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Soft Feel - behind, in front, or with the bit

Published: 1/21/2015
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Editor's Note: Amy Skinner is a regular guest columnist and a horse gal since age six. She runs Essence Horsemanship, rides and teaches English and Western. Skinner has studied at the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art in Spain, with Buck Brannaman, and many others.

Read more about Amy here.

Read more Journals & Journeys here

By Amy Skinner

At a clinic, you hear repeated endlessly, “pick up a soft feel and release,” “pick up a soft feel and trot,” “pick up a soft feel and stop”. You think you are practicing getting your horse soft, but what does that mean? What is softness exactly and how do you really get it?

Soft feel, in a nutshell, is when you pick up your reins and your horse “gives” to your bit, tucking his chin in and flexing his poll. But it's much more than that, and focusing on just that aspect leads to many problems I see today in many disciplines.

Years ago I had a few horses in my care. I was responsible for leading them out to their pastures every morning and back to the barn in in the afternoon. These horses were in the habit of walking ahead of me, and when I'd go to slow or stop them, they'd tuck their chin but their feet did not slow or stop. I asked a professional for help with my problem, and she said they were “getting soft.” I remembered being puzzled by this, because yes, they had tucked their chin, but there was no connection to their feet. And while their heads and necks were in a position, there was a stiffness that showed up in their necks, polls, and shoulders to resist my feel through the lead rope to slow or back them up. As time passed and I began riding these horses weekly, I realized the way they handled on the lead rope was about how they responded to the reins. They did indeed drop their heads and tuck their chins in when I picked up the reins, but there was absolutely no connection to their feet. My lead rope and reins both were just dead weight that pulled on their noses, mouths, faces, and all to no avail.

I see this a lot in the dressage arena. I hear “contact” and “get him on the bit” ad nauseam. I see it in many disciplines and my students are endlessly asking me: “Where should I put his head?” My answer to this question is, nowhere. You don't ride your horse's head. You ride his mind and ride his body. Or, as Ray Hunt would say, get to his mind through his feet. You're not holding his mouth in your hands but his feet.

If it isn't about head position, what, then, is soft feel? I audited a Buck Brannaman clinic in North Carolina at a large dressage barn this fall, and heard someone mention to him that “soft feel” made horses ride behind the bit, and that they should have contact with the bit at all times. Buck's answer was, “of course they're behind the bit. They're in t hat perfect place behind my bit and in front of my leg. Not anywhere else.”

Buck's answer makes it clear that soft feel is not about head position, or just about giving to the bit, but about the horse being in tune with the rider, and the rider being in tune with the horse. Soft feel is about reaching for your horse, and feeling him reach back to you. Or as Buster McLaury put it: “you’re leading the dance by a fraction of a second.”

The horse who is truly soft is tuned in to the rider. He doesn't weigh anything against your reins, or your leg, or your seat, because he is with you. He is interested, engaged, and relaxed through his body; maybe not 100% percent of the time, but he is working toward it. He should be mentally soft, his eyes should not look worried, and there should be no tension in his jaw or poll. It should definitely not take the strength of a man to hold up a horse that is literally “on” your bit, grinding his teeth, drooling, the whites of his eyes showing. And he should not curl behind the bit to hide from your hands.

Your horse is telling you whether he is softening toward you or bracing against you all the time, and you feel this in your body, and your hands. But he can never soften if you never soften. If you never let go, he will stay right “on” your bit, where you put him, and you will never feel softness. You have to give to receive, you have to trust your horse to look for you, and you have to give him reason to look for you. If you don't give to him, he is right in bracing against you, and you will always have to “take” from him to achieve anything.

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1/20/2016 karolynna tytko
love this. thank you for sharing.

"It is the hardest pill for all of us would-be horsemen to swallow, but it is absolutely true - if the horse is not responding properly, we are doing something wrong" - Mary Twelveponies