softness

HorseIf you have ever seen Mark Rashid's clinics or read any of his books then softness is probably a concept that you have heard something about. What we are talking about are some really positive qualities in the connection between the horse and rider that are based on mutual trust, relaxation and ultimately peace.

Softness and connection can't come from horse training alone, nor from applying technique, however well this is done, it goes deeper than that.

Horsemanship is all about softness

For many years I worked hard and even travelled the world looking for trainers that could help me to learn this or that technique to help me to ride and train a calm, relaxed and thinking horse. There's nothing wrong with the objective of having a calm and relaxed horse, the problem is thinking that technique is going to be the only way to get there.

Mark Rashid helped me to see that technique is only going to get us a certain way along the path, after that what we have to offer softness, consistency, quiet and dependability so that the horse comes to trust us and feel at peace when we are around. That seems to be at the core of everything that we do with our horses whether they are foals or established working horses. "Its all about softness".

There is a world of difference between a horse that is soft, relaxed and together with his human partner and one that is worried, tight and tense. The first may well have a low head, a soft, gentle eye and a relaxed body, the second is tight with a high head carriage, he may find it hard to keep his feet still, the mouth may be closed tight and eyes focused and looking for danger.

Being prey animals, horses have highly developed survival instincts which can cause changes of behaviour in an incredibly short space of time in order to protect them from threats. Very often we put horses in a situation which they naturally find very frightening and it is our responsibility to show them, right from the outset, that they will be better able to cope with our world if they can find a way to softness. A horse that has been consistently rewarded for getting soft, using only the muscles that are needed for the specific task in hand, lowering the head and (very importantly) breathing well is more and more likely to consider softness as an option when faced with a troubling situation.


Photo by Matthew Roberts from The BHS Book of the le April 2008

To me, this principle lies at the very core of all training with our horses. Right from our very first interactions with a young horse the goal is to start soft and end soft. What takes place in the middle may not always be soft, and that can't always be avoided but the key is to end soft so that we can build for the next day.

As a foundation a horse needs to learn how to go forwards, back, stop, start and turn left and right with a rider on his back. Of course, we are not "teaching" them any of these movements, they can do them within an hour of being born, but they need to learn to do them softly with us riding or at the end of a lead rope. There is a world of difference between a horse performing these simple movements in a soft and relaxed way and one that is carrying a lot of brace in its muscles and resisting the rider.

At one end of the spectrum we can connect with the very core of the horse where anything is available and freely offered; that is softness. When we have a light horse everything seems fine on the outside, until it is not. This is lightness, a pretty picture but without the inside of the horse and the inside of the person being available. At the other end of the spectrum is a worried, braced horse with head held high and instinctive responses not far away.