The Best Reward is a Built-in One

According to Leslie Desmond, you should train your horse so the entire process is well-understood and pleasing. If you do, then that becomes his ongoing reward.

Leslie Desmond demonstrates how feel and intent (gaze and body language, plus mental focus) can move a horse even when no other pressure is applied. She offers

In the March ’09 H&R, the feature “Just Rewards” explains how to use rewards of different types to reinforce the behavior and responses you want in your horse. At the end of that article, we promised more on clicker training, plus an explanation of a different approach to providing rewards, from clinician Leslie Desmond:

  • Clicker-training basics from On Target Training? expert Shawna Karrasch
  • “The Best Reward Is A Built-In One,” featuring Leslie Desmond (see this article)

Horsewoman Leslie Desmond believes pressure-and-release, the time-honored method of influencing a horse to do our bidding, often results in too much pressure. Even though the release provides the “reward” of negative reinforcement (as explained in the feature “Just Rewards” in the March 2009 issue of Horse & Rider), she contends it still results in more coercion than is necessary or ideal.

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 45 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 natural-horsemanship master Bill Dorrance, brother of Tom), says there’s a key difference between what she advocates and the “put up and shut up” approach often practiced today. She’s 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.

“Horsemanship through feel has reward for the horse built in,” she explains. “Ideally, I want a horse’s understanding of my actions to feel so good that a reward–or praise for ‘putting up with me’ during a ride or in a groundwork session–is just not something either of us is thinking about.”

She accomplishes this by adjusting her feel–her approach to the horse–in such a way that “it becomes impossible for the horse not to want to go along.”

How exactly do you get there from here? It’s not easy, and in fact Desmond has made that journey her life’s work. Her take on things is unconventional enough that some 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.

“I’m not big on dominating a horse,” she emphasizes. “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.”

That means a light tap on a rope, rather than a pull or a swinging stick, is often all you need to get a horse’s attention.

“When you pull on a horse, he learns about pulling,” she says. “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 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.”

To lead a horse using “float,” for example, you must allow some space between you and the horse.

“You show respect by not crowding his space,” she explains. “A horse doesn’t learn to respect you by being disrespected himself.” Once you stop thinking in terms of drawing him with the rope, she says, you may be surprised how willingly he learns to follow on a slack lead.

To maneuver a horse from the ground, you simply focus intently on the space you want him to leave.

“You must claim it, in other words, and telegraph your intent by using your gaze and your body language. Think about what happens when you’re driving a car,” she adds. “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 an essential component of Desmond’s approach.

“Horses are easy to dominate, but that’s no reason to do it,” she maintains. “It’s like the difference between being a loving, supportive parent, and a detached, demanding one. 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.”

Horses do have a deep-rooted desire to please. “They just want a role that makes sense to them,” she concludes. And when you give them that, the reward is built in.

For more information on Desmond’s approach, go to

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