The Two Types Of “Softness”
Updated: Feb 28, 2021
Equestrians seems to disagree on a lot of things, except on one thing. No matter the discipline, we all like responsive and “soft” horses. When we want our horses to do something we want them to respond to cues that are subtle and gentle. We want them to respond quickly, and be sensitive to the aids. When we pick up the rein a little we want a nice stop or a nice flex in the neck. When we use leg aids we want them to move quickly and correctly to even the slightest touch. We even want quick responses to our weight shifts and body movements in the saddle! This kind of response to the aids from the horse is what almost every equestrian would consider “well trained” or “soft”; soft sides, soft mouth, soft back even! Sometimes though, we confuse well trained responses to cues from our aids with a horse’s willingness. We think just because they are quick to respond that they are happy doing their jobs and enjoy working, when really a well trained response to the aids or a cue can mean the exactly opposite in a lot of cases. There are two types of approaches to training a soft response to a cue; a request and a tell. In the end the results seem similar, soft quick responses to gentle cues, but there’s a big difference between them! Both can be said “softly” and both can achieve quick and motivated responses, but one creates softness out of avoidance and one creates softness out of willingness. It’s the path taken to achieving “softness” that dictates the kind of cue you’re giving... and the motivation behind the horse’s actions. Achieving softness through “telling” is achieving softness through fear and avoidance... fear of the consequences for not performing to standards. They could be experiencing pain or be anxious, but they will respond because they fear what follows if they don’t obey. For example... if you ask for a halt with your seat, but the horse doesn’t respond, you add in rein cues. Still the horse doesn’t respond, so you pull back harder...and then harder until the horse finally stops. You may even consider increasing the severity of the bit to achieve faster results! This is called “escalation of pressure”. If the horse tells you “no” or fails to respond you respond with “but you must! Or else...” Another example would be backing a horse, and let’s say you’re cue is a rope shake. First, you might start with a little rope jiggle and then continue to increase rope movement, even maybe to the point of actually slapping the horse on the chest with the rope until the desired response is achieve; the horse backs up. Again, escalation of pressure until you get the response you were after to begin with. The horse has no choice but to do as its told. Of course, the intention is to not need to increase pressure and for the horse to respond. You’re after that very sensitive and soft response, so that “messy” escalation of pressure is usually only used for a short time if you’re good at training until it’s no longer required. A well trained horse should only need occasional refreshers from that point on, but should otherwise remember the “or else...” and respond appropriately. Through this process the horse learns to become soft and sensitive to cues and may never need more than a light touch or even a cue as sublte as just a look! Still though, the process to get to that point will be the foundation for the softness. The soft response will always be in order to avoid something it dislikes... not because the horse actually wants to do it.
When training with requests, the horse has to have a desire to work with you you, to be responsive. They are soft because they’ve been carefully trained with only soft cues to respond to soft cues. If they don’t understand or fail to respond there is no escalation of pressure, no consequences, no avoidance, and no fear.... for the request to truly be a request the horse has to have the ability to decline. This is called autonomy, and is vital to establishing true willingness in the horse. It’s all about building desire and drive in the horse to WANT to respond to earn something positive. It’s about motivating the horse and shaping that motivation into desired actions. For example, a horse trained to back up with a rope shake using positive reinforcement — first you would begin by shaping a back up at liberty, or if your horse follows a target or your body movement you can trigger a back up with one of those. There would be no escalation of pressure or physical force... just find a way to have the horse back up as their own idea then reward! You could even place your hand on their chest and wait for them to just shift about a bit, then start shaping the back up from there. Step by step and as they were ready you would increase difficulty by adding in backing up multiple steps, backing straight, etc. until it was time to add in the cue. (For me, this is a slight touch on the shoulder or a verbal cue, but many people like to shake a rope.) I’ll have already created the back up action, now I just add the soft cue in at the end... reward a successful back up annnndddd Ta-Da!!! No pressure, no force, completely offered by their own free will and desire to work with you... a soft, responsive back up on cue! Success! Of course, it’s a little more complicated than that, but that’s a brief example to give you an idea. You might now be wondering what happens if the horse understands the cue but fails to respond accordingly when you ask in the future? Do you just... let them rule the roost and run all over you? And what about emergencies? While I’m not going to go into every detail and example during this article, I want to assure you that I’m not encouraging handler passivity and chaos. Horses thrive on consistency, patience, and structure! But all those things don’t have to be trained with punishment and pressure, there are other ways of establishing guidelines and structure for your horse that don’t involve telling. However, there may be times that you need to temporarily take on a telling form of communication. These situations should be few and far between though and should not make up the majority of your training. In every day training the handler needs to respect when the horse says no. It’s important to remember that the horse has reasons for everything the do.. whether that’s lack of training, confusion, discomfort, instinct, etc. So again, while I’m not encouraging passivity and complete lack of structure, this IS what request training is all about... respecting the “no” and discovering how to get a “yes”!
You can achieve soft responses out of fear just as you can achieve soft responses out of creating genuine desire. However they require two entirely different approaches to achieving the same goal... the difference for the horse being the motivator.
I believe the primary reason humans like to use telling over requesting is because it’s easier and often obtains faster results. Instant gratification. We like to be in control and to be instantly gratified. We want what we want, and we want it now. With requesting, the horse has the choice! Softness is achieved out of free will, which to me is far more desirable, but this can also mean that sometimes we have to give up our own agenda... our own desire for instant gratification, so that the mental and emotional well being of the horse is put first.
Now, I’m not saying that all pressure and release training is bad, and that it should never be used. There is a way to use pressure and release without a significant increase in pressure or great discomfort to the horse, a patient and kind form that doesn’t escalate into punishment, but when you do use it you need to recognize the type of “softness” you’re achieving. Don’t mistake obedience for willingness. With requesting though, we’ve opened up a line of communication between horse and handler... a safe place for the horse to express themselves and let us inside their heads. Sometimes this doesn’t always go like we want it to, and we may discover some ugly truths about ourselves and about the relationship our horses have with us, but the beautiful part of it is that when softness is achieved, when the horse responds softly and quickly to a gentle cue, you’ll know it’s because the horse wanted to. When they respond it will be knowing full well that they could choose not to respond! They responded out of genuine willingness and the desire to work with you, not because they feared the consequences. To me, this is the epitome of a soft and responsive horse. This to me is a willing horse.