Thursday, August 11, 2011

Is the Horse Soft Inside? Part I - Introduction

Getting the horse soft on the inside, not just the outside - now there's a challenge.  I've been thinking about this lately, a lot - with my coming off Pie - possibly because of a spook and spin - and Dawn's bolt and bucking and Drift's bolt - in all three cases my horses weren't "with" me in some fundamental sense when it really mattered - they mentally "left".  As with such things, often something shows up just when I need it - in this case a marvelous book by Tom Moates - Between the Reins:  A Continuing Journey Into Honest Horsemanship.  Tom is a marvelous writer, and very good at conveying his own frustrations and learning process, as well as the teachings he's received from Harry Whitney.  If you haven't read Tom's two books - this one and A Horse's Thought - I strongly recommend that you get them now (available from Amazon) - if you don't need them today, you will at some point in your horsemanship journey - trust me on this.

There is so much in Tom's book that it's hard to even choose what I found most important, so I expect they'll be a series of posts on the various topics that mean something to me, but here's a start.

Tom talks about what he called "the trampoline factor" - he and his horse encountered a girl jumping on a trampoline in the woods and his horse lost his mind:
The trampoline factor is the primer charge that ignites a big explosion in your horse, unexpectedly, which reveals where your relationship with the horse is lacking.  On the one hand, a kid doing flips on a trampoline might be so bizarre as to spook almost any horse.  But a horse that is with you in the Harry Whitney sense will spook then immediately look to the rider to see what to do.  It is automatic because the relationship, communication, and willingness all are real, solid and real solid. On the other hand, a horse like Niji, without a concrete confidence in the human's lead spooks and mentally melts down attempting to take over the situation as the rider works to get through to the panicking horse and have a say. . . . The horse isn't wrong, he is merely doing the very best he can given the sum total of his make up and expectations.  It isn't up to him to figure it out and get right with the person.  It is up to a person to get better with the horse and help him to understand he can count on us in every situation - the ones we plan for, and even the ones we can't anticipate: like a flipping kid on a trampoline! (pp. 28-29)
And here's a related quote from Mark Rashid's Whole Heart, Whole Horse:
Now, for the most part there are two main ways for horses to be soft.  One is physically soft, when the horse completely understands the aids we give and is easily and willingly able to physically perform whatever tasks are asked of him.  The other is emotionally soft, in which the horse is able to stay in a thinking frame of mind, almost no matter what the circumstances or situation, without flipping over into his fight-or-flight, reactive state of mind when presented with something out of the ordinary.  External softness is relatively easy to achieve in comparison to emotional softness.  Being consistent with our training aids and communication with the horse will usually do the trick. In order to achieve emotional softness, as the rider or handler, we must be able to achieve a level of consistency in our overall behavior, so the horse not only sees us as being dependable but also trusts our judgment and has enough peace of mind when we are around to willingly offer up the inside of himself to us.  (p. 197)
That's pretty much where I've been with my horses - I'm beginning to have a handle on how to get a horse to be physically soft, and my three are in different stages on that journey.  But to get them emotionally soft - on the inside - there's the trick - and our various spooks/bolts/bucks have exposed the holes in our training for emotional softness.

Pie may have spooked and spun with bicycles with tall flags on them came up rapidly; Dawn bolted and bucked when a large paper lawn waste bag was shaken out behind her, Drift bolted when Scout galloped up from behind and is generally somewhat spooky.

Today, Dawn and Drift and I worked on some things involving firmness, insistence and beginning to work though to mental softness.  Dawn and I worked on her being immediately attentive and available and on her releasing lateral braces both physically and mentally (this is what I planned to work on with her), and Drift and I worked on his spookiness/reactivity (this is what came up, which makes sense after his bolting the last time I rode him), again looking for that elusive mental softness.  More to come . . .


  1. Good topic and I look forward to more. I agree with Mark's comment - it all comes down to us. When my horse Sugar spooks it's the time I need to be the most calm, relaxed and assertive. Our human reaction is to join our horse in their tension, but that's exactly what we shouldn't do. It's hard, but I believe like anything else the more we focus on it and work on it the more we can develop that ability to relax.

    It reminds me of the first line of the poem "If" by Rudyard Kipling -

    "If you can keep your head when all about you
    Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;..."

    When our horses want to 'lose their heads' it's imperative we keep ours.


  2. "Emotionally soft". I like that. Thank you for the book recommendations. I want to ride around my neighborhood, and there will be trampolines. Real and figurative.

  3. One of these days, I will get back in the saddle again, and when I do, I will have so much more insight because of you.

  4. Very interesting post! Think I will have to look into getting that book!

  5. Interesting post. It seems different horses would have different apptitudes for internal softness. I need to learn more about this, especially in relation to our Appaloosa.

  6. Good book recommendations. Love the trampoline story. We had our trampoline flip-out moment with close by hunters firing guns on the woods trail.

    Val and I are still working on the internal softness bond. Truthfully - I am still working on it. My emotional balance, trustworthiness and leadership skills have not been as consistent as they should be.

    As usual - our horses are right there pointing the way for us :)

  7. I am not sure that we can ever expect our horses to "never spook," because it is so instinctive. But there is "soooking in place" where the horse does not run, and that is generally OK.

    I have always found that if I relax after an incident, so does my horse. That, in itself, is a kind of reassurance that all is OK.

    All that being said, I am hoping to take Chance to a mounted police "de-spooking" clinic next year...missed this year due to conflicts. I will really be interested if I do go in how well that works to make my horse "bomb proof," and, essentially, mentally soft.

  8. Wonderful play on words with the title. After reading, I realized that you did not mean the inside rein. ;)

    I love your choice of quotations. We could substitute the word "balance" for "softness" and I think that it would make as much sense. A horse that is not outwardly balanced cannot be inwardly balanced and vice versa. Same goes for the rider. Very zen.

  9. Kate--I appreciate all you say. I would, however, like to raise a point. My horse Sunny is not "soft". Not in either sense. We did however, run into the "kid on the trampoline" on a solo ride (in our case it was a bouncy house full of leaping, shouting kids and ornamented with balloons blowing wildly in a stiff breeze). Because of circumstances, we were forced to pass right by this--children screamed and jumped not two feet from us, the engine that ran the compressor roared, the balloons blew right into Sunny's face. He looked hard, but listened to me and went by without spooking. Sunny has confidence in me, yes. But more importantly, he has confidence in himself. He was not overly afraid because of who he is, more than because of what I am to him. He is a solid-minded horse. I did not train him to be this way. But I have known other such horses and I chose Sunny because I perceived him to have this trait. There is nothing wrong with anything you say (or the folks you quote) about emotional softness, which I would translate as trusting and having confidence in the rider. But the trait of being solid-minded, or having confidence in himself, is the trait I prize most highly in a horse.

  10. That's interesting. I'm just catching up with these posts. I wanted to read them when I was in a good frame of mind and had time on my hands. I understand what you're getting at with the inner willingness and, for great things to be achieved, I do think you need it. Like Laura, I have a couple of horses who aren't "soft", but do their job. They were trained that way by someone else...Red and Shadow. Red never showed any real inner softness (he prefers horses to humans), but he was always the horse who could get you through any situation and did his job. Is it just his genetics? Was it his early training? I absolutely do not know the answer to that, but in my training of the young ones I only feel comfortable with true inner softness/willingness. I also have come to believe that a horse's basic personality is always there and that it has "go to" behaviors that can be managed, but not fully trained out, and then it's just a matter of asking yourself if you want to deal with those particular manifestations for the rest of your time with that horse...rearing is one example of that. There are horses that are just more "solid" than others from the beginning. Your Pie seems to be one of those.


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