Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Working Towards Softness: a Photo Essay

If you've been reading our recent posts, Dawn and I have been working over the past several weeks to shape her softness, with a view to getting more relaxation through the neck and shoulders. In order to do this, I've been working with her to lower her head just enough that the highest point is about 8-10" behind the poll, and working to get her to "let go" in the lower part of her neck. When she's able to do this, the softness is really there and it's easier for her to carry herself with her topline relaxed and core working. We've been making really good progress on this. But this sort of thing is hard to describe with just words, so today we've got some photos to help, courtesy of my husband.

I want to emphasize again that softness isn't about head position, or "headset", although head position may be one of the indications of softness. Just "riding the head", or using gadgets like drawreins, martingales, tight nosebands and flashes and bitting rigs, isn't going to produce softness, although you may get a headset. Softness is about relaxation through the jaw, poll and entire top line, while using the core to lift, while carrying a rider, and requires that the horse be able to find a release. If the horse never gets a release, there's no softness, and if the horse's action doesn't look natural and relaxed, there's no softness. When you're looking for softness, some of the best indicators are the look of the face - particularly the eyes and ears - and the tail. If there's tension - which means there's bracing - you'll see it there and also in the neck muscles. If you can see the core working (more on that later), that's a good sign. A tense facial expression or swishing tail mean the horse isn't soft. If there's tension in the rider - pulling on the reins, driving with the legs, pushing with the seat, bracing with some body part - there can't be softness in the horse. The rider has to be soft, and ride "in", not "on" the horse, just being there with the horse. I don't care if the horse is ridden on a loose rein or with contact, how perfectly vertical the horse's face is, or what fancy moves the horse may be doing - if there's tension in the horse or rider there isn't softness. It's possible for horses to do many things for us while braced, and they do, but they can do them much better if they're soft.

So here's some of the work Dawn and I have been doing - my earlier post "Relaxation and Softness - a Photo Essay", from August 8, is an earlier stage of our work. Today's post is pictures from August 23 - there's about two weeks of work in the interim, although we didn't work every day.

Here's where we started - not a very pretty picture: this is the "curl up" in a picture from last fall - although her neck's curved, there's no softness, no relaxation behind the 3rd vertebra and no connection through the reins, although her expression is pretty relaxed because she thought this was correct:

And here's the bracing behavior as we were working two weeks ago on getting softness at the trot - notice her peeved expression:

Here's a picture from two weeks ago that shows the softness we were able to get at the trot:

Now there's a lot that's very nice about this picture - her expression is relaxed, she's carrying herself well, and there's communication through soft contact on the reins but no bracing. In order to get her to this point, we had to work through her tendency to drop her head low and curl up behind the vertical - that's one reason we worked towards initial softness with her head fairly high - to break that pattern of diving down and curling up.

To allow her to better use her whole body, I want her to adjust her head and neck position so that her head is a bit lower, with the highest point about 8-10" behind the poll. This will help eliminate any residual tension in her neck - she also has had a tendency to brace at the base of her neck and through her shoulders and wither area. But keep in mind that it's the whole feel and picture we're looking for, not just the head position - when you're riding the feel comes through when things are truly soft. This is what we've been working on over the last two weeks.

We haven't worked as much at the walk recently, because of some issues that we needed to address primarily at the trot - she was trying out an old habit of leading down on the bit at speed and I wanted to interrupt that. But here are a few walk pictures from August 23 to show where the walk work is now. The first picture is about where we were two weeks ago at the walk - her overall position and carriage are pretty good, but there's still some tension and she really hasn't relaxed through her neck and poll:

Here I'm asking and she's wrestling with what I want - notice that the flexion in her neck only goes as far back as the 3rd vertebra or so and that her face is behind the vertical and that there's a good bit of tension:

Here things are beginning to come through - her neck is more relaxed although she hasn't really let go through the bottom part of the neck, her expression is still a bit tense and there's tension in her neck muscles - but this isn't far off what I want:

This is somewhat better - her expression, body and tail are more relaxed, and she's close to letting go in her neck - the curve's a little more continuous:

Our walk needs more work - at this point we've made more progress in the trot. All of the rest of the pictures in this post were taken at the trot.

These first photos at the trot show her try to figuring out what I want as I ask her to offer me something new - it is her job to try different things and it's my job to tell her when she's got it right. Dawn is really helping me learn how important it is to consistently ask for what you want but at the same time allow the horse to try different things and figure out what you want - sometimes this takes some time - without urging, pushing or doing anything about the behaviors you don't want - just ignore them and once the horse is rewarded for the behavior you do want, the other unwanted behaviors will fall away on their own. This puts the energy into the positive - the things you do want - and doesn't put energy into the negative - the things you don't want. With a horse like Dawn, this is teaching her that she doesn't have to worry about being wrong - I think a lot of horses worry about this and it interferes with learning.

The other thing Dawn is reinforcing for me is how important it is to not look for the complete behavior from the beginning, particularly if it's a challenge for the horse mentally or physically - it's important to take things one step at a time and reward progress towards the goal - once the fundamental idea is in the horse's mind and the horse is trying to do what you ask, the behavior can be shaped over time into exactly what you want.

In this first photo, she's trying really hard - you can see her thinking. This is close - she's carrying her head somewhat lower and she's not behind the vertical, but there's still tension in the face, lower neck and shoulders and she hasn't fully relaxed her neck:

I call this picture Dawn's "equestrian statue pose" - she reminds me of some of those baroque horses in the heroic statues! She's trying hard here, and using her core, but the neck is still "broken" at the 3rd vertebra and theres some tension:

Now the curve in the whole neck is starting to be there, but she's leaning forward a bit and not carrying herself as well - there's a lot for her to put together in this work and sometimes one part will fall apart a bit as another part starts to work:

Slightly behind the vertical, but the neck is slightly more relaxed and so are the ears - I'm not worried too much about the face position right now as that can be refined later - right now it's the overall relaxation of the neck and shoulders and carriage from the core that I'm looking for:

In this next picture, there's a little more curve in the neck, but still some muscular tension and the face is behind the vertical, but note the greater relaxation in the face and ears. There's also one really good thing about this photo - see that muscular line running from just behind my left heel back towards her hindquarters - that's the core muscles working! That's really exciting to see and shows her working to lift herself using her core while trying to relax the top line - she's not on the forehand here but is able to use her hindquarters well:

Here are two photos of our "stretch-down" work, to help her relax her neck and shoulders - I think this part of the work made a real difference in my communicating to her that I wanted relaxation of the top line of the neck. Notice in the second photo that she's carrying herself and stepping under - despite the low head position she's not on the forehand:

One step closer - she's thinking about letting go in the top line:

This is very close - the core is working, and she's beginning to relax her neck, and the facial expression is more relaxed:

And here's what you get when the softness really comes through - note that her neck is completely relaxed, with a smooth even curve along the top line, and soft contact through the reins. And one of the things I look for to indicate relaxation and softness is that "Zen look" of the face - the ears are completely relaxed and she's with me "inside" - look at the eye - and she's completely engaged, and happy, in the work - its a lovely thing to see:

And here's the quality of movement you can get as the softness comes through - this isn't lateral work although you might think so - we're just rounding a corner. I'm doing nothing here except being with her and maintaining a soft connection through the reins - she's doing the rest:

We've got more refining to do, but the big adjustments have been made. The finer adjustments should come pretty easily now, and we'll continue to work on our consistency. The progress she's made already is amazing, and I have no doubt that many more good things are to come!


  1. Thank you so much for these pictures! I know that I'm going to be coming back and visiting these posts again.

  2. Whew. Sometimes I feel like a pre algebra student walking into a calculus class.

    The photos are a great help, but I admit to being drawn to that Baroque horse pose. :D

    I plan on taking off the device the trainer has Smokey in, but I hesitate because I want to help him carry himself well but don't understand the rein end of things. To me these devices seem a little idiot proof, but I think its time to move beyond it.

    So many people use running martingales, draw reins, and everything - and these folks are trainers! It makes me nervous about trying to accomplish the same thing without devices.

    Perhaps it's beyond me. But are there relatively simple things I can do?

  3. I am a visual person and your pictures are a huge help to me!!! Everyone talks about softness, but I just didn't get it. Thank you!

    I have the same question Breathe has - are there simple things you can do to assist in achieving softness?

  4. I`m with Breathe, on this one!

  5. Another great post Kate, you're mirroring what I'm trying to achieve with my mare Anky. You look to be doing a great job. Keep it up and keep showing us the pics, it really helps your descriptions.

  6. That last picture is truly lovely, Dawn looks fantastic there.

  7. The pictures were a great idea to show where you were and where you are now. Love the statue horse and the last picture. I'm sure you're not going to have much trouble refining her movements.

    I've been dealing with a lot of the same things with Blue, especially the curl and bracing. This just goes to show what can be accomplished with patience and time. We don't believe in using any extra gadgets either. I'm so glad that you took the time to show how softness can be accomplished with simple tack.

  8. Kate, love the series! Dawn looks wonderful and the new header picture is perfect. :)

    Breathe, IME, gadgets are one of the worst things to put onto a horse who curls and braces. They seem to get so worried about the boundaries from the gadget that they curl and brace even worse. I have had good experience though with judicious use of neck stretcher or draw reins. If I'm on a horse that is having a hard time grsping the concept of lift the back, engage the core, soften the neck then a neck stretch can help give them a "frame" of reference. I typicially take it off after 10-15 minutes of work so they can trasfer the concept to their own actions without the guiding influence of the "gadget." Two or three sessions of that and the light bulb goes on, kind of like, an "I get it now!" moment and horse goes happily along wihtout ever needing the gadget again.

  9. Fantastic photo series showing exactly what you are talking about! Bravo!! to you and Dawn!!

  10. I've found gadgets don't work on my mare at all. She learns to rely on them and when I take them off, she falls apart. I've given up on all the gadgets I've tried...

    Instead we do a lot of circles. Circles, circles, circles... The circle helps her learn, and once she gives to me in the circle she gets the release. She's learned to carry herself and be soft this way. I have the best "headset" I've ever had with any horse by teaching her how to do it on her own without the use of gadgets.

    I do think they can be horse specific, though. My old gelding picked up on the concept of a headset after just a few short lessons with draw reins. All I had to do was show him what I wanted and he was good to go.

    My mare has a completely different personality and she likes to figure it out on her own. The tricky part is finding the button that works best for showing her.

  11. Interesting work Kate and nice to have pics. Moo was very tight in his jaw and it took some time even without a bit for him to unlock but when it comes it comes.

  12. Great post again. Don't be too worried about the walk softness. Because the walk has the least impulsion, it is much harder to get the horse to step through to the rein.

    Lots of stretching down to the ground can help. You can try "combing" your fingers through the rein to get her to reach for that contact.

    She really does look to be working well and the last photo is lovely. I like your analysis and the photos all do a great job of illustrating the concepts.

    Thanks again.

  13. Wow, you can really see the progression with each photo. It's a great visual of what we should be striving for in our horses. I know a lot of people who need to read this post (including some top-level dressage riders! :-P).

  14. Thanks to everyone for your comments. I'm thinking . . . a sure way to get in trouble! I've got some thoughts on gadgets and the use thereof. Also - Breathe - I'll try to get you some sort of an answer - hard to tell how useful it will be - it may turn into some sort of post.

  15. I meant to say, Breathe and Wolfie, and . . .

  16. Your sequence of photos along with your explanations was perfect. She looked so fine in those last photos. What a good girl! You know of what you speak.

  17. Breathe speaks about being pre-algebra...well I'm feeling like a beginning math student walking into an advanced calculus class right about now.

    Facinating photos and explanations to go along with them.



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