wrong decision,” she says of the marriage). By then Desmond had relocated to northern California, where she has family and had visited on and off since the 1970s. There she met Tom Dorrance, Ray Hunt, and Buck Brannaman, beginning what she calls “a long period of re-education about horses,” during which she attended many clinics.

In ’91, her brother gave her his horse to teach with. A short time later, she opened a riding school and horse training business in Marin County with trainer Tim Thomas. 

In ’95, she created Diamond Lu Productions to release a three-volume video series, “Horsemanship for Children.” That same year, she met Tom Dorrance’s older brother, Bill, whose unwavering emphasis on feel and communication between horse and rider echoed what Desmond had learned years before from her first mentor, the old cavalryman. 

At Bill’s invitation, she began bringing her students and horses to Dorrance’s Salinas ranch. Before long, the circumspect horseman, then almost 90, started hinting at the possibility of a joint project.

“He kept saying to me, You know, a fella’d write a book if he only knew how,'” Desmond recalls. “Finally, I realized what he was getting at.” Honored to be a part of the effort, she helped him fashion his thoughts for the page, then published the resulting book, pre-selling over 1,500 copies to help raise the needed funds.

During the same period (mid- to late ’90s), Desmond began presenting her own clinics in the United States and coaching in Europe and Australia. From 2000 on, she spent more and more time abroad, studying classical riding/handling techniques and developing horsemanship schools and written materials. 

She also established wilderness adventure tours in Europe that offer instruction in horsemanship through feel.

Since 2004, she’s been living half time near Stockholm, Sweden.

“I love Europe,” she says. “Sweden especially has the look and feel of the U.S. countryside in the ’50s and ’60s. The Swedish are very much into open land preservation, which is great for riding.”

She returns regularly to the states to conduct clinics and seminars (at which veterinarians, farriers, the handicapped, and children under 18 are admitted free of charge). At press time, she was putting the finishing touches on a 10-CD audio book, Horse Handling and Riding Through Feel, and remastering her earlier video program for DVD (new title: “American Horsemanship for Young & Old”).

“I promised Bill I’d do everything I could to get his word out, and that’s what I’m doing,” she says.

[MORE about Leslie Desmond’s training philosophies.]

Whole New World

Those who’ve worked most closely with Desmond echo her fervor and commitment.

“When you get out of the horse’s way and listen to him, it opens up a whole new world,” says Kyle Kimball, who apprenticed with Desmond for two seasons beginning in 2001. 

“I’d already reached an advanced level in another natural horsemanship program, and although the work I’d been doing was great, something in my horse wasn’t right. He wasn’t happy.

“Then, when I saw what Leslie did, I thought, that’s it!” continues Kimball. “Up to that point, my horse had been subject to pressure and release, and he’d never had a chance to say ‘no’ to anything. His voice had been silenced.” Kimball compares the situation to a marriage in which all you can do is obey, with no chance of initiating anything of your own.

“Think of it–you’d hate it,” she says. “But with feel, there’s a consciousness of being together, which both horse and human strive to maintain. 

“Does it take longer to achieve than the response you get from traditional pressure and release? Yes. But you don’t care because you can see how much it means to your horse, and you’re having so much fun along the way.”

Desmond says horses do have a deep-rooted desire to please.

“They just want a role that makes sense to them. There’s no cookbook approach to what I do,” she adds. “I just teach people how to observe their horse to figure out what their next step should be. 

“Ultimately, the less posturing, rope twirling, bumping, jerking, and kicking a horse has to process, the more he admires your leadership qualities and seeks you out.”

Though what she does is for the good of the horse, she says it’s of serious importance to riders, as well.

“Someday you’re going to come off your horse, and maybe get hung up in the stirrup. When that happens, will your horse take off, because he can, because you’re no longer ‘in charge’ of him? Or will he stop and wait and offer a little ‘float’ toward that leg of yours, because he’s your genuine partner?”

“If you’re hoping for the latter, you’d better develop some feel.”

[LEARN MORE: The origins of ‘natural horsemanship.‘]

H&R Archives

Try these exercises to discover more about developing ‘feel.’

Developing the kind of reciprocal feel Leslie Desmond advocates is a long-term, deliberate process. Here, she offers a few things to try with your horse to get an introductory idea of what this feel is all about.

Experiment. See how little it takes to get your horse to respond at the end of a lead line. Specifically: Instead of holding him closely and pulling him forward, put some “float” in the lead and ask him to follow your body language as you walk forward. Once he’s following you, try a “dollar-drop stop.” By that I mean, keep the float in the line while you look down intently and stop suddenly, as if you’d just dropped a dollar on the ground. See if he doesn’t stop with you, almost automatically.

Stand at his elbow and ask him to bring his head around toward you by extending a slack lead toward him (rather than by drawing on the lead). (Hint: Try stepping back to “invite” him into that space.)

Ask him to step his hindquarters aside in response to your body language and intent, thinking about how you “ask and wait” when you’re requesting that other drivers make room for you on the freeway.

Walk the Walk. As you lead your horse with “float” in the line, and without asking for any particular speed, synchronize the movement of your legs with his front legs. This is called “blending,” and it signals your intention to “get with” your horse. It helps when you focus on a spot and go there together. Try blending with his steps when your horse is at liberty, too. See how it catches his attention.

Partner Up. If you ordinarily spend a lot of your riding time schooling your horse, try instead just doing things with him, as a partner, rather than training on him. Work cattle with friends for fun (remember, no schooling) or go on a trail ride over new terrain. Do some- thing you’re both eager to do and can enjoy together. It builds a strong bond when you’re both having fun.

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