The Trail Less Traveled Interviews Leslie Desmond

Story by Emily Kitching. Excerpts from the article published in the October 1997 issue of The Trail Less Traveled

Another summer, with its clinics, trail rides, and longer days to spend with your horses, has come and gone. Fall is a fitting time to take a look at yourself and your horse and think about evaluating your horsemanship.

Where did you start? Where are you now? Where would you like to go? These are important questions to ask. And, they will be difficult to answer.

Horsemanship is a tricky thing to try and measure. You can look at someone ride and see that they are a true horseman. You may watch some folks with their horses and know that they are not. You may try and evaluate your own horsemanship and find that you have difficulty trying to get a feel for 'where' your horsemanship is.

Because of the number of riders they encounter and number of hours they spend in the saddle, clinicians are a great resource. Emily Kitching, editor of The Trail Less Traveled, spoke with clinicians on how they evaluate themselves as horsemen, and their experience with countless others who come to them for help in their clinics.

Here are comments from respected clinician Leslie Desmond.

TLT: How do you define "horsemanship"? How would you define progress as it relates to horsemanship?
Leslie Desmond: "It is largely a matter of intent. No matter where a person is in the journey with their horse--for better or worse--where a person is will ultimately reflect their intentions. Self-discipline and consistency are a big part of this, but without self-acceptance and an exquisite patience for oneself and the horse, the value of self-discipline and consistency are compromised.

Beyond that, an accurate view of what is taking place from the horse's point of view, clear thoughts about the horse's requirements in each moment, and consistent, well-timed responses applied with feel are what separate good horsemen from the other kind. Progress and horsemanship is anything that feels better than it did before."

TLT: What makes you want to continue to improve your horsemanship?

LD: "Nothing 'makes' me want to. The horses and the people who love and care for them inspire me to improve. That's a lot different than 'make'."

TLT: What do you see as your greatest strengths as a horseman?

LD: "My experience of countless thousands of hours spent watching horses move and interact together. Since 1957 my keenest focus has been the horse. Nothing has or ever will change that. I continue to discover new things about them all the time."

TLT: What is your greatest area to improve on?

LD: "To cut myself some slack. This is not easy for me, but as I experiment, I see that horses and people both respond to me a lot better when I do."

TLT: How do you keep yourself excited about improving your horsemanship?

LD: "I consider the alternative."

TLT: How do you assess where you are in terms of your horsemanship?

LD: "I look at my horses, I look at my teacher's horses, and I look at my student's horses. Then, I try not to judge myself, or them, but instead to sense how the knowledge and ability I've got so far could improve the situations I see. Sometimes I see they could, other times I know they won't. It all depends. And, of course, you have to decide sometimes whether a given situation is even worth the effort it would require to change it--and this goes for the person as well as the horse."
TLT: Do you set goals for yourself?

LD: "In a conventional sense, I do not. Like anyone else, I am attracted to the experience of the actual pictures and sounds I carry around in my head. That is why I am vigilant about protecting my mind from influences that discourage me from living to my fullest potential in any given moment.

The lessons I got early on about goal-setting by definition did not take into account the process of reaching them. So, my first objective is to always understand and feel good about my reason for having the goal in the first place. If it doesn't feel good and it isn't fun, I figure it was probably someone else's goal for me. And I scrap it out. That frees me up to be completely in the moment, which is where the horse lives, and that is my goal--to be there."

TLT: What are your current goals?

LD: "I am completing the book on horsemanship that Bill Dorrance and I started almost two years ago. I have a new set of videos in the works, about half-finished. Beyond that I am learning how people in other parts of the world view the horse and themselves as horsemen and horsewomen. When I'm not riding at the clinics, I practice the way I did when I rode the best--and those were in my earliest days horseback--which was bareback. This is improving my balance over fences, and I'm swinging a rope for the moment when I'll be able to do some good with it."

TLT: In general, do you think that people push themselves too much or not enough?

LD: "Yes, I think they do both and speaking of pushing, when was the last time someone pushed you? How did that feel? One thing for sure, if I push myself, I push my horse. I decided the first time I saw Tom Dorrance and Ray Hunt in 1990 that I wanted to stop doing that. I saw that tendency and an enemy in my own camp. By the time I was 3, that push was so deeply instilled in my brain as "the way to get things done" that it poisoned my outlook on myself. I was fortunate to see Tom and Ray in succession during the first 90 days I was on the West Coast. I was so established in 'the push' that at 43 I am still in the process of unlearning it."

TLT: In the clinics, in general, do you feel that people are making progress in their horsemanship?

LD: "I see a lot of good things happening at these clinics. Yet today, the horse has to depend on the human for his living. And to do so in a peaceful way, a way that feels good to the horse, he must adjust to fit the human who cannot, or has not yet learned to adjust to fit him. This is a big problem for most horses.

That is where I see the most good coming from clinics: It is the moment when each person finally realizes, as I continue to learn with my own horses, that the horse is not the problem. Their horse has, or has in the past had, a problematic human being running the show. The problem in the human is reflected in the horse. The horse is just who he is.

Until a person faces up to the changes necessary in themselves, they quite likely won't see their dreams about themselves as horsemen and horsewomen reflected back to them in their horse. But, when they do, chances are better than ever that they will. And that is what inspires me to continue on."

TLT: Do you feel that folks are working?

LD: "Yes. That is just the problem, they are 'working' for a goal, when the goal is the process itself. To 'work for' something is to pursue it in the time-honored tradition of--'to work is to suffer and to suffer is noble and since there is no animal so noble as the horse, then to "work your horse" is a most notable endeavor.'

Is it? When is the last time you were 'worked'? How did that feel? You chase the heart away when you 'work' a thing--be it a concept, an object or a being. Keep 'pushing it', keep 'working it' and you'll chase away the soul. As most people know, the world is full of horses whose souls retired long before their working days were over.

You know the expression 'round pen'? Well, round pen yourself. Fix and wait. Don't push. Don't 'work for' it. Don't be a slave to the pressure. You can't take the pressure off the horse if you can't take it off yourself.

What I find works best for me, and for people I know well, is to feed and nourish the process of learning. I mean exactly this: Encourage it, forgive it, play with it. Just like the horses do with each other. Enjoy the process, and you will learn to love it and you will make friends with the parts of yourself that you learned to hate when you learned early on about learning; the self-doubt and loathing that accompanied the fear of failure is the death knell to the learning process.

Fear is the closing down of a thing, and it ensures the cessation of positive energy. It is a sorry motivation for learning how to be with a horse. On this point I speak from personal experience. But these conclusions I also make from similar thoughts shared with me by dozens of people breaking out of this head trip. Horses motivate people to acquire this freedom."

TLT: Any suggestions for folks to help them get after it and work hard?
LD: "Yes. Ease off."

TLT: Any words of encouragement for people who may get discouraged and feel like they are not getting anywhere?

LD: "Yes. Start having fun with your horse. Play! Spend time with horse people that you respect. Be patient with yourself and your horse. Keep trying a bit at a time, and remember to reward your own slightest effort. If that is not possible to do, do your horse a favor and sell him. That will free up your time for a hobby you can truly enjoy."

TLT: How should someone go about setting goals? What are realistic expectations?

LD: "Look to the horse for that answer. There are no set guidelines for this. It all depends on so many things."

Does he live in a stall or in a pasture? Is he alone or does he live with other horses? What has he done and seen throughout his life with other horses and humans? Are you taking lessons? Is your horse manageable now? What do your horse's physical capacities enable him to do? Do they complement your riding goals?

And you? How much time do you have to spend with your horse? What are your resources--do you own a trailer? Do you have trails nearby? Do you show your horse? Do you have a financial, professional, emotional support for this? What sort of learner are you?"

TLT: Do you think it is important to progress? Why?

LD: "Yes, for the horse's sake if not for anyone else's. But the question is, what sort of progress are we talking about? Are we talking about faster times and more ribbons? Or, are we talking about loading into a trailer without stress? The two can go right together. But getting back to 'progress', it all depends on how progress is defined, by whom and for what reasons."