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How I Came to "Feel and Release"

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I was born in England, lived in Scotland, then in France for six years. At age five I was riding my first pony, Caravel. When we moved to France I enjoyed good times at equestrian centers near Paris and have great memories of galloping bareback along the fire breakers in the forests of Maisons-Lafittes. karenm roanaI had a 12.1 cracker of a Welsh pony Roana (right), and we traveled quite a bit in our rusty trailer to breed shows and one day events. Most memorable moments were riding at the Salon du Cheval in Paris, and the championships at Fontainebleau. We returned to England when I was 12. Roana and I had a last fling on the pony club Prince Philip Cup mounted games team. As a teenager, I rode a dynamite Irish mare, Storm Bay, who could jump the moon. She was wise, I trusted her completely, and we understood each other. No one was allowed a disparaging thought about that mare, if they knew what was good for them! I believed in her to the core. We enjoyed the beautiful and varied bridleways in the area, competed together on the pony club showjumping and eventing teams, and had a lot of fun with the Tetrathlon team too. My most memorable moment in the U.K. was riding the cross country course at Windsor Great Park -- what a special feel there is to that place. I was fortunate to have local access to some quality instruction: a coach who was trained at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna and a local family who rode Badminton, among other terrific coaches.

I went to study Cognitive Sciences and Computing and Artificial Intelligence at Sussex University, which fuelled my interest in psychology. During my career in software technology, I met my husband Tom, and moved to Ohio, USA, in 1994. We have two wonderful daughters, Camille and Heather. When I moved to the US I soon had an OTTB (Off the Track ThoroughBred), Cassidy, or Just Plain Hector, his jockey club name, then Chase, my tall, red Holsteiner, who together showed me how important it is to understand and develop true 'feel'.

I was thrilled to start The Art of Riding™ in 2004 and offer coaching in horsemanship through feel: I combine my passion for horses and coaching, life long experience with horses and fascination for psychology with a sincere desire to inspire and assist my students on their own journey with horses.

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Three horses that will forever live in my horsemanship

karenm sequin

Every horse has something to teach and here are three special ones who offered something that would define my horsemanship. Sequin (a.k.a StormBay) carried the scars of chafing harness from an earlier life, had a lion-heart and lived to age 37. She was 35 when I last rode her, for old times’ sake. A walk-trot ride I thought, protectively. She had other ideas! Eventually, in a grassy field, I went with her and she let rip at a gallop. It proved to be our last ride together, and was most fitting. Sequin had taught me the exhilaration of being a partner with my horse through every terrain and over every style of cross country obstacle. She taught me about riding in the moment with trust in my horse and myself. She was really something.

karenm lesliecallie

 Two other horses have touched my horsemanship to the core in a different way: Chase and Callie, Leslie’s saddle horse. Chase and Callie are the sort of horses that have deep rooted pride, immense presence and innate sureness – they “fill their skin”. Both are most sensitive and value their dignity as well as the full availability of their athletic capacity. They have a relentless integrity to their nature as horses, which is to operate off feel: neither is apt to “fill in” for a handler or rider request in a manner that would require them to mask the true feel offered in that presentation. Many horses replace this natural response to feel with a learned response. Through the integrity with which these two horses reflect my presentation, and the clarity with which they express themselves, they teach with great purity about feel.

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This is a gift: they feel what every horse feels but might not express. They add depth to what I bring to every horse I encounter. When a horse discards feel in favour of a cued response, you lose his truth -- he dulls his natural connection to his world and to the human. When he abandons feel, he abandons his natural lightness, which is the only kind there really is.


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How Chase led me to discover “just release”

For years I worked with Chase using the approach known as “pressure and release”. We developed a connection in our groundwork that I had not known was possible. The discovery of how the release teaches the horse when he is right changed my horsemanship forever. I thought things were going well, until I saw resentment show up in Chase. I puzzled over what in my presentation was causing this: horses don’t lie. With many unresolved questions floating in my head, I stopped being truly present with Chase and began doubting myself. I rode with less sureness. My inner lack of clarity confused my presentation, particularly under saddle. The Chaser, as Leslie would put it later, is a “humdinger” of a horse and needs a supremely confident rider with a clear head! Our relationship was not thriving…

Eventually I understood that although Chase was responding to requests expressed in my body language alone, he still felt pressured: the intent in the request was still rooted in pressure towards him. His other option was to evade in some way, with the promise of… pressure. Even with the consistency of a timely release, to Chase, pressure lived in the relationship between us and this did not fit him. I had to adjust my presentation, somehow.

In April 2007, I met Leslie Desmond. I brought Chase to Leslie and she used him as a demonstration horse for her sessions at the Ohio Equine Affaire (EA).

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Learning from Leslie and Chase at the Equine Affaire

Leslie showed how to free Chase’s mind, and shape his natural lightness through ‘release’ on the ground: no pressure, just release. She showed me how to ride through ‘release’, while she was teaching Chase (right) about this -- in the cold wind and the chaos of the warm-up area at EA! This twenty-minute ride from Leslie brought much clarity to both of us. Yet I asked a confirming question, I was doubting myself! “If you can’t see it, you won’t get it, trust what you just saw, now RIDE”. It was the best ride I’d had on Chase. I was riding in the moment with sureness again, and getting a feel for just ‘releasing’: freeing and shaping that life Chase has, by releasing the mind through clarity in what we mean by what we do; offering sureness about my intent through my seat, line of sight and release of the reins to free the shoulder, neck and rib cage. The feel between us showed up right there.

karenm chase

Leslie’s approach touched Chase’s whole being. He was sure and he was proud. His heart was safe and, in this state of mind, his ‘try’ included everything he had to offer, without hesitation. Pressure did not live in Leslie’s requests, just release. To Chase, this meant the world.

I found that many aspects of my experience with my coaches and my horses in Europe dovetail beautifully with True Horsemanship Through Feel. My knowledge of ‘pressure and release’ and studies in biomechanics also helped me to see and understand what Leslie was doing and its effect on the horses.

Leslie helped me to see that my relationship with Chase (right) was actually intact and had helped us get back on track. She said the gift of feel was mine for the asking: “Karen, you are doing a lot better than you realize, so go, now fly! Chase is waiting and you surely are ready. Just add these new pieces to what you already know and do…and pass it along to others when you can.”

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Moving forward -- at warp speed!

I went home to work on developing these skills. In September, five months later, I had the opportunity to host and participate in a trainers’ clinic with Leslie in my home town of Granville Ohio. Six weeks after that, I was California bound for her “total immersion” trainers’ clinic in the desert -- at Four Points Ranch in the tiny town of Aguanga.

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Trainers' clinic in the desert: riding through feel with Callie

I had the opportunity to work with six wonderful horses of very different types -- each offering its own far reaching lessons. Leslie offered me the opportunity to ride Callie, her saddle horse. And it was Callie who would add immense depth and clarity to what I had already learned from Leslie about what it means to ride with lightness, through release and how truly different this feels to the horse.

karenm callieCallie(left) also plainly showed me the importance of knowing how to preserve your horse’s diagonals beneath you -- in any gait, speed, turn or other sort of challenge -- for balanced locomotion. Another big lesson was to appreciate how powerful a decisive line of sight can really be. She educated me about really freeing up to go and really stopping -- from a feel deep inside ourselves. Callie is present, sure and wise. These qualities in her took me on a blast to the past -- there was a feel to this that was just like Sequin (see above). She gave me a refresher course on that feeling of exhilaration and the importance of trust, without which you block your ability to ride in the moment and therefore your ability to feel of your horse. Most of all she expressed to me, with great clarity, how different riding styles feel to a horse. Callie had a profound effect on my riding. She deepened my understanding of these key concepts in a practical way, that I will carry to the next horses I ride and experiences I have.

The quality of information and the practical opportunity Leslie delivered at this clinic were outstanding. She taught with sincerity, mastery, integrity, endurance, patience and heart. The depth of what I learned is still being revealed as I move onward. I am writing a collection of articles and will publish these on my Web site at My goal is to keep this experience alive, savour it, process it, develop it and share it with my students.


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Philosophy and Approach to Coaching

"Bill’s book ["True Horsemanship Through Feel", by Bill Dorrance and Leslie Desmond] makes so much more sense after seeing how we are working with my horse. My horse is getting so clear in his understanding now, compared with pressure/release used before." a student and first time horse-owner told me after her first few lessons. "It’s very exciting!" It is: it touches and lifts the spirit to see how the horse opens his mind and his try. This is my goal, to help you help your horse understand how to give you his best and to offer it to you -- through an exchange of clearly understood, reciprocal feel.

As your coach, it is my pleasure to explore your goals and help you acquire the skills you need with your horse to achieve them. I will help you gain more confidence in the moment, by not focusing on the past or the future. In this state of awareness you will experience the two way flow of feel more fully. I will help you to see the horse’s perspective and to understand how the horse needs to move to offer what you ask with lightness, using his natural athletic ability -- and how to stay out of his way. We talk about the psychology, the how’s and the why’s. Knowledge, I believe, leads to greater understanding and confidence, both of which help you cultivate better feel. Together, we interpret the horse’s feedback, and learn how to adjust as needed to keep the ride in balance and have FUN!

The important things to me in a student -- be they beginner or advanced -- are an open mind and a desire to develop a better connection with your horse. When we develop our powers of concentration, observation and feel it becomes obvious that the horses are crystal clear that this approach through release frees them to perform for you with heart.

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Enjoy your journey!

Karen Musson

Hector's Hill Farm

Granville, OH 43023

(740) 973-4234


The Art of Riding™
© Karen Musson 2007, All rights reserved.


Mark Rashid


"I see an 'opening' as anything that allows us to help guide, however briefly, an individual in the direction we ultimately would like to go. An 'opening' can be, and often is, a very subtle form of communication between horse and rider that can easily slip past us if we're not paying attention. 'Openings' can and do work both ways. [...] It amazes me just how small an 'opening' can actually be, whether working with horses or with people, and how easy it can be to create an 'opening' when one is needed."

Mark Rashid

"I truly believe developing the ability to see and use 'openings' effectively is only one piece of what one might refer to as the 'harmony in horsemanship' puzzle. When this idea of understanding 'openings' is brought together with the understanding of two other simlar ideas - making a connection with another indvidual, and the role distance plays in overall communication - I believe it is then that harmony in horsemanship becomes a much less daunting concept for us."

Mark Rashid

Leslie Desmond


"Bill knew about a place I did not know existed, or could exist, between a horse and a human being [...] Bill included each one of my horses in that information exchange. Over the course of many months,... he took each one by its lead rope and, later, by the bridle reins. Using what he called his 'better feel', Bill showed me and each of them exactly what he meant by what he did [...] It was not long after I made the switch from force when needed (often) to always customizing the feel I offered to a horse, that two tough horses I had misunderstood for years developed into my most reliable mounts."

Leslie Desmond

The lightest hands carry intent that is recognized instantly by the horse, as seen in the maneuvers he chooses to make with his feet. Whether that horse is ridden or handled, the lightest hands can purposefully influence the speed, direction and sequence of each foot with accuracy, in a manner that is reflected in the horse's body and on his face.

Leslie Desmond

Bill Dorrance


"The Real Masters Understood Feel [...] For example, De Kerbrech, (French officer in the cavalry of Napoleon III) really understood horses. He had it fixed up so the horse could succeed. [...] The first time I read Beudant's book was in the 1950s. The way he explained things, there was no doubt in my mind about what a person needed to do to get these little things working for them and their horse."

Bill Dorrance

“Feel, timing and balance: sometimes it’s best to talk about feel, timing and balance separately, and to learn how to apply each thing separately on the start. But when you apply these three things a little later in your training, then you see that each one of these things supports the other. They are interconnected and all three are real important. You really can’t get along without all three.”

Bill Dorrance

Faverot de Kerbrech


“ le deplacement du poids est facile dans tous les sens, plus l'equilibre est parfait. En vertue de ce principe, on dit que le cheval est 'en equilibre' quand de simples indications suffisent au cavalier pour modifier a son gre la disposition du poids sur ses colonnes de soutien”

Faverot de Kerbrech

[Translation: ...the easier it is to shift the weight in any direction, the more perfect the balance. By virtue of this principle, the horse is 'in balance' when a simple indication from the rider is sufficient to modify the distribution of weight across the columns of support (four quarters) accordingly]

Duke of Newcastle


"You must in all Airs follow the strength, spirit, and disposition of the horse, and do nothing against nature; for art is but to set nature in order, and nothing else."

William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle

"A confrontational approach ‘Astonishes the Weak Horse […] makes a Furious horse Madd; makes a Resty Horse more Resty […] and Displeases all sorts of Horses’. The alternative however is not ‘to Sit Weak […] but to Sit Easie’, in the understanding that ‘The Horse must know you are his Master’"

William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle