Friday, August 27, 2010

Working Towards Softness 2 - Simple Exercises Without a Horse

Here are a few simple exercises that I have found very helpful in figuring out how to offer the horse an opportunity to find and offer softness. And, as usual with these things, it's more about us than about the horse. Since this was getting a bit long, I'm going to divide it into several posts. And please do let me know if this makes sense to you, if you have other suggestions, or if you have questions about what I'm saying - we're all on this road together. And to give credit where credit is due, I didn't invent any of this - I learned almost all of it by riding in and auditing Mark Rashid clinics (although if I get any of this wrong, it isn't Mark's fault).

This post is about exercises you can do to learn to feel and offer softness, and they don't involve a horse!

Body Work. The purposes of these exercises is to help you learn to carry more relaxation and softness in your own body, so you can offer it to the horse. The first one is very simple - when I wake up in the morning, before I get out of bed, I remove all the pillows and lie on my back with my knees somewhat bent. Then I pay attention to any areas of tension or soreness or muscular tension in my body, and consciously relax them - I'm getting on towards 60, so there's always something if only a little stiffness. While I'm doing this, I'm also working on breathing deeply and slowly, and paying particular attention to fully exhaling. The concepts of this exercise - paying attention to your body and consciously letting go of tension, and practicing breathing well - can be done anywhere, anytime. When I'm riding or working with a horse, I try to do these exercises as well - they're a big help in staying calm and relaxed and preventing braces. Someday I hope that these practices will be automatic for me, but I'm not there yet.

The Don't Pull Exercise. This exercise doesn't involve a horse - you can use a grandma, husband/wife/partner, friend, child, you name it, and they don't have to know anything about horses! The really important thing about this exercise is that you get to be the horse, and then the rider, so you can feel things from both ends. And you can practice as much as you want and there's no worry that you're doing something wrong. And grandma/etc. can tell you what she's feeling. To me, this exercise is fundamental - getting the feel is the important thing and you can get it with this - at least it made a big difference to me. Then once you have the feel, you can carry it forward to the rest of the exercises with the horse, and you're on your way.

The objectives here are to learn to ask for softness with softness - and without pulling - and to make sure that you are giving a release when there's even the slightest softening. Pretty simple, no?

All you need is grandma/whoever, yourself and two reins/ropes/dog leashes/leadropes, etc. Something that has the weight and feel of your reins is ideal, but you can get the idea no matter what you use. Hold one end of each "rein" in your hands just like you would the reins. Have grandma stand facing you and hold the other end of each rein in her hands. Start with you being the rider and grandma being the horse. Take up the slack, but don't put on any pressure yet. Now you ask grandma to give to you - to soften - by applying pressure to the reins. Make sure your reins are short enough that you don't have to move your hands towards your body - just increase the pressure - you may find this part difficult to figure out at first. Ask grandma to resist by pulling on your hands, not hard but firmly - this is the horse bracing. Now tell grandma to give to the pressure, just a little bit, when she's ready - but not to tell you ahead of time that she's going to do it. When she gives and softens by moving her hands towards you, what happens? If your hands move towards your body when she softens, you were participating in the brace - most people, including me, find that this is what they were doing. If your hands recoil, even a little bit, you were pulling, and the recoil will often eliminate the release the horse should be receiving. That's how we teach horses to brace, by pulling and not allowing the horse to find the soft spot where there's a release.

So what do you do about that, and how do you avoid bracing against the horse's brace? The answer involves using your hands to softly set a boundary - the objective is for the amount of pressure you are applying on the reins to be zero to a minimal amount - say 1/2 on a scale of 1 to 10 with 0 being no pressure and 10 being the most pressure you can imagine - when the horse's head (or grandma's hands) is in the position you are looking for. This is a basic give-to-pressure exercise, but the real point is for you to educate yourself, physically and mentally, so your hands don't recoil when the horse softens and so that you can increase the pressure without moving your hands towards your body. If you hands are the boundary, then the pressure in your hands will increase if the horse moves outside the boundary, and will decrease if the horse moves towards the boundary, until it reaches zero when the horse softens to the pressure - but without your hands moving backwards towards your body. Until you've got it down, you may find this takes some concentration on your part - many, if not most, of us are pretty programmed to brace against a brace.

Now try being the horse, and see if grandma can show you what it feels like when the rider's hands recoil when the horse softens, and when grandma's hands stay put, offering the horse (you) a soft place to be. There's a big difference, and that's the feel you want to offer the horse in all your work. Even grandma should be able to pull this off, but if she's having trouble with not letting her hands recoil, try tying the "reins" to a fixed object, and then you play the horse - brace and then soften - this isn't the same "living" feel as working with a person, but will give you an idea.

Now there's a further refinement of this that can be pretty helpful. It'll sound a little bit like ESP, but I don't think it is - it relies on the extreme sensitivity of the horse. When you're the rider, and the "horse" is bracing, and you are setting a boundary but not pulling, try mentally softening - feel the softness in your whole body and mind and offer it to the "horse". Even though you are setting a boundary, the feel needs to be soft - no teeth-gritting! This exercise is called "soften at the point of resistance" and it really works - the "horse" will usually soften right towards you. If you can also play the "horse" in this exercise, you can feel the power of it. But don't worry too much if this mental softening doesn't work for you right away - the basic exercise should still make a difference - at least it did for me - but then the first time I did the mental exercise Mark Rashid was playing the rider and I was playing the horse (but I've successfully duplicated it since with non-horsey partners)!

The next post in this series will have some simple in-hand exercises that I have found helpful. I'm also adding a new sidebar with these posts listed as they come along.


  1. I have been loving these posts! Bodhi and I are struggling with this concept in the new bridle. Partly because of the environment, the flies are horrendous and even with clicks and releases nothing seems to make him feel better. So probably just a bad time of year.

    I was wondering what your thoughts on giving too much? My instructor said Bodhi was not staying soft because I was giving too much too often and that he needed me to be a steady predictable pressure to give to. She still wanted me to give when he went in the right direction but to take it right back. I guess I was getting so excited I'd throw him away! What do you think of this concept? You are right this is complicated. I am now personally leaning towards a concept where your core is your firmness and your shoulders stay still but your arms and especially your elbows should be elastic at all times. What do you think?

  2. Golden the Pony Girl - I think my answer is - it depends (isn't that always the way it is!) and also that the ultimate answer may be somewhere in the middle, at least for me. First, the ultimate objective, in my mind, is to have the horse carry itself softly, not due to any rein pressure on my part - there should still be a very soft contact (perhaps 1/2 or less on a scale of 1 to 10) for communication purposes, but an educated horse shouldn't require pressure to stay soft. I think a lot of dressage people prefer more pressure on a consistent basis in their hands, and this also will vary from horse to horse.

    With a horse that's learning how to soften, and has the basic idea, like Dawn, I want to keep my hands "in the box", maintaining a consistent boundary, which means the horse finds its own soft spot by softening - this means that I don't have to do anything else to give a release as the horse finds its own release since my hands don't move. But I don't ever move my hands back towards my body (if I can help it - this is always something I'm working on) nor do I need a lot of weight in my hands on a continuous basis. This work should ultimately lead to a soft horse whether you're riding on a loose rein, with minimal contact or more contact - but unless you're asking the horse to soften I don't think you need a lot of pressure in your hands - otherwise you're just pulling.

    (to be continued in my next comment)

  3. (continued from prior comment)

    Now on the question of how big a release should be. I think as a horse is learning, and particularly if the horse is having to use new muscles, that periods of relaxation are needed during the work, and the best time to do these is as a reward/release when the horse does what you want. So, if a horse is just learning to soften, and we get 3 soft steps at the walk, I will give a big release - let the horse walk around for a bit on a loose rein - this lets the horse think and rewards the horse. But the trick with this is that it can become a pattern - the horse expects you to give it a loose rein when it complies and the next thing you know you've got the horse pulling the reins out of your hands - not good. So if you do give a bigger release, be careful not to release on a brace and don't let the horse pull the reins out of your hands. Big (or bigger) releases can really make the point to the horse that they're doing what you want, but you won't need them forever.

    This is related to a different topic - I think horses often need more breaks during the work than we sometimes give them, both to process new information and to help with relaxation. We humans have a tendency to push and drill and we need sometimes to relax and take more time ourselves - there's no hurry.

    Also, all the stretch down work I'm doing with Dawn has a lot to do with her specific postural and muscular issues, and also helping her to relax - this sort of stuff might not be needed as much with a different horse, although I think many horses benefit from at least some of this sort of work.

    Hope that helps at least a little bit!

  4. Our Trainer has had me do quite a bit of the don't pull game. It's amazing what tiny movements can be felt through the reins. It can be a real eye opener!

    I've been struggling with a similar problem to Golden the Pony Girl. I had been planning to blog about it in fact because I'm finding it to be a bit of a confusing point. It seems sometimes I'm supposed to release as soon as I feel my horse give, but at other times I'm supposed to keep holding for an extended amount of time even though the horse did soften. I think part of it is a distinction between getting the horse to understand the concept of softening vs teaching the horse to stay soft but it seems like just when I think I understand, I've gone and released too soon and then not soon enough!

  5. Very good exercises!! I am pretty self-aware that I get very stiff and in fact I'm doing yoga to try to gain more control over my body and my breathing. I've added pilates for core strength, too--I assume that if I'm strong, I won't have to be stiff (we'll see if that theory actually works LOL).

    Great idea about the pulling, as well. I sort of do that with my dogs. They will pull on a toy and just to keep them on their toes, I will give when they pull, and then brace, and then when they give I try not to pull back. Of course I can't tell them when to do it, though, and often they are entirely uncooperative LOL.

    I've been scanning your blog but really need to sit down and read it now that I'm riding more. You have some wonderful tips here.

  6. Story - I'm not sure what you're trying to do, so it's hard for me to answer. If the horse softens, it should find its own release if you don't move your hands, and there shouldn't be any continued pressure after that. Although if the horse unsoftens then there will be pressure again - as a horse learns it's likely to go in and out of softness. There is a difference between training the horse how to soften - then the releases are bigger since the horse probably won't be able to sustain the softness for longer than a few steps at a time - and asking for continuous softness, where your hands are the boundary and the horse finds the soft spot and stays there, with virtually no pressure. It's a fine line knowing when to ask for more continuous softening, but I would never be applying pressure if the horse is softening - then I'm pulling. Hope that makes a small amount of sense!

  7. I think you've got it. At first we were giving her a huge release when she'd soften, but then as she was learning she started going through stages of softening and unsoftening. By leaving the hands still for a few strides (not pulling after she finds release, just remaining steady so that while she's soft she has her release), she learns to stay soft for more than a few strides. She learns that finding the release doesn't mean you go back as you were.

  8. Yeah it did help to clarify thank you. Yeah I use stretching as a reward too. I think horses are often worked for too long as well. Bodhi gets lots of breaks. If you use freewalk as your reward you will always have a freewalk to count on when you do a test!

    Thank you!

  9. Hey, I can do these!!! :-) Thank you, Kate!


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