Soft at the Center
Updated: Feb 16, 2020
“Soft” is a term often used in conversations regarding horsemanship. We hear about softening a horse, using soft and quiet hands, getting a soft feel, and other phrases. Softness really should be at the center of our horsemanship and it goes hand-in-hand with responsiveness.
“Softness” is simply the absence of resistance—the two are diametrically opposed. For this reason, it is a useful metric and tool to assess, address, and prevent resistance with our horses.
Softness provides a window to the horse’s mind when other indicators can be unclear or misleading. For example, if a horse is standing still but is distracted with their head up and ears perked, are they tuned in to you at all? How much effort does it take on your part before they tune back in to you and give you priority over the distraction? In horses that have been taught to soften and respond to light cues or pressures, the level of resistance equals the level of distraction. But in a horse that always has resistance and has never been taught to soften, not only are you lacking an essential tool to assess the distraction, you are completely at the mercy of how they feel in the moment.
Resistance in an otherwise soft and responsive horse becomes useful information that can steer you to choose effective measures to help them tune back in to you. Those measures are a topic in and of themselves, but softness is at the center. The ability to detect the smallest of resistances requires a lot of sensitivity and awareness on our part. That sensitivity and awareness is valuable in preventing us from causing resistance in our horses.
Most horse problem-solving issues I encounter involve teaching the horse to soften and respond with confidence, often in areas seemingly unrelated. Little wrinkles often lead to big wrinkles. Ironing out the smaller areas of resistance makes the larger ones much more manageable. This principle is a big reason for my success in teaching a horse to lay down without ropes or force.
Before teaching a horse to lay down, I work on softening and getting a good response in specific areas. When I was a child, I saw a cartoon strip in a book that showed a caveman using a hammer and chisel on a large boulder. You could see the shape of a dinosaur taking formation. An onlooker asked, “How do you sculpt a dinosaur?” He replied, “It’s easy—you simply chip away everything that doesn’t resemble a dinosaur.” If I can get a horse to respond and soften in areas they are likely to use as wrong answers (i.e. get them soft and responsive in the back up because they are likely to push forward) it becomes much easier to communicate to them that an answer is wrong. Then they’ll be quick to try a different answer instead of having a battle about the wrong one. In this way, I’m chipping away everything that doesn’t look like a lay down, making it easier for the horse to choose the lay down.
Working on getting a response to soft cues and pressures allows for more effective communication and more chances of fixing and avoiding problems before they escalate to something unmanageable and potentially dangerous. Gaining softness focuses on ironing out the wrinkles of resistance and leads to a better and safer relationship with your horse.
Remember, it’s Horsemanship NOT Forcemanship.