Friday, August 26, 2011

What's the Connection Between Firmness and Softness?

There's a very interesting post by Laura over at Equestrian Ink on what is a solid-minded horse, with further interesting discussion in the comments.  Laura makes a distinction between a horse that is soft - e.g. responsive and obedient, and with you, even under stressful circumstances and even if the horse is scared - and a horse that is solid-minded - a horse that is self-confident, not worried by much and able to cope, even if the rider is less experienced or the horse is put in a situation where many horses might be afraid.  I guess the distinction she is making - Laura, correct me if I've got this wrong - is that the soft horse looks to its rider for guidance and direction and trusts its rider enough to follow those directions, whereas the solid-minded horse is confident on its own.  She also makes the point that the solid-minded horse may in fact not be particularly physically soft, or even mentally soft in the sense of always immediately responsive to the rider.

I guess what I'm looking for in my horses is what Laura calls soft - responsive and willing no matter the circumstances even if worried - plus that further intangible self-confidence that comes from a combination of innate disposition, good training and handling and also physical softness and mental willingness - I guess I'd call this softness+.  And I agree with Laura that there are good solid-minded horses out there who aren't particularly soft physically or always willing and will pack people around - but I think solid-minded horses can also be soft.

So how do you get from physical softness to mental softness to all of that plus solid-mindedness - the whole package - softness+?  There was some interesting discussion in the post and in the comments of the role the horse's training and job experience played, and about how horses should be best managed to grow into solid-mindedness.  I do think it requires a horse to grow up and mature and have lots of miles under the saddle.  I also believe that there are some horses who just can't get there, or who are so difficult to get there that it might as well be impossible, at least for ordinary, reasonably skilled horse people.  I believe Dawn is one of those never-get-there horses, at least for me - I enjoy working with her and riding her but she's got a hair-trigger, highly reactive temperament - the behaviors can be modified and she can progress down the road of softness, but I don't think she'll ever be solid-minded - the spook/bolt/buck is always going to be lurking in there somewhere.  And as Laura points out in her post, there's no amount of sacking out/desensitization that's going to solve this sort of thing.

Pie has the disposition to be solid-minded but he's only starting down the road of physical softness and the mental softness that brings responsiveness and willingness.  And he's very young - just turned 5 - so there aren't enough miles there yet for him to have enough experience to be solid-minded - there's still some spook in there.  And at this point his compliance can be grudging at times.  He could well turn into a solid-minded (but not necessarily soft) horse just by being ridden lots and lots of miles and exposed to lots of things.  Part of the reason he's as solid as he is is that his prior owner did lots of things with him - he did multi-day trail rides and also cattle gathers and some roping and calf dragging - all of this built up Pie's confidence.  But I think Pie can get to softness+ as well as just solid-mindedness. I also believe Drift, who is 10 but still quite green, has the potential to get to solid-mindedness, and to sofness +, but we've got a ways to go, partly due to some issues with his prior handling and training, and the route to get him there may be a bit different than the route that will work best for Pie.

Laura also made the point in her post that a horse that's never experienced and survived adversity will likely never be solid-minded, and also that horses that have a job to do - she used the example of team roping from her world - and learn to do it successfully, can end up being solid-minded, despite training methods that in some cases might be characterized as rough.  There are a lot of good thoughts in there, and before I get to the subject of "firmness", here are some of my thoughts on the points Laura brings up.

First, on adversity - what is that?  I don't think of it as bad things happening to the horse - like abuse, or a bad wreck.  I think of it more as trials the horse has to undergo - experiencing new and perhaps scary things and having to cope.  I think horses that are coddled, or babied, or never taken outside their comfort zone, will never be solid-minded, or soft+.  And the early handling and training of a horse can affect this too - I have a pretty strong bias against aggressive imprinting of foals (not normal handling and training) as it tends to strip off some of the "horseness" and result in a horse that can be dull or unresponsive on the surface but sometimes not very sure of itself on the inside - a dangerous combination.  Also, imprinted horses whose early training has gone completely smoothly (and it may go smoothly since they probably like people and are compliant) may be seriously upset when something does go wrong - horse #8 at the 2009 Mark Rashid clinic (on the sidebar) is an interesting case of this.

Also, horses that have been mishandled, and who don't know what boundaries are and how to behave around humans - who run people over or push into them or do other things on the ground or when grooming or tacking up that reflect a lack of training, and that can sometimes be dangerous - are heading away from solid-mindedness.  I think some of this stuff unfortunately come from a desire people may have to be "nice" to the horse or from a lack of knowledge of what to do - but horses need consistent boundaries they can rely on to develop their self-confidence and it isn't being nice to your horse to fail to provide them with proper training and direction - these horses aren't being bad, they're just doing exactly what they've been trained by their handlers to do.  My Drift is a good example of this, and it takes a fair amount of work to reverse this sort of thing and get the horse back on the track of progressing towards solid-mindedness.

Having a job to do is a good way for a horse to make progress towards good-mindedness and soft+, but I actually think it's a result of how the human deals with the horse in these situations that makes the difference.  I think it's the human's focus, determination and energy brought to the job that carries the horse who is still learning with the human into accomplishing the job together.  Now this can be done with or without roughness - I think one of the reasons some horses survive fairly rough handling is that their dispositions are basically stolid and less reactive - they just shrug their shoulders (so to speak) and ignore rough handling and get on with things.  Rough handling can be a form of adversity that develops a horse's ability to deal with things - not that I think that's a good excuse for rough handling - but it can also, in a horse that's sensitive or nervous, cause great damage and even permanent impairment of a horse's ability to work together with people (this came close to happening with Dawn).  I don't believe roughness is necessary to produce a solid-minded horse - working softly but effectively with a horse does the job better and can produce a horse that is both soft, mentally and physically, as well as solid-minded - the combination I'm calling softness+.

I did a post a while ago - "An Ode to a Good Working Horse" - that addressed some of the things that I believe are needed to produce a good working horse.  You'll notice if you read the post that most of those things aren't about the horse or the specifics of the situation the horse is working in - they're about the rider.  I've had the privilege of knowing several good working horses - our Norman the pony (now at Paradigm Farms in retirement) was one, as was my mare Snow when I was a teen and my mare Promise when I was showing hunters (just goes to show that mares can be good working horses too).  We believe that Norman may have been abused before we got him - he was somewhat dangerous on the cross ties or in his stall, particularly with children, but was a pro in the hunter show ring - completely unflappable and safe under all circumstances - he was one of those ponies who really cared about winning but would also stop cold if his rider was about to fall off or he thought the distance to a jump was wrong.  When we brought him to our barn after his show career was done, he could be ridden on the trails in a halter or driven in a cart, and other than an inexplicable fear of large boulders (go figure?), was reliable.  He was never dull, or quiet or dead to the world, just reliable.

My mare Snow was like that too.  She was a QH, and I don't know her background.  I showed her English and Western, and she would reliably do every thing I asked her to do - jumping, trails, rollbacks, you name it - and she always was calm and willing.  Promise was an unraced TB who came to me after a job as a 4'6" jumper.  She was somewhat standoffish, although affectionate in her own way, and really did her job with dedication and pleasure - we did hunters together for a year until her untimely death.  I could take her on the trails and do anything else I wanted with her and she was always willing and available.  Both of those mares had a broad range of experiences and also fairly calm, sensible dispositions.

My Noble was an almost solid-minded horse, but his nervous temperament kept him just this side of what Laura means by solid-minded.  Certain things bothered him - he hated being in a ring with other horses all cantering together (he was a former dressage horse) - that freaked him out.  But he would go down the trail with the best of them, and loved to race other horses and would come right back to me when asked.  I always knew he would be obedient and try to do what I asked, even if he was worried.

Now what does this have to do with "firmness"?  I mentioned in my post yesterday that I was really trying to bring firmness to my work with Pie and Drift yesterday.  I think firmness may be the key to getting a horse that is soft+.  I'm certainly no master of it but keep working on it.  Now what do I mean by firmness?  It has nothing to do with being more forceful in interacting physically with the horse - stronger aids, getting bigger, applying more pressure, or punishing the horse for perceived disobedience.  Firmness, to me, means a certain intent, attention and physical and emotional presence - a feel - brought to the horse. It's a way of "addressing" the horse, asking for the horse's attention and then making a request (usually as softly as possible) and standing ready to give the horse the release for the try in the right direction.  It's all the things I mentioned in the "Ode to a Good Working Horse" - clear (not uncertain or wishy-washy), consistent (reliable but also persistent), calm (not frustrated or impatient or angry), confident and caring (not about the horse being my friend) - read the post for the details on those traits.  To me, firmness is getting down to business - being direct, matter-of-fact and focused, but being consistent and fair as well.  Firmness is doing the horse the courtesy of being present in the moment and really paying attention to what you're doing and what the horse's response is - this is very hard work (at least for me) and requires a lot of concentration - this is one reason I do a lot of my riding by myself - riding isn't a social activity for me.

Firmness is not avoiding the holes in the horse's training or failing to confront things - sometimes difficult things - that need doing.  Firmness is being willing to take the horse up to and slightly beyond the boundaries of the horse's assurance or confidence in order for the horse to learn how to deal with things - this is a very tough one involving lots of judgment calls and also being able and willing to help the horse when it's troubled, confused or worried.  This pushing of boundaries and testing/filling in holes is one of the areas I find personally very challenging - how far to push into a zone of discomfort/worry and how to  effectively provide the horse with help.

Firmness is also about being reliable for your horse - in feeding, care, handling and riding.  And it's about building in the expectation in the horse that, from moment to moment in your interactions, that if you ask the horse for something there'll always be a release in there for the horse - a very powerful concept I picked up in Tom Moates's recent book about Harry Whitney.  I'm nowhere near there yet, but I'm working to develop my firmness, so that my horses can progress towards softness, solid-mindedness and ultimately softness+.  Every day I can bring some of this firmness to my horses, address them and engage them in a conversation, is a day when we can make progress together.

That's how I think you get to softness, good-mindedness and ultimately softness+.  What do you think?

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