Wednesday, June 20, 2012

In Search of Softness: the Goldilocks Problem

While I was riding around on Red on day three of the Mark Rashid clinic, taking a break and talking with Mark, who was riding Baxter, Mark had some things to say about softness that really got to the heart of the matter.  Some of you who've been following along may remember that on day three, I had some difficulties with Red's walk to trot transition due to my overcueing him.  Same deal on the canter - I was doing too much holding and not letting him move.  As Mark said in the video in the previous post, some professional neglect was in order - I was giving Red way more help than he actually needed.  Mark and I were discussing the question of getting softness right - the right amount of cue (thought, energy or physical cue) - and also getting the timing and the feel right.  So often we cue, miss the horse's try (or a question - "is that what you mean?") and go right away to a bigger cue - no wonder the horse gets aggravated with us.  (That's why the "ask them, tell them, make them" schools of horse training bother me - they assume the human actually pays attention and notices the horse's question and tries, which isn't the case a lot of the time.) You get what you give - if you overdo things, you get a response that overshoots the mark, or you get resistance and bracing, or a horse that complies but isn't happy about it - there's no softness on the inside.

But there's an interesting problem - I call it the Goldilocks problem.  The trick is to get it right - not too much and not too little.  I think of it this way - either we're ineffective and tentative:  "Maybe we could go over there?", or we shout: "GO OVER THERE NOW!!!", or we get it just right: "Let's go over there together, taking this path and at this speed and with this softness."  Our horses' responses to case one might be: "You don't really care so neither do I" or  "Now what do you want me to do?"; to case two: "NO WAY!! STOP YELLING AT ME!" or "Here you go" with buck, bolt, pinned ears, bracing, etc.; to case three: "We'll go there together with softness."  If you offer softness, you get that in return.

Mark says that when many people start out trying to find softness with their horses, they fall on the side of doing nothing, or too little, and don't provide their horses with adequate leadership and direction (leadership and direction have very little to do with dominance, or being a horse's alpha).  Wishy-washy or hesitant or just waiting to see what happens isn't softness any more than overdoing things and getting too big (when it isn't needed) is softness.  But overdoing things - being too assertive/directive and overcueing as I was doing with Red, was just an error in the other direction. As Goldilocks found - too cold, too hot, just right . . . Here's the rub - how do you tell the difference?  Goldilocks could and so can we, I think. My conclusion is that it's a matter of focus, feel, timing and experience.  It can't be programmed, it can't be packaged or marketed, it has to be lived, one horse at a time and one ride at a time.  And you have to feel it - and know when you feel it that it's there.  Once you've felt it the feeling is unmistakeable.  And it's a lot bigger than just horses - although that's big enough - as Mark says, it's about how you act and carry yourself in the rest of your life - if your breathing and posture and focus and attention - your softness  - aren't there in your non-horse life, how can you just expect to turn it on when you're with your horses?  The trick is to build it in so it becomes automatic, everywhere.  I think for the human half of the horse/human partnership, it's a matter of hours - hours in the saddle and working with horses.  It's a matter of increasingly close approximations - a beginner can only do a rough cut, but it's better than where they started.  An experienced rider can learn to pay attention - to really pay attention and focus on what you're doing and the horse is doing (trust me this isn't easy) - and can have the physical skills - of seat, hand, leg and most importantly intent and energy and breathing and focus - to begin to lead the horse with softness so that the horse and human can do the work together with softness.

I'm on the road . . .


  1. Good post. This is what Betty and I have been working on with our horses using Larry Whitesell's principles which are similar to Mark's. I'm trying to find softness in all I do. A good place for me to start was in how I drive a car, how to I hold the steering wheel, how do I react to other drivers, etc. I agree with what you say that we need to seek softness in all of our lives if we want to find it with our horses. The second book that I'm reading (reviewed the first on my blog) has a good thought - "It's true that we need to approach our horses with quiet and calm, but quiet and calm does not mean without direction and intent."

    It's a balance worth seeking.


  2. My daughter and I both rode with a trainer at one point who taught us to take 15 minutes each time we got on a horse to do nothing but ask/listen with our cues and the horse's response so that we could gauge each and every time what that horse needed from us to walk, halt, trot, turn, etc. It was one of the most valuable things I've ever learned. I'm by no means perfect at doing it, but even the act of going through the exercise with a horse has incredible value and usually the horse appreciates the opportunity to inform the rider. :)

  3. Finding "just right" is indeed a delicate balance. But when you do, the partnership in the response is just great! Sounds again as if you are well along the right road.

  4. It is a lot easier to go to extremes than find the middle. I think that we, as riders, have to bounce between them quite a lot before we can find "just right". Having a good trainer to guide us there and promise that the place really does exist is invaluable.

  5. Kate, Very good post about softness - I find it both informative and inspirational, to try and remember, and then incorporate several of these factors when I ride Buckshot. I really like that this post is about the big picture of softness- for some reason it resonates with me and definitely inspires me. Thanks!

  6. Wow, great post...much food for thought there. I can relate as I have a tendancy to be one of those riders with a bit of an impatient side that doesn't always wait appropriately for my horse's response to a cue. Fortunately, moist of the cues I use have many degrees before I get to the point of "yelling." Still...reading this made me wonder just how much more quick my horse would respond if I could just be a tad more patient in my requests...and if it would be possible to eliminate any aggressive phases almost entirely... Griffin, after all, knows what I am asking and knows his "job" well. After 15 years together, I certainly owe it too him to spend more time working on something like this :-)


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