Archive Post: Being Soft Together


A question came in regarding lightness and softness that I think is a good one.  I’ve done my best to answer it below.  I welcome further conversation and follow up questions to keep the topic going! 

Question: It seems to me that once you have lightness that seems to stay, but softness I am constantly having to work on.  Is that the way it goes? Or, if I become insistent enough will my horse get so with me that the softness will eventually always be there when the two of us are doing something whether it be on the ground or from the saddle?

First, I guess I should recap what I see as the difference between lightness and softness.  This is certainly not a concept original to me.  Harry Whitney, Ross Jacobs, and others talk and write about this all the time. But, this is my take on the whole discussion.  Lightness is a physical reaction, where as softness is a mental response and emotional feeling.  To me, lightness usually is a horse avoiding pressure somehow, maybe the pressure of the line, the whip, the leg, or the ask in general, by staying physically ahead of it, without really changing a thought or feeling.  As anyone who has been chased knows, you can stay ahead of pressure/contact without feeling good about it, or thinking about what you are doing!  In fact, if you are simply staying ahead of pressure, you are probably thinking only about the pressure in order to react!  Softness, however, is a response.  Softness means that the horse has let go of one thought and picked up the one presented, completely committed, and made whatever physical changes were necessary to make the mental and emotional shift.  You can have lightness without softness, but if you have softness you will necessarily have lightness.  This is because, a horse can feel bad, tight, worried, etc in order to stay ahead of the pressure and react (lightness without softness), but will never be heavy and and also completely committed, okay feeling and engaged with the activity (softness).

A lot of the time, a horse will learn lightness as a form of obedience.  They know that if they do X then Y will not happen (if they side pass, the leg will not push into their side.  If they go left on the line, the sound/whip/stick/flag will never engage).  But, when they practice this obedience, they do not necessarily feel okay about it (who would feel okay about simple avoidance, even if it was successful? Not me.) they simply learn that it works to avoid trouble.  Horses will do a lot to avoid trouble. 

A really easy place to spot if a horse has changed their thought softly, or simply learned a light trick, is when asking a horse to go out on a circle on the line.  If you ask them to go left, and they go left immediately without any pressure on the line, follow up with a flag, etc, but also without looking and thinking left, that is lightness.  If they actually look to the left, organize themselves to get ready to go left, and go left with their body and mind, with complete intent and okay-ness about going left (and as a byproduct, with a really nice physical maneuver) that is softness.

So, back to the question.  My first thought when I read the question is that the reason it seems that lightness stays and softness doesn’t, is because lightness is a lot easier to get than softness.  It’s as simple as that.  Horses are amazing at staying out of trouble, and many will stay really light even when really worried. So, my guess is, the horses that are being referred to in the question have figured out the physical expectations of the exercises and to avoid  conflict, which to these particular horses is pressure, they are performing the action with a level of obedience that does not necessarily reflect their mental commitment to the task.

I think that it is natural that a horse that is used to obedience and lightness, not soft engagement, will come in and out of softness as they learn.  Being soft and focused and engaged is tiring and takes practice.  If that has never been a part of the program, it is natural to default to the easier task of lightness and obedience.  However, don’t read “easier” as “better.” It is only easier because that is what the horse is used to; it does not mean they feel good about things.  Quality horsemanship will try to show the horse that place of softness and engagement repeatedly, until the horse realizes how much better that feels than simply shutting down and becoming obedient.  Once a horse truly realizes this, they will search for this feeling, and the try will shift from being directed at avoiding trouble towards being with the person.  

I also think it takes practice from the person’s end.  I know very few riders who have thought to look for softness rather than lightness, and even fewer that have been taught to.  So, for the majority of us it is a very new and obscure thing to not simply look for obedience and lightness.  As with any new world view, it takes time to not only learn how to ask for softness, but even what that looks like in the first place!  My guess is the person asking the question is still experimenting with softness themselves, and so are inadvertently not particularly consistent about the level of expectation, and maybe miss moments when the horse isn’t fully engaged and soft.  This is completely okay, it’s part of the learning curve, and we as people are likely to regress to old habits the same way the horse is.  This doesn’t mean to stop aspiring to perfection, it just means that sometimes there might be setbacks between us and our horses, stemming from both ends of the relationship!

A horse that feels good will be soft and ready to try.  A horse that feels bad will be worried and simply trying to survive.  It’s as simple as that.  Those moments that feel wonderful for both the horse and the human probably mean the softness is going both ways, and that’s an amazing thing.  But it takes a while to recognize the difference between an obedient trick and a willing try.

This co-softness, of both the horse and human, mentioned above is the last part of the equation.  It’s hard to talk about directly because it feels very intangible, but I think it comes up in a lot of my writing on this blog, however inadvertently.  We must remember that our expectations of softness must not only be for the horse.  I know that those of us trained to ride seeking lightness (read: obedience), also learn a certain amount of dictatorship.  Because, only a dictator would seek obedience.  A leader with benevolence, compassion and clarity would seek engagement— a two way relationship—and this sort of leader is lives through softness themselves.  

Finding softness within ourselves is as difficult as finding it within the horse, particularly when we are working toward something specific from animal.  It’s easy to get fixated on goals and technique and forget the horse.  That is exactly the moment we (at least I) turn into a dictator, and the moment the horse stops trying and starts worrying about what the next moment might bring.  Instead, we must both look softly into the next thought, with clarity, intrigue and engagement, excited for what each conversation might bring.

Good luck!