Wednesday, April 20, 2011

What Is Softness and Why Is It Important?

I got an e-mail from a reader asking what I mean by "softness".  Here's part of her e-mail:
As a dressage rider I have been taught to have a (fairly) firm feel on the reins when the horse is "on the bit", half halting, and recycling the energy from the hind to the bit and back.  But I am thinking you do not have that much pressure with the bit??  I am working with a horse who braces at times and "worry chews" the bit so we lose a good connection.
Softness, and softening, are words, and thoughts, I use a lot when I work with my horses.  But what is softness?  Over the years, my understanding of this concept has deepened, I think, which is not to say that I have the answers or that my understanding is correct - this is just how I think about it and I'd be interested in your thoughts - one of the advantages of the horse blogging world is the ability to access good thinking in all sorts of equestrian disciplines.

Softness starts with the rider - if the rider isn't soft, mentally and physically - including not being softy by carrying braces in body, mind or emotions - the horse will have great difficultly in being soft.  For example, driving the horse with the seat or legs creates braces that make it difficult for the horse to move effectively, and may cause the horse to brace against the rider. The rider has to also be able to offer the horse a soft place to find and to be, in order for the horse to be soft. Softness is a shared activity, a conversation, back and forth continuously between horse and rider.  Softness is physical, mental and emotional, all three together.  Although a horse that is soft will usually have a typical appearance - how the head, neck and body move and their posture - softness isn't really about headset.

The horse also has to be physically able to do what you are asking.  A horse with physical problems - ulcers, saddle fit, mouth issues (particularly poor lateral excursion of the jaw from side to side or bit problems), or lameness/soreness/chiropractic/foot issues, will not be able to do what you are asking.

One objective of softness is a horse that is physically able to move in the most effective manner, with relaxation of jaw, poll, neck and whole rest of the top line, and an engaged core that allows the horse to use its hindquarters to carry its body.  When you're riding, the feel of softness is unmistakable - the horse will lift its back and you can feel the energy and drive from the hindquarters, even at walk.  Even a horse standing still that is soft feels different from one that isn't soft.

A second objective of softness is a horse that is mentally attentive and emotionally calm and resposive - one of the best indications of softness is what I call the "Zen face", with no tension in the face, relaxed ears and a eye that's "looking inward" - here are some examples - the first one is Dawn and the second is Drifter:

In both cases, you'll note there's a soft, even curve in the neck and the poll is not the highest point (parenthetically, I think the idea that the poll should be the highest point is conformationally incorrect for most horses unless they're from one of the Iberian/baroque breeds and even then I have my doubts).  Drifter has a somewhat naturally higher head carriage than Dawn does - Pie would look different from both of them - every horse has their own natural soft position depending on their confirmation.  Drifter's in the earliest stages of his work, and I'd like to see a bit more stretching down which would result in a somewhat lower head position.

The objective of softness is self-carriage, with the core and hindquarters doing the work and a horse that is listening and responsive and emotionally as well as physically soft.  Softness isn't just behavior or posture - it comes from the inside of the horse and is expressed on the outside of the horse.  A horse that looks unhappy or tense isn't soft.  A horse that is mentally and emotionally soft will be not just compliant, but willingly compliant. And softness is also about developing attention and feel in the rider - I've been learning about this for a number of years now and my understanding and ability to do these things continues to develop.  And softness is progressive - as the horse learns to be soft, it extends into more and more parts of the horse's way of going and even begins to show itself in the horse's movement at liberty in the pasture (Pie's posture in the pasture is being to change - there's now a slight curve in the top line of his neck when before it was straight or even a bit inverted.)

To create softness, there are two things I do.  First, I try to do as little as possible with my body - I want to be in and with the horse and allow forward movement and the lifting of the back.  Even in backing, the feel is forward (if that makes any sense to you).  You have to have forward to get softness - if the horse doesn't move forward well off a very soft leg cue, I immediately move to using a secondary cue (crop on saddle or my leg) to get forward - the horse should maintain forward when asked on its own.  No driving or pushing with seat or legs - that creates a brace.  Two of my horses (Dawn and Drifter) are naturally very forward and take almost no aids at all, while Pie is still a bit sticky - we're working on that and making good progress.  Forward is also essential to get straightness, which is also very important.

The question of rein tension is an interesting one.  I think many of us (certainly me), in many different disciplines, have learned to use our hands too much and to ride the head instead of riding the whole horse.  A horse can be soft with no rein tension at all, or with a soft, following contact.  If the horse is leaning or pulling on the bit, you've got a brace, and a brace in both horse and rider - braces usually have two participants - and that means that you haven't got softness.  A horse that has "curled up" and fallen behind the bit (or has been pulled behind the bit as in rollkur or the aggressive use of draw reins) is also not soft and is likely carrying its weight on the forehand - Dawn had this problem and we've made very good progress on it.  If the rider is pulling on the horse, the horse can't be soft (and the rider isn't either).  One of the hardest things to learn, I think, is not to pull - to create a soft spot without pulling, and to keep hands still and not fussing - if your hands aren't still the horse can't find the soft spot because there isn't a consistent one to find.

The two photos above show differing levels of rein pressure.  Dawn is moving forward and there is a very slight pressure on the reins - I try never to carry more than a 0.5 or 1 on a scale of 1 to 10 (where 0 is no pressure and 10 is the most pressure I could use) - it's just a whisper of pressure so there is a live communication between my hand and her mouth.  I could also ride her on a loose, draped rein where the movement of my hand would be communicated through a change in the drape of the reins or soft pressure on her neck - and she could still be soft.

In the photo of Drifter, the pressure is a zero - that's partly because we're backing and partly because he's just learning what I want.  At any gait, I put and keep my hands in a position where there's a zero pressure spot he can find - he's just found it in the backing picture so there's no tension on the reins.  A moving forward picture would show the same 0.5 to 1 that Dawn shows.  The soft position is one intended to result in a horse that is relaxed in the entire top line, using the core and lifting from the hindquarters through the back, and when that happens there's barely any pressure on the reins since the horse is effectively in self carriage.  Now with a horse that's just learning to soften and is still figuring out what you want or has a tendency to brace, there will be frequent changes in the rein tension as the horse finds and then loses the soft spot - my job is to keep my hands so quiet that the horse is the one changing the pressure and can always find the soft spot.  Also, the horse has to physically develop the capacity to carry itself softly - a horse that is used to bracing and not using its core will have to relax some muscles and use others in a way that isn't usual and this may be hard for the horse and may tire it during the initial work - this is an issue with Pie who came to me somewhat "upside down".

The question of half halts is another interesting one.  They are a form of momentary resistance to forward motion, asking the horse to change its posture to more effectively use its hindquarters.  That isn't wrong, but I rarely (really never) use half halts with my hands even though I was trained to use them.  I keep a very steady, extremely soft contact at all times. I don't use the reins to regulate speed or length of stride - I use circles to teach the horse to self-regulate speed and I use my seat to ask for changes of length of stride. (I do sometimes use inside leg to outside rein, for maintaining bend on circles and turns and encouraging the inside leg to step under, but without really increasing the rein tension.) What I do instead is do half halts with my seat - ever so slightly resisting instead of "going with" the horse's motion, but I'm not using them to ask the horse to change its posture or balance, I'm usually asking for a change of length of stride without a change of rhythm.  I also use my seat and breathing to signal changes in gait by altering the rhythm of my following of the horse's motion.  I also try to time my aids - breathing, seat and if needed a leg cue - to the horse's footfalls in order to cue when the leg needed to initiate the transition is in the air, in order to make it easy for the horse and in order to get precise transitions.

I don't know if any of this answers the reader's question, or makes sense to you - leave your thoughts in the comments.


  1. Great post, Kate! You do such a good job of explaining your thoughts and processes..!

    I definitely have braces when I ride, some are unintentional, some are nerves. I'm getting better though and I can feel it in my riding occasionally - hopefully more and more as time goes on.

    Your horses are lucky to have such a kind rider who really takes the time and effort to work with them, instead of just demanding they work in such-and-such a frame (I've seen this so much, even as an amateur...)

  2. This ia a great post. You wrote exactly how I feel about softness, but in better words than I can describe!

    Softness, to me, is exactly as you described - a horse relaxed with no tenses anywhere, and this is only achieved by a rider who mirrors that. A horse is soft in the mind where he is engaging and working with the rider, never against her/him.

  3. I like to think about my feel of the horse being "elastic," that seems to help me picture the type of contact I want. It's following, it moves with the horse, and therefore the horse doesn't lean on it or stiffen against it, but I'm also not "dropping" the horse and we're staying connected. My trainer reminds me to lift my hands and stay elastic through my elbows, and that really helps with getting the right kind of connection.

  4. Kate--What an interesting post. As a western rider I ride with very light or no contact--almost all the time. For me, softness is very much based on attitude, much as you describe. I sometimes find it necessary to use an active leg to wake a horse up in order to have good, soft responses. But when my horse is listening to me and alert, and we are both relaxed and comfortable with each other, softness happens. Look at the last photo in my blog today at Equestrian Ink, which shows Sunny's face as I bend his head slightly to the left to take his photo from above. For me, Sunny's expression and the curve of his neck shows softness. And by the way, I agree that the photo of Drifter shows softness (and cooperation), too. You've come a long way with him--already.

  5. You have done an excellent job of describing softness. I would describe it in the same way as you. In particular, I think of keeping my aids (hands, seat) quiet so my horse can relax. Although it may sound contradictory, I think you can have softness and energy at the same time. And, in dressage (my discipline) if you have softness there isn't pressure on the reins. It may look like it to the average person (un-horsey), but the horse is carrying himself correctly and it's just enough contact to have conversation (ounces, not pounds). Thanks for a very good post addressing an issue that has a lot of misunderstanding.

  6. Great post and excellent comments too. I agree with you Kate, and your horses are fortunate to have such an experienced and caring person working with them. Bracing, works against you. I hope the person who sent you that question will try what you have written. Outstanding. Kind. A true partnership.

  7. I have a question. Some of the comments by those who ride dressage make me curious. My horse Sunny was originally a team roping horse. He was bought by a woman who used him for trail riding and dressage lessons. When I tried the horse (before I bought him--three years ago), this woman had owned him for two years. She showed him to me in a snaffle bit and watching her ride him, I felt she used way more contact than I use--and the horse appeared to me to be leaning on the bit. When I rode him this proved to be the case. He felt like he was trying to pull on me the whole time. Not what I want at all. I asked this gal if this was what she wanted him to do, and she said that yes, she wanted the horse "on the bit".

    So I took Sunny home and began riding him in a mechanical hack and he quit that (to me) obnoxious pulling instantly and returned to being the horse I'd ridden previous to this gal owning him. But I noticed that if I put him in a bit, he wanted to lean on it (again, by my standards).

    Can someone tell me if this what I would call pulling on the bit is what dressage horses are supposed to do? Is this being "on the bit"?

    For myself, I want a horse to carry himself and not lean on me. My horses travel very like Drifter in Kate's photo--I have about that much contact (almost none--just enough feel to have a "conversation") when we are going forward.

  8. Laura Crum - A lot of dressage horses (and hunter/jumpers as well) learn to lean, and lean hard on the bit, because that is in fact how they are intentionally (or unintentionally) trained. You see a lot of pulling and bracing by both horse and rider, even in the international dressage competitions. The result of this is a horse that isn't soft at all, and can't properly use its body or engage its hindquarters. There may be a lot of "flash" out front - extension - but no true engagement - the horse is using the bit as a fifth leg.

    I think this comes from certain (certainly not all) schools of dressage, that emphasize driving the horse with legs and seat and using the bit as a "barrier" - these schools often want the horses ridden with a lot of pressure on the reins. I believe that training method produces tense, unhappy horses, and ones that cannot show true engagement or a relaxed top line, but that's just my opinion of course. There are other schools of dressage that judge on the bit by the horse's softness and relaxation and engagement, and consider pulling or having the horse leaning on the bit to be a fault - these are the dressage people I admire.

  9. You have done a great job explaining what softness is all about. To comment on what Annette said, my mare is one who is soft but also energetic. We still have to work to achieve softness, and she always very forward, but she she can still remain soft.

  10. When I watch a dressage horse like Ravel perform, that's when I see dressage softness. He moves with ease and suppleness, making the movements look almost effortless.

  11. Jean I love to watch Ravel as well. So much softness, yet so much power. That said I would imagine he is being ridden with more feel on the reins (at least at certain times) then Kate and Laura Crum are discussing. Not a "cranked" feel on the reins but during certain moments and movements definitely more than a 1 for pressure. For me Ravel and Steffen Peters are a pleasure to watch!

  12. Great post Kate. You explained softness perfectly, at least in my mind.

  13. Thank you for writing this out. It makes a lot of sense...though certainly different than some of my "dressage" instruction over the years. I like it! :-)

  14. I have to say I was a bit flawed by the person who said as a dressage rider she is taught to have a firm hand...I am a dressage rider and I would have to agree with everything you have said in your blog and I have the perfect horse as an example, if I am not soft she just pulls but also she has a bad habit from a previous owner who was very hard with her left hand so I am retraining her as if she has never been taught a thing and today I got a beautiful canter best canter since I have owned her because I have learn't that I have to be so soft with her in front of me, its not just about giving the reins away either its all about moving your arms with there rhythum of movement in the neck ...but if your horse isn't soft then it isn't using its body correctly and would obviuously be very tense in the back neck etc and won't be stepping through either, you need to trust your horse also and be soft to him/her. sounds like this horse of the person who wrote to you is actually going behind the bit and she needs to really work on getting him long and low and accepting the bit then try to bring him back up. My dressage trainer uses the 1-10 method of the reins in your hand 1 being soft and 10 obviously hard, she said you should always be from 1-5 never above that if you gather what I mean...

  15. Reading things like this post of yours is a real joy to me. Finally someone who gets it. It is so painful to watch some riders constantly picking on their horses, riding their faces till it drives me crazy with pity for the horse. I wish I knew or have thought so clearly through all that you have and could explain it as eloquently as you. I really appreciate you writing about 'softness' and hopefully I can refer some people here that need to read this.

  16. excellent post!

    I suppose in every situation there are differences in softness. However, the end result should be the same.
    I don't believe that riding a jumper I could have that little of rein pressure, but the rein pressure I use is steady and 'soft' in it's pressure and support. Never punishing.
    And I agree completely with using the body for an effective half halt. When I really think about it and use it in action, the use of the body for the half halt is much more effective. After all I am then able to effect a change over more of the horses body instead of just pulling on the mouth.

    I also feel that using the body for the half halt keeps the horse more in-tune to what I am asking and this lets both of us be softer. If the horse is listening more attentively I can be softer and he can be softer as well.

  17. Two things - a horse ridden with loose reins can still be braced, and a horse ridden with contact can be soft - as long as there's no pulling or bracing on either side of the reins.

    And please read this very good post from Jean at Horses of Follywoods about what on the bit really means:

  18. Well timed post since I was asking myself a similar question. Very well written and thoughtful response. Thank you!


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