Sunday, August 8, 2010

Relaxation and Softness - a Photo Essay

All Dawn and I worked on this morning was relaxation and softness, in the walk and back for a little bit and then a lot at the trot. I need to get these building blocks in place on a consistent basis before we move on to more transition and lateral work and move up to the canter. If we don't have relaxation and softness on a consistent basis, we've got nothing to work with. Dawn and I are very close to having this but it's going to take a little more work.

Before I bridled Dawn, I asked her to do some stretches with treats - to each side and also stretching down between her front legs. She's very stiff laterally and we'll need to do more on this - I also think carrots as opposed to treats might improve her stretching as she prefers those! Dawn's body build also makes it hard for her to stretch her neck to the side. She has a short neck, and due to the way she's historically carried herself, she has lots of muscling at the base of her neck that makes it hard for her to stretch laterally. As you'll see in the pictures that follow, Dawn is short-coupled and compact with a short back, and she's built somewhat downhill with her hindquarters somewhat higher than her withers, which can make it harder work for her to do what I'm asking. We're in the process of remodeling her muscles to help her carry herself better, and the effects of that are beginning to come through.

After I bridled and before I got on, I did an inventory of my body with my eyes closed, area by area and muscle group by muscle group, working on feeling any tension and relaxing it, paying particular attention to my jaw, neck, shoulders, hips and lower back. Then, once I was mounted, as we were warming up at the walk on a loose rein, I worked on moving with the horse without tension in my body.

A lot of people ask what is softness, and how do you know when you've got it? The answer isn't straightforward. It isn't head set or whether the face is vertical, although a soft horse will carry its head in a certain way. It isn't being "on the bit" particularly if that means the horse is leaning and pushing on the bit with tension in its jaw, neck and body. It's as much a feel as anything else, and if the feel isn't there the posture, no matter how perfect it looks, doesn't matter. The horse's overall expression is a good tip-off - if the ears, eyes, mouth and tail are relaxed, that means something. I was lucky this morning - my husband came by this morning and took lots of pictures of Dawn and me at work, and I'll describe what's happening in each of them.

First, a series of pictures at the walk.

Despite the vertical face, this isn't soft. She's relaxed the joint between neck vertebrae one and two, but that's all - her neck is still braced. And note that her hindquarters appear to be trailing behind.

Now we're beginning to get somewhere, but we're not there yet - she's working hard as you can see from her facial expression. She's stepping under herself better, and starting to relax her neck, but notice that the muscles in her neck are tensed and that she's only really relaxed as far back as three or so vertebrae. Notice that she's pushing on the bit - that's the neck tension in action - and is slightly behind the vertical.

Now this is more like it. Note the lack of tension in the neck, and that she's not pushing on the bit - she's just carrying herself. Even her legs look more relaxed, she's lifting her top line and her face (what we can see of it) looks good too. This picture goes with an overall feel, which once you've felt it you can't mistake for anything else.

Now, some backing. Note in the pictures that my hands don't move - I'm not pulling her backwards - if I were, she'd never get a release when she softened.

This isn't terrible, but there's some bracing - note the tension on the bit and mouth, the facial expression and ears, the tail and the face slightly behind the vertical.

Still braced - note the tension in the neck muscles and behind the vertical:

Better - note the softer facial expression and ears, and how her body seems to have shortened back to front - that means she's lifting herself from behind. There's also less pressure on the reins, although there's still some. The whole picture isn't quite where I want it to be yet, although we're close - our backing needs more work.

We only did a little bit of lateral work since that wasn't our focus, but she thought hard about what we were doing and this picture is pretty soft:

Then, we did a lot of work at the trot, and here are a number of pictures of our work. As we were working, she was not continuously soft, although we got a number of intervals of softness - she gets her own release when this happens and you'll be able to see this in the picture. She's still figuring things out, and and I think it'll come together into consistency pretty soon. If I'd presented the pictures in the order they happened, there would have been moments of bracing, followed by moments of softening, then bracing, then softening, and so on. To make this post more coherent, I've put the order of the photos from braced, to better, to almost there, to just about what I want so you can more easily see the differences.

First, here are a group of pictures showing bracing.

This first picture is an example of what Dawn used to do constantly - go behind the bit while tilting down on her forehand. This isn't soft, and she can't use her hindquarters properly, and there's no relaxation in the topline behind the withers. A lot of horses will do this, particularly if they were trained by people who focus on head set and use gadgets like drawreins or bitting rigs to train - this position gets you nowhere in the long run.

Here the face is vertical, but that doesn't mean much - there's a lot of tension in her neck and she's only let go with a couple of vertebrae - the rest of her neck is solidly braced. You see a lot of this posture in the show ring in a number of disciplines - it's just head set without softness. Notice that she isn't getting a release despite her head position.

Same thing, with the head in front of the vertical:

A pretty good full-body brace going on:

This is slightly better - she's thinking about beginning to relax, although the softness isn't there yet:

Now here's a set of pictures that are "almost there". In this first picture, she's just about to let go with her head and neck - the facial expression and lack of tension around the mouth mean we're close:

Still a little tension in the neck, although there's a lot of relaxation and "swing" in the body, and she's working on letting go in her lower neck - you can see her thinking about it:

Very close - there's still a bit of tension in the neck and slight pressure on the bit, and note that the lower part of the neck is still pretty straight, although she's starting to use her back:

We've got some nice relaxation going here, and the tension in her neck is starting to ease up, and note the relaxed face and tail:

Now here are a few pictures that show how well she did at certain moments.

Here's a head-on picture that shows how well she can use her hindquarters when she's soft - there's almost no tension in this picture:

The next two pictures were taken only seconds apart. In the first one, we're so close - she's still slightly on the forehand and there's a little residual tension in the neck, and she's not gotten a release from the reins yet:

Here it is - this is very close to what I want - the hind legs are stepping under, she's shortened her body and lifted her back and there's almost no tension. If you compare her face below to her face in the previous photo, the second photo shows slightly more relaxation, especially in the mouth and eyes, and she's given herself a release - there's still a feel of soft contact but no tension in the reins:

In addition to achieving consistency, there are still some refinements to be made, but consistency has to come first. Eventually, when she's consistently able to use her core and relax her entire topline, and has remodeled the muscles in her neck and shoulders, and is able to use her hindquarters to elevate her front end, I think her head carriage may be a little lower with her poll not the highest point, but she'll let me know what is right as we continue her work. She's a delight to work with, and will continue to make rapid progress, I believe. I hope these photos made some sense of the look of relaxation and softness, which can be difficult to describe in words - I wish the feel of it could be communicated through the internet!


  1. And the "feel" is the whole key---but the pictures do a good job.

    So many people focus too much on the head and neck forgetting that sense of "throughness" a good ride offers. Tucker is short coupled and short necked too, so I know that feeling. It is much harder to make him supple and personally, I think the lateral work is a bit more difficult too.

    Nice job, and super explanations.

  2. When I first started riding , I began to think that riding horses was one of the most subtle sports in existence. Getting the "feel" was all everyone talked about it and I feared that not only did I not have it, I couldn't imagine ever having it! Now I think riding horses is like meditation. Experience helps a lot! Boy is Dawn gorgeous! I do love a bay! I love the pictures in this post. SO HELPFUL. You couldwrite a book, you know! Maybe you already have and I just don't know!

  3. An excellent post. The photographs are very helpful and you explain everything so clearly. Thanks.

  4. A nice set of photos, with good explanations. Thanks for taking the time to go through all the movements and explanations.

  5. Love the photos with your explanation. You look like you are making progress.

  6. Dawn looks like she is recognizing what you want and softening in response a lot of the time. I am sure it feels nice when you are riding and she gives you the soft response - success!

  7. Great photos and what a lucky mare to have such a wonderful mum who is so understanding.Reading your posts is a wonderful learning experience. I often ride my horses thinking about your recounts with Dawn.

  8. Awesome! Love the pictures and descriptions. I really understand what you are aiming for! Well done!

  9. Lovely progression of photos, and a positive outcome for the session. Well done, very interesting! You guys look super :)

  10. I think I'll just plan on flying to Illinois. :)

    This helps a great deal to understand what you mean.

  11. Kate,
    This post is fascinating - very descriptive and helpful, and terrific photographs. Thanks for sharing so much detail. I learn a lot from you.

  12. Brilliant sequences and descriptions - agree you can't pass on the feel as much as when you are up there in the saddle but good images are second best way :)
    Good luck with further work!

  13. Wonderful post!

    I love that you actually get to see some of the struggle; that it isn't something that's accomplished instantly.

    I was taught by western riders what getting soft is, and they generally connect it with rounding up or picking up the belly (which you mentioned), so I tend to think of it as a whole body movement.

    Flexibilty is something horses need too! I found that doing lots of showmanship style backing helps, as well as flexing undersaddle helps them later soften undersaddle.

  14. Excellent photo's of what I needed to see. Love this work.

    Would love to see you work with Pie in a photo Essay- ground and saddle work and add it to this list.
    Very helpful!


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