Sunday, December 5, 2010

Working Towards Softness 3 - Simple In-Hand Exercises

For the other posts in the "Working Towards Softness" series, please see the sidebar.  And, as always, please keep in mind that I am not a horse trainer, just a horse person who works in the best way I know how with my horses.  I think of these exercises as progressive, although after you have begun to get the feeling of softness in your own mind and body, the later exercises don't necessarily have to be done in order - it may depend on what the particular horse needs to work on.

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These in-hand exercises will develop your feel by allowing you to see what is happening as you try things. They're also good exercises for your horse, too, and will teach your horse to give to pressure. This is the foundation communication of softening work - you ask, horse softens and finds release - the "soft spot". I also believe this work helps any horse, even horses who are not ridden - it helps with learning to tie, and a horse that knows these things can step on a lead rope and will just stand there, giving to pressure, without panicking and pulling back. (There is another giving to pressure exercise - leading by the feet - that I'll cover in a later post.) But the main purpose of the exercises is to educate the handler as well as the horse in the feel of softness. And the exercises will work to help you learn even if your horse already knows how to do all these things with softness - once you have the feel in your own body, it's unmistakeable, and I expect it's the same for the horse.

I would strongly recommend working through the earlier exercises without a horse first (see side bar), as they give you a low-risk way to experiment with your feel.  These exercises also reinforce the don't-pull principle - you want to set a boundary with your hand(s), without pulling, so the horse can find the place of softness to move into and find his own release.  The horse may be putting pressure, perhaps a lot of pressure, on your hand, and your job is to resist the pressure but not pull, so your hand doesn't recoil when the horse gives to pressure - if your hand recoils it will eliminate the release.  If your horse can't find a release, he will learn to pull against the pressure - that's how horses learn to be braced and to push into the bridle.  The other really important point is to Never, Ever release on a brace because it will just teach the horse to brace - in the backing work sometimes you may have to go a long way, perhaps the length of an arena, and even around turns if you run out of space, without letting up.

These exercises are also a great way to learn to feel a try - the slightest try - offered by the horse when he is figuring out what you want.  This particular set of exercises also allow you to use your eyes to observe the horse while you are learning to feel with your hand(s).  It's by shaping those tries, gradually and in small increments, and always providing a soft place for the horse to find, that you help the horse learn what it is that you want.  These exercises are also about breaking tasks down into small bits, and how to get softer and softer with your cues/asks.  The goal is for the asks/cues to become barely a soft thought/touch, with the horse immediately being able to find the soft spot.  Not only will the ask/cue and response/try become softer, but the time between them will vanish to almost nothing and it may begin to feel as if the horse is reading your mind, and in fact, in a way, he is!

The first exercises use a halter and lead and the later exercises use a bridle and reins.  With some horses, it may help to put the bridle on over the halter and mix up the work.  Use whatever equipment you usually use but remember the objective is not to make the horse do anything - it's to ask and shape the response, so patience is required.  For that reason, I use the simplest equipment - a web halter and a 10' cotton lead (simple brass snap, no bullnose clip), and a bridle with a simple smooth snaffle bit that the horse likes.  Rope halters can apply a lot of pressure, and so can any bit, and my objective is to get the horse ultimately to respond to a whisper of a cue and this will not require any pressure to speak of.  The only time I use a rope halter (regardless of materials) is when starting to work with a horse who has serious leading/ground manners issues that raise serious safety issues, and even then the rope halter may not be needed for long.  That said, a horse can respond to a slight cue in a rope halter too - I just find it easier not to overdo things at the beginning without one - but use whatever works for you and that you are used to.  Just remember that the objective is to use your tools as a means of communication, not of forcing compliance - compliance by the horse needs to be willing to be soft.

Remember that softening work is about overall feel and relaxation of the horse, not about headset - the point is for the horse to willingly find the soft spot you are offering and occupy it softly from the inside out.  The softness doesn't come from the look, the look comes from the softness - of the inside and outside of the horse.

Also, remember to give the horse frequent breaks to digest the work, and make sure you mix things up and don't just drill on one thing.  And find a good place to stop a work session, where you and the horse have made some progress together.  Depending on how braced a horse is, these exercises may take only a few or many sessions. 

Halter Work - Head Down, Give to the Side and Backing.   In the head down exercise, you ask the horse to lower its head.  To create the soft spot for the horse to find, you resist the pressure the horse puts on the lead as you ask, where zero pressure will be on the lead when the horse lowers its head to the requested point.  At the beginning, that point may only be a fraction of an inch below where the horse's head is now.  And remember that the idea is for for your hands to stay still - the horse itself applies more pressure if its head moves away from the soft spot and less and less pressure as it moves towards the soft spot - you don't pull the horse's head into place. Eventually, step by step, you can teach the horse to softly follow your hand down to the ground, with only the slightest cue, and keep its head there, if you wish it to.

The give to the side exercise can be called a "baby flexion".  The goal is for the horse to move its head to pressure on the side of the halter - you can either attach the lead rope to the side ring on the halter or just use your hand on the side of the halter.  The movement to the side I want is only a few inches.  It's the softness and feel that matter, not the size of the movement.  I don't do bigger flexions, particularly those involving the horse bringing its head around towards its side, as I think they make a horse with a "rubber neck", which is the last thing I want.  (I do do bigger carrot stretches to the side to help a horse with stiffness, but this isn't a softening exercise and doesn't result in a rubber neck in response to a cue.)

Backing in the halter is the third exercise.  Remember that this exercise, and the related exercise using a bridle, aren't really about backing in the sense of moving the feet backwards.  These exercises are about helping the horse learn how to soften, by relaxing its top line, engaging its core, and finding the soft spot you are offering with your hand.  Backing correctly - as opposed to just moving the feet backwards - requires softness, so backing is a good way to start working on this. Once the horse conquers backing softly, the rest of the softening work will go much more quickly.  But be aware that, if a horse is seriously braced, this backing work will be physically demanding for both you and the horse - be prepared to work hard and get to a good place in the work before quitting, and remember - Never, Ever, release on a brace.

As you ask the horse to back, the horse will apply pressure on the lead - sometimes a great deal of pressure.  Your job is not to pull the horse backwards, but to resist the horse's pressure so that the pressure increases if the horse moves away from the soft spot and the pressure decreases to zero as the horse moves into the soft spot - zero pressure isn't necessarily a slack lead or rein but one where there is a live communication but no pressure - this can involve contact or it can come just from the weight of the lead or rein.  The horse may try lots of things to solve the problem - just go with it and consistently offer the "soft spot" for the horse to find.  When you've got softness, there will be a live connection but no pressure in your hand, for most horses the head will be about vertical, the poll will drop a bit and the top of the neck and back will relax, the horse will lift itself from the hind end using the core, and the steps backward will be in diagonal pairs and slow, straight and regular.  Be careful not to be deluded by false softness, where the head and neck may be in that position and the feet moving backwards but the horse is still braced and not soft from the inside - the feel, and the look as well, are completely different.  Also, if the horse is rushing backwards, that's not soft, that's just fast backing.

At first, my aim is to get just a couple of soft steps backwards - sometimes I only get that after lots and lots of steps backwards as the horse learns what I want.  Be sure to select a large area to work in - you and the horse may be going some long distances backwards until the brace dissolves and the softness begins to come through, and since you Never, Ever want to release on a brace, be prepared to take the work away from obstacles and around corners if need be.  Be sure to do the backing work from both sides - you may discover that your horse is a lot stickier when you ask from one side than the other - figure out if it's you or the horse.

(A note on redirecting the energy of the brace - I'm a bit hesitant to describe this as it's hard to describe if you haven't seen it and takes good timing.  Sometimes when you're doing this in-hand backing work with a halter, the horse will get really stuck - putting huge pressure on your hand and just not moving.  There is a way to break this loose without releasing that involves using the energy of the brace. So, instead of resisting the horse's pressure, you suddenly follow the pressure and take the horse abruptly in the direction the horse is trying to take its head, following the motion (adding a bit of spiral to the motion, exhaling and engaging your core if you can), which will often be very large, dramatic and abrupt but almost instantly over.  And it's not you making the horse do this, it's the energy of the brace, and your participation/amplification of that energy, carrying the horse into the dramatic move.  As soon as the horse stops the big move, you just go quietly back to your ask and offering the "soft spot".  The horse may be very surprised by the move it makes, but rarely is upset by what looks like a big thing.  This is one of those examples of how you can do something that looks big but that is soft and can lead to softness.  This sort of thing isn't needed very often and takes some care.)

In-Hand Work With the Bridle - Give to the Side and Backing.  These exercises are the same in principle as the give to the side and backing work done with the halter.  For the backing work, you stand facing the horse's shoulder, reach across the horse's neck to hold one rein and hold the other in the hand on the side you're standing.  Your ask should simulate what you'll be doing with the reins to ask when you're riding.  Your job is to create the same "soft spot" with the reins for the horse to find.  The feel and look of softness will be the same as with the halter work.  Be sure to do this work from both sides of the horse.  If your horse is fussy with its mouth or seems uncomfortable, you may want to try different smooth snaffle mouthpieces - solid mouthpiece, single-jointed or double-jointed, or any of the various Mylar or Rockin S snaffles, until you find one that works for you and your horse - horses have different mouths and different shapes of tongue and palate as well as different likes and dislikes.

Your overall goal is to have the horse respond instantly with softness, available and willing, to your soft ask, and to find and stay in the "soft spot" you offer.  Here are a couple of examples of Dawn backing in hand - here I'm standing in front of her rather than at her shoulder:

Usually I stand at the horse's shoulder when backing in hand, but Dawn and I were working on her tendency to rush backwards and not really soften - I was asking her, with only a whisper of pressure on the reins, to take just one slow step backwards softly but without rushing and without "curling up" - in the last picture she's doing just what I asked - the left front leg and its diagonal right hind are just leaving the ground.  She's pretty soft about it too - she's using her hindquarters and lifting herself and her neck is softer than it usually is although I'd like to see more softness in the lower part of her neck, but it's not bad.


  1. Nice. I agree with everything you say and it's pretty much what we have done and still do with our horses. In fact, before every ride we do a mini-session on softness with our horses before we get into the saddle. Then we do about 5 minutes of warm up and softness work in saddle.

    Good stuff.


  2. This was very helpful Kate.
    I have been following Di's blog Le Puy for sometime and in hand work is what she is all about.
    So recently, in order to feel confident upon my mare in the arena, I am doing the exercises you described.
    I want to have Possitive arena times of sofness.

  3. your blog is priceless!
    thanks so much: )


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