Carrying energy, through space, in time, together.Before we get started, I'd like you to visualize something. Think back to the last winter Olympics, and the pairs skating - two people, partners, doing an amazing routine together, to music. They both know what they're up to and they're doing it together. That's what riding should be like, and that's the degree of closeness and subtlety of communication that the rider and horse should have, back and forth between them. In the skating we're visualizing, there's not one half of the duo making, forcing, or pulling, or pushing, or bracing, or blocking - there's just flow and both partners are willing and engaged participants. That's what good horsemanship is, it's dancing. And true dancing can only happen with a willing partner. At the upper levels of riding in all disciplines, including dressage, you see examples of both - the forced/braced and the partnership/flow - if you watch, the difference is clear.
I don't know about you, but I'd much rather have my horse be my willing partner than a coerced slave. And before anyone gets started on the common objection to this point of view, I'll add that it's possible to both have a horse who understands your personal boundaries - to be safe - and to have a partner - the two things aren't opposites, in fact you have to have clear boundaries with your horse in order to have partnership. Having a 1,200 pound animal walking into or over you isn't a partnership - partners don't walk into or over each other. But this goes two ways - (true) partners also don't yank, spur, beat or otherwise punish their partners, or at least they don't if they understand the value of, and superior performance that come from, willing, as opposed to coerced, compliance. It's possible to be an effective leader without being a bully - bullies sometimes get some sort of compliance, but whatever it is, it isn't partnership.
Softness is multidimensional - there's space, and time, and energy. So we're dealing with at least five dimensions: space has three, and time and energy add at least two more. There's probably even more to it than that, but five dimensions are plenty to try and get our hands/legs/minds/horses around.
And softness fundamentally isn't about what you do, and certainly not anything you do to the horse. It's a way you are with the horse and invite the horse to share with you. It has physical dimensions, but the mental and, dare I say, even spiritual, aspects are just as important.
A disclaimer here. I'm not a trainer, I'm an amateur who's always working to improve how I am with my horses and what we're able to do together. This is my personal take on these things, and I may be right or I may be wrong about certain aspects. I certainly expect to continue to develop my understanding and revise/improve what I do as I learn from my horses as we work together. Being open to trying and experimenting is an important mindset to have, I believe. I've got my weaknesses as a rider/communicator/partner that I continue to work on, and I undoubtedly have weaknesses that I'm not aware of but that my horses will tell me about if I'm open to hearing what they have to say.
This involves communicating with the horse to define the space you want you and the horse to occupy - sometimes this is a bigger space where you're not in direct physical contact, as when you're leading or doing work on a lunge line or ground driving, and sometimes it's defining the shared space you and your horse's body occupy together.
A very important concept is to do the actions together with your horse. It's not a matter of asking your horse to do something by applying an aid and then monitoring/correcting the horse's response - it's about doing/feeling the thing you want yourself, in your own mind and body, and leading the horse to do it together with you. This is where the change from mechanics to dancing occurs - in your mind and how you approach what you and the horse are doing together. It also requires you to be very specific and clear, rather than vague or inconsistent.
The best way I can think of to describe this is: creating a soft spot with your own body and mind and offering it to the horse, asking the horse to join you there, and then together carrying this joint soft spot into whatever space you define. This is really what connection/feel are all about.
It's partly about defining space, but it's also about how you define space and what the feel of that is to the horse. I often think of myself as holding the horse "in" my body - it's almost as if I take the horse up into me through my hands, seat, legs, balance, attention and positional awareness, and then we together move this joined person to wherever I want it to go. The result is that my aids, such as they are, aren't taken on and off - they're basically continuously there as soft, but clear, boundary conditions that the horse operates inside of. Keeping this communication continuous, or as close to continuous as I can make it, produces much lovelier flow and relaxation, but it does take a huge amount of mental attention, and intention, on the part of the rider. When it's really working, you're softly "holding" the horse both with your body and in your mind. Practice can "automate" some of this - the more you do it and the more your horses respond to it, the more it becomes a natural pattern for you.
This defining of space requires setting boundaries, and being clear, consistent and precise, without being braced, blocked or abrupt - the exact same requirements apply to work on the ground. Boundaries need not be rigid, they can carry softness too - or else they're just blocks or braces, which eliminate softness. This is the very difficult to describe concept of "softening at the point of resistance." This requires the human to continue to offer the horse the feel of softness even when the horse is bracing or blocking against a boundary - it is a natural reaction for the human to brace or block back - the goal is to continue to offer softness into the brace so the horse can find it. All I can say is that this is almost impossible to describe in words - you have to do it and feel it - there are person-to-person groundwork exercises I've done at Mark Rashid clinics (his clinics typically open with an evening of just this sort of work) that have made a great difference to me in understanding and applying this.
(A side note - the horse can't be soft together with you, whether you're on the ground or in the saddle, if you're using physical gadgets to constrain/manage/control the horse's body position. The whole point is for the horse to be soft with you - it's the feel/communication between you and the horse that matters - and no gadget can produce this - whatever you get with a gadget isn't softness although the physical position the horse is managed into may be similar. In fact gadgets are usually pretty good ways to create additional braces in the horse.)
Softness isn't a physical thing - it's a thing that's inside you and the horse, together, and is expressed physically (and emotionally).
Whew, that's enough for now. Time and energy later . . .