Loading Your Horse One Step at a Time

The Leslie Desmond Experience by Rick Larsen

Wouldn't it be wonderful if another person knew your learning style and your horse's learning capacity? Fortunately, there are many gifted coaches and clinicians to learn from and Leslie Desmond is one of them.

Communication Through Feel

With Leslie Desmond's carefully considered explanations, even the novice observer has the opportunity to see the nuances that reveal the changes a horse can make under Leslie's coaching. And while those changes may seem subtle to many in the audience, the horses are transformed inside. Troubled horses gain confidence in their ability to think for themselves. Seemingly belligerent horses become willing, and bracey horses become flexible. Leslie communicates to the horse in his own language, a language called "feel," and teaches riders and auditors how to do this, too.

Adjusting to the Situation

No two Leslie Desmond clinics are alike because no two groups of people or horses are the same. She customizes each clinic to help each rider and each horse develop their potential. She coaches riders of all ages and enthusiastically supports each rider in surpassing his or her limitations. "I find that the easiest way for people to overcome riding problems that are rooted in poor balance, lack of experience, or fear of losing control, is to go do a job with a horse…however small that job may be."
Some people are interested just in dressage. Others are interested in just trail riding. Still others want to see how to get a colt saddled. Often, she gets people of similar backgrounds and abilities working together. Other times, Leslie teaches more experienced students how to share new insights with beginning riders. "There is no better way to see how well you understand a new bit of knowledge than by helping someone who knows less than you know learn how to apply that knowledge effectively thru feel," she explains.

Adjusting to the Moment

During the first of two clinics in Ballston Spa, New York, Leslie adjusted to fit the needs of the horses and riders. She is less interested in turning out a clinic-full of horses and riders who can all do the same thing than she is in fostering clear thinking through open discussion about the timing and placement of the feet. Regardless of what the planned agenda for the afternoon might be, she would seamlessly move to a new exercise if it made sense at the time. The adjustment might be inspired by a question from the audience, or by a change in the horse or rider with which she was working. She presents technique and philosophy, and offers critique from several viewpoints. "I don't want anyone to be left out," she said. "To do my job properly, I must send people home with some working knowledge of feel."
Leslie teaches eight basic exercises. She teaches riders how to start, stop, turn left, turn right, go forward and back, and to elevate and lower specific sections of the body (e.g., head, neck, shoulders-withers, back, loin, and croup). "This sounds so simple," she said, "but it's surprising how many advanced riders there are whose horses cannot perform these basic maneuvers without being forced into them." After a couple of hours at ringside, it's easy to observe that Leslie's priority is to help riders of all levels gain, or regain, a working knowledge of these essential basics.

Trailer Loading to Confirm Foundation

One entire afternoon at the Ballston Spa clinic was spent getting nearly a dozen horses loaded on two different styles of trailers. Leslie said a horse that loads into a trailer smoothly, without the use of force, fear, or bribery, is apt to have a big part of the foundation he needs to be a good riding horse. Explaining and demonstrating the links between effective groundwork and adequate preparation for a riding horse is Leslie's forte'.

Crossing the Tarp

Horses were invited to approach a blue plastic tarp. Those students whose horses ambled over the tarp actually missed an opportunity. Leslie explained that for horses that shied away from the tarp, it was their rider's chance to blend with available life and move the horse out. Anxiety about the blue tarp offered the horse a chance to learn about his rider. Some riders "caught" the animal's anxiety and also became concerned. The riders who got their horses over the tarp with the least resistance and in the shortest amount of time were those who had the confidence to blend, initially, with the horse's flight response; this reassured the horse that he had a partner in flight.

The Whole Horse

Leslie has a multi-faceted background, having invested time as a competitive show jumper, spent hours training draft horses, working at the race tracks, teaching polo, and starting colts. Consequently, she sees what many horses are capable of doing and feels that horses are more versatile than they are given credit for being. "If you want to ride western, go get that western saddle," she exclaims. "If you want to ride him in a dressage class, get your preparation on there and go do it and have fun. If you want to pull a Christmas tree out of the woods, get him prepared to do that. If you want to swim him across the pond, pick a hot day and go for it!" (authors note: be sure to remove all flash nosebands, tie downs, draw reins and any other restraint devices) "You can get all those things done with the same horse. You don't need four different horses. If you have a four wheel drive vehicle, that doesn't mean that you won't put it into two wheel drive high and go really fast. But you might find yourself in the mud and need four wheel low to get up on the pavement again."

The Goal of the Clinic is Fun

Leslie had a lot of fun with horses as a child, she explains, and she doesn't see most horse people having enough fun with their horses today. Growing up, she spent nearly every possible waking minute astride a horse and she was having a ball. "People are wanting that feeling, but many don't see a clear way to get it. There has never been a time in history where more people, who knew less about horses, owned more of them," she said. "For this reason, I am committed to helping people learn what their horse needs them to know, so the relationship is not only fun, but safe. That way, they can progress in their understanding of each other in a way that is full of sureness… and not handicapped by doubt of any kind."
One common disappointment that people have at clinics, or in an organized system of learning, is that they stop having fun with their horse in the process of trying to learn more about him. What sometimes happens is that the pressure to conform to the group or philosophy leads one to think that they can buy a technique or a piece of gear and that will convince their horse that they know more than they do. Good horsemanship is not for sale.
The clinics often become shows of sorts where folks prepare for the clinic, show up, do their best, then the horse sits until the next clinic. What Leslie wants her clinics and her work with horses and riders to produce is to empower people to have what she had when she was growing up. She was inspired. "It was me and my horse" she states emphatically. "I didn't need an audience. I didn't want one either. I didn't give a damn who was around. In fact the farther and the faster I went, the better. It was a blast! I hope that inexperienced riders will someday know the thrill of a full on gallop that is based on reciprocal sureness. It's just a sweet experience."

Biographical Information

Leslie Desmond was born in Germany in 1954 and moved to New England where she was raised in Williamstown, Massachusetts. She learned about her first horse from a neighbor who was trained in the "old school." She rode in regional jumping competitions and local gymkhana events, and then went on to coach children and new horse owners in the basics of riding and horse care. For 20 years, Leslie worked with people who needed help with their horses. Troubled horses that others had given up on were brought to her, including race horses, ponies, draft horses, jumping horses, and gaited show horses. In 1990, Leslie relocated her riding school from New Marlborough, Massachusetts, to Novato, California. In 1995, she founded Diamond Lu productions and released a three-volume set of instructional videos called Horsemanship for Children. These filled an important gap for instructors at summer camps, riding schools, 4H clubs, and pony club chapters around the world. (The children's videos will be released on DVD in Fall of 2004) In 1999, Leslie wrote and published True Horsemanship Through Feel with 93 year old Bill Dorrance. Dorrance, a consummate horseman, and widely respected rancher from Salinas, California, had dreamed of one day writing a horsemanship guide. He met Leslie in Gustine, California in Fall, 1994, and that meeting marked the beginning of Leslie's 5 year apprenticeship with Bill. "Bill shared his wisdom with me freely and this greatly expanded my appreciation of both horses and people. I am now convinced that even under the worst circumstances, a person who wants to improve his or her relationship with a horse surely can, as long as they take the time to learn about 'feel,' which is the horse's language."

While living half the year in Sweden, Leslie coaches at riding academies, police departments, and vet schools throughout Europe and Scandinavia. Her coaching includes horse handling and riding tutorials for judges, professional competitors, trainers, and racetrack personnel. "Working with children is still my favorite thing," she said. "because they are so fresh and have so little to unlearn."