Acquiring Softness in Horse Training
Our definition: Getting your horse in a position and in a frame of mind to accept a request,
whatever that may be. By Bryan Neubert
If I have a friend and I need to make a request of that friend, I’ll ask, “Can you do me a favor?” And if
he’s my friend and he knows and trusts me he’ll have one answer. “Sure, you bet, name it.” He is not
going to hesitate or say “Well tell me what you want first then I’ll decide”. If he is my friend he knows
I’m not going to ask him to do something stupid like punch somebody in the nose or help me rob a bank.
Well, I’d like to make a friend out of every horse I ride. If I pick up my reins to prepare to make a
request of him I don’t want him to raise his neck or bob his head or poke his nose out and basically try
to defend himself. As if to say, “What are you trying to make me do now?” I want him to drop his
head down and tuck his chin in, just a little as if to say, “What do you have for me now Bryan?” or
“What do you need? Or I’m ready just you name it.” He does that because he knows me and he trusts
me and knows I’m not going to ask him to do something stupid like stop harder than he’s ready for or
turn faster than he’s capable of or do some maneuver that he’s no where ready to do.
Some people call this picking up a soft feel, getting him soft in the face, soft in the chin, soft in the bridle
or getting him off my hands. The terms may be different but basically it amounts to getting him in a
position and in a frame of mind to accept a request, whatever that may be. It could be slowing, stopping, turning, backing, changing leads or whatever.
It is not really necessary for every horse and rider, only for those that want a light, responsive, willing,
happy, under control and on his way to being a collected horse. What I am trying to explain here is not collection, but it is an essential ingredient in achieving collection.
A person can get a start on this on a horse’s first ride or after a horse has been ridden for 20 years.
But horses learn what they live and can become calloused and develop a defensive frame of mind. It
can be a little like adopting a young teenager that has had a rough life as opposed to adopting an infant
child that has no past to undo or redo. However, horses are generally pretty forgiving and it is well worth the effort to attain this.
If you are going to try to force this-failure is guaranteed.
Your success will be based on your ability to recognize and reward his slightest effort toward what you want. It must be understood that
horses naturally resist pressure. Yielding is against a horse’s nature but easily learned if a person can
time the release of pressure with the horse’s effort to yield. The timing here is essential.
How Do I Get It?
The headgear doesn’t matter too much, whether a snaffle, hackamore or bridle. But generally the
snaffle bit would be what you would choose for a greener horse. How you use it is way more important that what you use.
I’ll start this project by helping a horse learn to yield his neck and head from side to side, with his feet
planted in one place. I want him to yield as I make the suggestion without resistance from him. I’m not
going to be pulling and prying here. I don’t want him thinking he’s being forced into anything. To
clarify my point, think of a real green colts ears being 12 on the clock. Nine is on my left and three
straight out to my right . If I reach for him and ask him to bring his nose to 12:01 but rather he makes
9:01, I’m giving him total release of pressure. This takes a little practice for people. I’m not pulling on
him but I will allow him to pull on me. There’s a big difference here. If you think you’re going to
strong arm a real green one, don’t be surprised if he starts rearing up and pretty soon tips over
backwards. If I ask for 12:01 and he does nothing I just wait till he finds his way off that pressure and
I’ll have slack waiting for him when he gets there. Horses are in a constant search for zero pressure. If
things are presented to them in a way they can understand what you are asking of the and give them the time, they can pick it up quickly.
Now once I have this where he’s flexible from side to side, where his first reaction to my request is to
yield and not resist then yield, but yield first, then I start reaching with both reins. If his neck is bent in a
little curve to the side it will be easier for him to begin to yield vertically and not so easy for him to brace like it would be if his neck was straight out in from of him.
To use another analogy here, let’s put things on a scale on a vertical perspective. Using a scale of 1 to
10, 1 is his nose on the ground and 10 being as high as he can get his head up without rearing. Let’s call 5 where he would pack his head naturally and about 4
or 4.5 with his nose tucked in a little to be where I might want him to be soft in the bridle. If I reach for him to soften to go to the 4 range he may in the
beginning stages go to 8. If he does I’m not going to hold a my pressure till he goes to the 4 area and I surely don’t apply more pressure. But if he comes to
7.9 I’ll give him total release and then start over again in a bit or he may go past the 4 range and maybe clear down to the 2 area. On the start I’ll make sure he has
total freedom down there. I don’t mind one trying too hard. I won’t criticize him for that at all. I’ll be real
slow with my correction there. Often all you need is to speed his feet a little and his head will usually come up
on its own anyway. Now you may think if he’s going below the 4 range he’ll be hinging where his
neck hooks on to his shoulders. He’s not tucking his chin or bending at the poll. That is true, but at
this stage that is just fine with me. I want him feeling proud that he found the answer. We can go back
and polish things up as he progresses. It seems to me if we try to demand perfection too early the further from perfection we will get.
A horse that is green on this need time to develop. The simpler you keep it the faster they’ll get it. I
may give him a bunch of repetitions per ride at this point. Also a walk is plenty fast enough for a
beginner. Some common problems people have is their horse may want to stop or back when they
reach for this softness. You need to remember to squeeze or kick with your feet as you reach for his
face. You’ll need more pressure with your legs to drive him forward than what you have on the bit. I
want him knowing when I take a hold of that bit it has got nothing to do with slowing, stopping or backing unless he does not feel my feet pushing him up to the bridle.
Another common problem is once people get on to this the horse may drop off way too far and fast as
if they are escaping the pressure downward. Like I said earlier in the beginning, that is okay but a rider
may need to check that he is applying that pressure slowly and smoothly and perhaps cut the amount of
pressure way back. You may need to do less and wait longer. Your hands may need to be way more subtle and light.
On the other end of the scale is a horse that doesn’t try at all. On him you may need to see saw with a
constant pressure on his mouth till he begins to search for an answer. Remember, the key is to back off AS he does it not after he does it.
Often when a person is trying to achieve this softness they’ll ask “Am I getting it?” If they never felt it
before they don’t know what it feels like. I have them step off and try this from the ground then they can actually see what is happening as they feel what is happening.
Once a horse can get soft then I’ll ask him to begin to stay soft, but only for a few steps. Then I’ll
gradually increase the speed and challenge him on some simple requests like slowing and eventually
holding that softness as I slow down my pace in a walk and a stop. I’ll gradually over time increase the
degree of difficulty challenging him but never being afraid to step backwards in my lessons when needed.
If it isn’t working so well for you remember don’t think about working on your horse. He already
knows how to drop his head. He does it all day long without you. We are just trying to get it to become his idea when it’s our idea also. Think about working on yourself
so you can learn this feel and timing. This is something that takes a little time and practice. People are sometimes afraid of
messing up their horse and are afraid to experiment. But unless you get crazy about it that probably
isn’t going to happen. If you don’t experience success immediately you will have something in common with every great horseman that ever rode a horse.
Realize that we weren’t put on this earth just to ride horses but horses were put on this earth to be
ridden by us. Also don’t be afraid to get some help. There’s plenty people out there doing clinics and
giving lesson that can be a big help to people. As I think of different horsemen or people I know I
realize there are varying opinions as to the best way to come to the same goal. However, I never met
one yet that didn’t agree wit me about the importance of achieving softness as a means of moving forward in their relationship with their horses.
Bryan or Patty Neubert
PO Box 726
Alturas, California 96101
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