Thursday, December 6, 2012

Only Cue out of Softness

At one of the clinics I attended several years ago, Mark Rashid made a comment that has stuck with me, although I think I'm now only beginning to understand it.

Mark said: "Most people cue off a brace."  Hmmm . . . now what could that mean? I think it possibly means a couple of things.  It means that people cue the horse to do something while the horse is braced.  It means the cue itself is a brace, or turns into one - no softness in that, resulting in a counterbrace by the horse.

What I've been working on lately, with all my horses, is having feel and softness first, and only then cuing - as feel becomes more consistent and continuous, the time gap between those collapses to nothing.  We're not there yet, but's that's where we're trying to head.

One of the things I've been working on with all my horses is not cuing off a brace - this is my work, not theirs - they will respond in kind if I offer them feel and softness.  I have to be willing to wait - this requires asking for softness first, and waiting for it to come through before cuing.  This means that I won't always get a canter departure at a particular spot in the ring - it's more important that I get a canter departure with softness first, and then, as that becomes consistent and the feel is more continuous, I can begin to ask for and get the departures exactly at the points I want - it's not going to work in the reverse order for sure.

A couple of examples that may make this clearer.

Red: he has moments of distraction when he braces - his head goes where he's looking - the challenge for me is not to pull against the brace, but to softly redirect the energy, and in the process get his attention back.  This is the same thing Mark had me do at the clinic when Red bolted - just softly redirect him into a big circle, often in the same direction he's already going - take the motion he's offering and shape it.

Pie: his bending and tracking up is becoming very consistent at walk and trot, but less so at canter although we're improving - I need to work at not blocking with my leg or body, just flowing with him.  The same applies to canter departures - no pushing/rushing, and I need to wait until he's soft before asking for upwards and downwards transtions.

For all three horses, backing shows exactly where we are - softness has to be there first, moving feet second.  What I want is to just begin to lift the reins, have softness happen right then with only the weight of the reins, and then have backing happen, softly and slowly, for exactly the number of steps I ask for, and with continued softness.  All three horses are pretty much there consistently now, which is big progress for us.

Dawn: downwards transitions and upwards transitions, both, should only happen from relaxation.  If I wait, and and don't block her or hold her with my hands, the relaxation comes through and we have beautiful transitions.

Although my horses and I have various "tasks" that we're working on in our rides, or goals we're working towards, most of what I'm doing with my horses now is trying to improve myself and my riding - improve the quality of what it is that I offer the horse so the horse can improve the quality of what they offer back to me.  That quality I'm working on in me, and looking to get back from my horses, is softness, or feel - to me the two things are one and the same.  All three horses are more than able to rise to the challenge.


  1. So true and well said. That's pretty much what I'm working on in myself with Sugar. When I'm soft and light she responds softly and lightly. When I'm not, she isn't.


  2. This is so important. Winston braced all the time when I got him. I've learned to ask for softness and he responds beautifully. Such an amazing harmony that comes through when I'm soft.

  3. I love this post, it's so honest and so important that there s softness and that the horse is relaxed to, this is something me and gatsby are working on for example last weekend we were doing canter work but the minute that i asked for it he tensed up and went mad, so instead we spent the rest of the lesson working on becoming soft and relaxed

  4. I am the Queen of Bracing! Luckily, I'm working on giving up my throne. It's funny because if my trainer even suggests changing something..gait, direction, doesn't really matter what...I brace my arms, clench my butt and generally make sure that whatever transition we're trying to do will be ugly and blocked. I'm slowly easing out of this, but it's so much harder than it looks on paper!

  5. This is a pretty interesting approach to working with horses. Thanks for sharing.

  6. That is an excellent point. So many cues are literally taught as a brace including the half halt.

  7. Interesting concepts. Have to think about this the next time I ride. Tucker is especially reactive if I brace against him. Good things to ponder.

  8. The irony that soft is so hard goes without saying. Lily and I are really getting things together when I go soft. The hard thing for me to understand is that soft isn't cedeing control. It's most often making the positive assumption.

    You asked me how I pick my poems I choose to memorize. Most times I'm trying to find something by a poet, someone I'm familiar with. That's how I picked A Long Walk by Frost and Vacation by Rita Dove. Sometimes I pick and idea, like Free by Eugene O'Neil and Blessing (which is the horse poem) by James Wright.

    Then there are the poems read by Garrison Keillor on his Writer's Almanac. I'm working on one from a reading he did on the air called The Fox. I've been reciting to Lily also.

    She prefers songs. :)

    1. Breathe - to me, softness/feel is about a certain attention, almost a delicate attention, although the work delicate could imply a fragility or weakness I don't mean. To me delicate means feather-like, but with intention and meaning, and leadership, as a part of it. Sort of like the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers analogy I've used before.

      Thanks for the reply on the poetry question!

  9. I like the Astaire/Regers analogy you made in your comment to Breathe - and I love what you wrote about softness. This is it - and once it comes to you, I thin you never lose it - sounds like you are well on your way there.

  10. Really interesting points you've shared here. It's true that approaches to horsemanship
    varies. But then it hard to deny the fact that many things about horse training that only the trainer knows.


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