Filed in Category: horse training
We have discussed focus and clarity; it’s time to talk about softness.
Softness is the culmination of good quality focus and good quality clarity. If you don’t have a high enough quality of focus AND clarity, softness is not possible. Both are needed and both must be good. They don’t have to be perfect. Perfection is something you will strive towards for the rest of a horse’s life as you try to improve on the level of softness.
Many people confuse softness in a horse with lightness. They are two different things. But you can’t have softness without lightness. Yet you can have lightness without having softness. In fact, many people have light horses that aren’t soft.
Softness is a response that is both mental and physical. A soft horse is very responsive to a rider. But in addition to being responsive, he has a quiet mind. I’ve talked before about a quiet mind being alert, but calm and relaxed. A quiet mind is clear, ready but unstressed. A quiet mind is an essential element of a soft horse. If a horse has a busy mind, an anxious mind, a distracted mind, he can’t be soft. Therefore, a soft horse is one that is relaxed, yet alert and responsive.
This is different from a light horse in that lightness refers to a horse being responsive to the rider’s aids and nothing more. There is no requirement for the horse to be relaxed or have a quiet mind. A horse can be bouncing around like a balloon in a storm and still be light.
Since I proposed that an alternative training scale of focus, clarity and softness replace the established German training scale of rhythm, relaxation, straightness, impulsion, contact and collection. Let’s examine how this might work to both the trainer and horse’s benefit.
Relaxation: Since softness refers to mental softness or relaxation if you like, there is a concomitant physical relaxation that accompanies softness. A horse that is truly soft tends to work with correctness. They don’t favour working one part of their body harder than they should (except when there is a physical problem like an injury) or being stiffer on one side more than the other.
Rhythm: Rhythm is when a horse is keeping an even tempo – there is no rushing or slow up that is not initiated by the rider. As I have already said, softness is both a mental and physical relaxation. The nature of a quiet mind is that the horse’s mind is relatively unstressed but alert and listening to the rider. This comes from the focus the horse has on his rider, which in turns encourages the horse to be tuned into the energy and muscle tone of the rider. In a soft horse, the rider’s energy and muscle tone of his body offers a clear meaning as what the rider expects from the horse. This is a major factor in a horse being able to maintain a rhythm. The amount of energy a horse feels coming from a rider’s position and seat will transfer into the amount of energy a horse puts out in his movement. There is no need to be working on rhythm, if softness is already well established.
Straightness: The natural result of softness is that horses carry themselves with straightness because there is very little mental resistance that normally causes the physical resistance associated with crookedness (again this assumes no physical impairment to a horse’s movement). Most crookedness in a horse comes from a mental resistance to the rider’s seat, legs and reins. It’s based in how a horse feels about the work. A horse can only be soft when he feels okay inside because as I said, a large part of softness is mental relaxation. So get a horse soft and most straightness issue disappear.
Impulsion: Impulsion is the effort a horse puts into movement. It is not related to forwardness or how quickly he moves. It relates to effort. Even a horse at a slow walk can have good impulsion if the slow walk is under the rider’s direction. Just like rhythm, impulsion comes from a horse having a quiet mind and being responsive to the aids. When a horse is soft in mind and body, impulsion from a horse is available.
Contact: This one always gets me into trouble with dressage riders. Most people think of contact as the amount of rein pressure a rider offers a horse. But in my view, contact is the amount of rein pressure required to get a change in a horse’s thought. A good contact is the least amount of rein needed to cause the horse to make a change. In some horses you need kilograms of rein pressure to get a change and other horses require a feel of little more than the weight of the reins. Both are contact. If you don’t cause a horse to make a change, you don’t have contact.
But of course, the contact we should strive towards is when the least amount of input from the reins creates the required change in a horse’s thought. In my opinion, if you can get a horse to respond to the most imperceptible change in feel of the reins, you are better than the next bloke. But this is where you can see how people confuse softness with lightness. If you only get a change in a horse’s feet, you have lightness. But if you can get a change in thought, then you have softness.
Collection: I won’t go into what collection is because this essay is already running too long. Let me just say that according to the German training scale, collection is the end product of rhythm, relaxation, straightness, impulsion and contact. It’s what can be achieve when all those 5 others elements are in place. If any are missing or are not to a high enough quality, collection becomes elusive.
But as I have just shown if you have softness, your horse already has the 5 elements of the German training scale in place. The ability to achieve collection in a horse is already available in a horse that exhibits softness. In fact, I will say that true collection is not possible without softness. There are lots of horses and some even performing at a high level, that exhibit faux collection because softness is lacking.
Conclusions: I hope I have not made it sound like training or achieving focus, clarity and softness are easy. It’s bloody hard. It takes hundreds and sometimes thousands of hours to accomplish a level of these things that are worth showing people. Nothing is black and white. Every element is somewhere on the scale between totally wrong to the best that could be. When softness is lacking, look back at your horse’s focus and/or your clarity. But most importantly don’t forget that even though a horse’s movement comes from his physical side, the quality of the movement comes from his mental and emotional side.