This is short clip of a young Aussie trainer, Mark Langley. I think Mark and I are thinking along the same lines about directing a horse's thoughts.
This is short clip of a young Aussie trainer, Mark Langley. I think Mark and I are thinking along the same lines about directing a horse's thoughts.
Since my post criticizing the claims made by Cowboy Dressage that it is based on classical principles, I decided to look more closely at what is a central tenant of the discipline, which is ‘soft feel.’
When I was younger and a student of dressage I never once heard my teachers talk about soft feel. So when I began taking an interest in horsemanship, I was confused by this term. A lot of the trainers talked as if soft feel was important and how it changed the entire physical and emotional outlook of a horse. But when I observed what they were doing, this did not appear to be true. Their talk did not match their walk. I believe it’s still true today.
For many years I have heard, seen and read about the concept of soft feel. I have heard everybody talk about it. Those that try to teach soft feel interpret it as anything from vertical flexion of the neck to heavenly harmony of horse and human (don’t ya just luv alliteration?). It appears that different people assign different definitions to soft feel. For the most part it seems the common usage of soft feel is taught as a horse yielding to the reins through vertical flexion of the neck (whether at a stand still or in motion). However, I have seen a video clip describing it in mother earth statements that tried to convey soft feel as much more than vertical flexion without actually saying anything. It was portrayed as the ultimate achievement between man and horse, without actually saying what it is. My own view is that soft feel is not the ultimate achievement, but the very reason why so many non-dressage folks confuse soft feel and collection (which should be the goal).
Irrespective of what various teachers choose to define soft feel as being, it is my experience that they are all teaching it as one thing. Every person that comes to one of my clinics who has had previous experience with the concept of soft feel understands it as vertical flexion on a light rein contact. From memory, this is without exception whether the student has a minimum experience with the idea or is deeply entrenched and committed to the notion that soft feel is their ultimate goal. It is only after I discuss and demonstrate it at clinics that the concept of soft feel evolves beyond that for many of them.
So it doesn’t matter what trainers or clinicians say about soft feel because their students are all coming away with the same interpretation. And what they are learning (ie soft feel = vertical flexion on a light contact) has little long-term value and definitely not in anyway related to the classical principles of dressage. It is deceitful to say otherwise in my view.
I will try to expand on the problem in a little bit, but in a nutshell it comes down to the difference between lightness and softness. Just to remind people who have forgotten or have not heard my interpretation of the two concepts.
Lightness is a physical response to pressure.
Softness is an emotional response to pressure
A horse can be light, but not soft through evasion of pressure. But a horse that is soft is also light through a mental and emotional yielding to pressure.
In my research before writing this essay, I watched and studied a lot of videos, read a dozen or more articles and blogs and have concluded that almost universally that when people are talking about soft feel they are talking about lightness where the influence of the reins runs from the horse’s poll to its withers, and no further. I am sure there are a few people who get it and are not guilty of this, but from what I can find the vast majority seem to be. In all the clinics I have attended where soft feel has been discussed, people are only talking and teaching about lightness and the reins being blocked at the wither. I am sure the vast majority doesn’t even know the problem exists; yet their horses do. So cries from people that tell me I am wrong and that I don’t get it hold no sway over my opinion because the evidence is everywhere despite the rhetoric from gurus and students.
So let’s examine the basis of my concern about soft feel and why I believe it is anti-dressage and good training.
In essence, the issue is that with soft feel horses are learning to give vertical flexion in response to the feel of the reins WITHOUT influencing the topline to soften and the hindquarters to carry more weight. This makes it very (if not extremely) difficult for horses to develop self -carriage and eventually collection. Collection is the ability of a horse to soften mentally and through its whole body to raise the base of its neck, relax the muscle across the back and offer more flexion of the hocks. Whereas soft feel is simply the ability of the horse to flex its neck without pulling on the reins. See the problem?
Once soft feel is taught to a horse, it is very difficult to convince it to connect the reins through the whole horse and not just to the end of the neck. It is far easier for a horse to learn early on that the influence of the reins should go all the way to the hocks. It does take longer to teach this than it does to teach vertical flexion, but that it is because it is physically more demanding than soft feel. So connecting the reins to the entire horse (via mental and emotional comfort) needs to be done in much smaller increments as the horse both understands and builds the muscle strength to carry itself in this new correct way. Soft feel is easy to teach and requires very little muscle development from a horse. It is a trick.
I see no advantage to teaching horses soft feel. It is mostly taught as an evasion and requires no alteration of the way a horse carries itself that is much different from how it carries itself in the paddock (except for the bent neck). It offers no advantage to a horse during periods of work. On the other hand, collection has huge advantages for a horse’s physical well being during workloads. That’s why I am at such a loss to comprehend why Cowboy Dressage thinks soft feel is the pinnacle of harmony and is not interested in collection. To me, that’s like saying Ikea is the ultimate in furniture craftsmanship – looks good on the outside, but falls apart easily and not made to last.
I am excited that people from western disciplines are interested in incorporating dressage training into their ranks. I believe every horse benefits from good dressage. But the emphasis needs to be on good dressage. It doesn’t matter if you ride in a dressage saddle, western saddle, racing saddle or bareback. It is irrelevant if you use a snaffle, curb bit, double bridle, or no bit. It does not matter if you do it in an arena, on a trail, paddock or in a yard. Who cares if you ride a Warmblood, Fell Pony, Mongolian Pony or Akal-Teke. None of that stuff matters. But correctness and softness does matter and there is no substitute for it if your motive is to benefit your horse.
Photo: This horse has developed a soft feel.
The first horse that I belonged to was called Luke. Well, when he came to live with me his name was Sebastian, but I couldn’t let him carrying that burden for the rest of his life. He didn’t deserve that. So Luke became the name he answered to when I called him for dinner or when he ordered coffee at Starbucks and when the bakery asked what name he wanted on his birthday cake.
I met Luke when I was about 23 and despite many years of riding and training he was my first, but I was his fourth. At the ripe old age of 4 years old, he had changed hands 3 other times.
In later life, Luke was a mellow mature man who handled each challenge with the wisdom that age bestows. But in his young life, he was a firecracker and a cry baby. Every little inconvenience or imposition was met with tears and a tantrum. If a mosquito bit him he would insist I take him to intensive care in an ambulance with the siren blaring. If he were human he would have been a hypochondriac with a ‘chicken little’ complex. In short, he was lovable, but a pain in the arse.
But it was Luke’s propensity to overreact that alerted me to how athletic he was. His leaping in the air at the slightest distraction made me realize his potential to be a talented jumping horse. And so it was that his career path was set and we had a few years of fun and success leaping over obstacles instead of shadows.
One weekend my older brother and his family visited. My 4-year-old niece, Olivia was fascinated by Luke. I didn’t have any experience with kids, but I knew she was small and he was huge and she needed to be protected from the damage Luke could inflict on her tiny frame. But Olivia has always been a strong willed person and she insisted she be allowed to pat the horsey. Her mum and dad didn’t know anything about horses except they could hurt a grown up, which meant they could probably kill their tiny daughter. Knowing how reactive Luke could be and how wary he was of strangers, I was equally concerned about Olivia being hurt by him. However, eventually she wore us all down as children are so often apt to do. I told my brother that I would lead Luke up to the fence and if he held Olivia on the other side she would be safe to pat him. It was agreed.
Olivia was so excited that she squealed with joy as Paul picked her up. I called Luke over to me. I thought he was coming to be caught, but he walked right past me and headed straight towards Olivia on the other side of the fence. He stretched his neck out as she waved her hands around widely in front of her. Olivia whacked him in the face with her frantic arm movement and I feared he would either run away or get angry, but he just nuzzled closer and sniffed her face. She laughed raucously and whacked his face a few more times. Luke continued to explore the smells of his new mini friend. The adults all relaxed.
I took Olivia in my arms and lifted her over the fence so she could pat Luke’s sides. He stood quietly as if loving this new way of grooming. Eventually, I hoisted her onto his back and held her while she laughed and squealed excitedly. Normally I would have expected Luke to show at least a little concern, but he seemed happy to share this moment with her. After a short time Olivia’s mum noticed how dirty her clothes had become and insisted it was time to change Olivia’s clothes and the moment was gone. However, later that day I took Olivia for a ride on Luke, along with my friend and housemate Mark. Luke was the perfect gentleman in a way that he rarely was for me at this early stage of his life.
The reason I am telling this story is because I was recently reflecting how gentle some horses can be with children. Even very troubled horses will sometimes discover their inner saintliness towards children. It’s like they have a personality transplant when interacting with a small child. It’s not always true and sometimes one has to be careful how a horse will react to a child. But it is true often enough that it makes me think something unusual is going on in the way a child can affect the inside of a horse.
I don’t know why some horses seem to have a personality shift in the presence of a child. I see it more with human babies than other species. I mean Luke use to chase young goats and if he grabbed them he would toss them into the air. I had to mend many broken legs from his reaction to baby goats. And he hated calves with a vengeance. I’ve seen other horses get very stropping with the young of other species, but for some reason their reaction to humans was different.
There is something about the demeanour or smell or sound or body language or intent of children that a calms certain horses. I don’t know what it is, but maybe you do. I’d like to hear your theories. Maybe if we could bottle it and sprinkle it behind our ears we would all have really easy going and gentle horses.
Photo: I’m riding Luke with Olivia and my friend Mark acting as support crew.
We all know that in a herd of horses there is a pecking order. It is not a democracy with every horse having an equal say as any other horse. In fact, no two horses share the same space in the pecking order. There is always someone above and someone below. Sometimes horses switch places in the order as one grows more confident and another gets older and weaker. Sometimes a horse will work their way through the order by stealth and other times by sheer assertiveness. It’s a fluid existence.
Most of us have witnessed a dominant horse move another by unfiltered aggression. We see tougher horses lay down the law to more submissive horses all the time. It’s part of keeping order in the herd. And because it is so obvious when a dominant horse exerts their authority we tend to believe that’s how things get done in a herd. When one horse wants to get their way they threaten violence to the other horses until space is yielded or some form of submission is granted.
I even teach this principle at clinics. I tell people that the horse that moves the feet of the other is the one that is in charge. I usually say this at least once every clinic. But while this concept of herd dynamics and behaviour is true, it is not the whole truth. There are other truths that I don’t talk about and I don’t know anybody else who does.
It’s been my observation over many years that persistence trumps aggression when it comes to horses getting their own way. By that I mean a horse that persists on pressuring another will wear down a more dominant and assertive horse in the long run. It doesn’t mean the persistent horse becomes dominant or less submissive because the horse higher in the pecking order will still be able to move them with threats of violence. But I think what happens is the dominant horse gradually stops using strongly aggressive language. They are like mothers that are worn down by their kids until they finally tell the child, “fine, you can stay up an extra 30 minutes – but then it's straight to bed.”
I don’t think the dominant horse gives up in exasperation like a parent might, but instead they just no longer feel the need to keep demonstrating their super powers.
I’ve seen this phenomenon a lot in my life.
I first noticed it with a ram that wanted to share the horse’s grain. The horse kept chasing the ram away and even kicked it several times. The ram was protected by 12 months of wool and would only be chased off a few metres. Then when the horse would turn back the feed bin the ram would slowly creep back and inch closer and closer until the horse felt the need to attack again. But each time the ram returned it got closer to the bin before being chased away again. Within 15 minutes or so the horse and the ram were sharing the bucket of food.
I was absolutely surprised by this and wondered if there was something special about the relationship between this particular horse and ram. So I watched other interactions.
This is what I have concluded.
Firstly, it’s not an everyday day thing. Only some horses have the temperament to persist in the face of threatened violence. I feel these horses are often the ones that hang onto an idea and find letting go of a thought and behaviour difficult. They are commonly the hard ones to retrain because they are sure of what they already know and believe its ideas are what is keeping it alive.
I also believe the persistent horse can be either stoic and dull or sensitive and reactive. It’s my experience that you can’t pick which horses will wear down a dominant horse simply by whether they are easy going or emotionally fragile. They could be either or neither.
Lastly, I believe this type of relationship is almost exclusively between horses that get along okay. When they are not directly competing for food or space or water or shade or shelter etc they are comfortable in each other’s company and happy to hang out. They almost never have an adversarial relationship with constant bullying. So I’m saying that in normal day-to-day dynamics, the dominant horse tolerates the submissive horse’s company reasonably well. It’s only when they are competing for something that you see the dominant horse assert its dominance.
I grew up believing what I was told about horses in a herd. I believed the stallion kept order in the herd and the lead mare was the decision maker and responsible for finding food and water. I was told that horses assert order by the more dominant horses moving the feet of the submissive horses through threats of violence. I believed that in a stable herd the only change to the order of dominance came about because the old horses grew weak and were no longer able to assert their will over the younger horses. This was fed to me as fact. And it’s not wrong. It’s still true. But clearly, the social dynamics of a herd is much more complicated than those simple rules. The ability of a dominant horse to be bested by a submissive horse that is prepared to keep nagging to get what it wants is something nobody told me about and I wonder why.
As interesting as this phenomenon is to me, it also reveals a lie that most of us are taught and believe. That is, when working with a horse we must always be absolutely consistent so that we don’t confuse the horse. That’s how horses learn because that’s how they learn in a herd. We are told that a herd boss will always do what is necessary to get a change in a subordinate horse to maintain its dominance. It’s the consistency that provides leadership that other horses can depend on. Yet, as I have pointed out herd bosses are not always consistent. Sometimes another more persistent horse challenges their will and the boss succumbs to the will of the subordinate horse. But the pecking order is still preserved. The horse that nags and persists until they finally get their way doesn’t become the boss of the herd and the boss doesn’t fall down in the order to serve the subordinate horse. It makes me wonder what other important aspects of horse behaviour have we got wrong?
I think the lesson for me from this is that the social order of horses and how they learn and behave is far more complex than we understand. It makes me feel that our simplified understanding of horses and how they operate is too inadequate to ever see what horses are truly capable of achieving.
Photo: These are two horses from our herd. On the left LJ is asserting his dominance over Guy at feeding time. However, the photo on the right was taken less than 10 minutes later.
Today’s post is a re-visit to a pet peeve of mine.
It’s about people using stirrups that are difficult to come out of. It is a simple truth that if you have a foot caught in a stirrup, and you are dragged by a horse, you are sure to get hurt – maybe killed. Most people don’t escape injury from being dragged.
We are all aware of the importance of wearing a helmet. The safety campaign around wearing helmets has been going on for years and has been very effective. Many places insist on riders wearing a helmet. My insurance coverage requires that my students wear a helmet when riding. New standards of safety for helmets are released every 2-5 years in Australia. When we hear of a riding accident, many people ask the question, “Were they were wearing a helmet?” Yet, when a person comes off a horse there is only a small chance they will injure their head. It is still a significant chance and a good reason for wearing a helmet. But why don’t we devote as much concern to the need for appropriate safety standards for stirrups as we do for helmets?
In my experience, the people who would refuse to ride without their helmet are often the same people who give no thought to the safety of the stirrups they choose to use. Yet in my view the safety risks are far greater when riding in inappropriate stirrups than when not wearing a helmet.
Stirrups should be designed so that a rider’s foot can come out in a flash, with zero hindrance. This might be that they open up to release the foot or separate from the saddle when pressure is applied or that they are designed to allow the foot to slide out easily and quickly.
My personal view is that all stirrups should be the type that allow either the stirrup to open up or separate from the saddle because even some of the so-called “safety stirrups” can trap a rider’s foot. In either case, I think there must be a minimum standard that everybody should adopt. I’d like to see insurance companies, national governing bodies, pony club, parents and peer pressure insist on a safety standard for stirrups. I’d like to see safety stirrups be part of an equipment check before each and every competition.
I believe this is such an important issue that I don’t want to wait until I am declared Emperor of the Universe by the masses before I make this a decree. I think we should do it NOW.
Video: This is what can happen despite the rider using “safety stirrups” (the kind with the curve on the outside of the stirrup). It took many months for the rider to recover from their injuries. I think he is lucky to be alive.