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 . . .

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