Soft Feel: Lessons From Dressage

May 09, 2022

Horsemanship is an art and, like any art, it requires practice and patience to perfect. One of the most important aspects of horsemanship is learning to share a soft feel with your horse. This is best accomplished through Liberty Training®, which allows the horse and rider to develop a deep connection and communication without the use of harsh aids. When both horse and rider share a soft feel, they are able to move together as one. In a soft feel the horse's muscles are unlocked and elastic allowing him to perform beyond his natural ability.

After training horses for twenty years, I opened the door to dressage and began an earnest study of dressage techniques for training horses.  I was attracted to dressage because I thought it was the highest level of horsemanship that uses light aids with a soft feel. What I wanted more than anything to share with a horse was unity and harmony; that centaur connection where the horse and rider are one. 

Years ago, as I was reaching for greater expression of the dance I could share with a horse in dressage, I took a step in my learning journey that took me away from the soft feel and I lost my way. When riding in a soft feel,  when I would lose the performance that was expected of the horse, I was guided by my coaches to push the horse to get a stronger connection for more engagement. That led to the practice of stronger aids, such as the leg aid, rein aid, and a tap of a whip. This push from my coaches put my timing off causing me to not be in sync with the horse.  I am sure I am not the only one who has experienced this.  It can happen to any of us, especially when the people we look up to ask us to use stronger aids. It took me some time to figure out what I was doing wrong and I knew it was me, as  it’s never the horse's fault

When focusing on expectations, competition, control and performance deadlines, oftentimes an overuse of bits, spurs, whips, and cavessons can take over. When this happens the horse becomes stressed and sometimes even abused.

At first, I only pushed my horse on occasion with a strong aid. Initially, it really paid off because of the bond and connection I had with the horse. If I had only used this push on occasion I would have kept the soft feel and it wouldn’t have hurt the horse’s performance and the horse would not have gone into stress. But instead, I began relying on pushing for performance. Finally, I had pushed my horses too often which corrupted our relationship and trust. When I began relying on using strong aids more often, if you looked past the brilliance of the performance,  you could see that the horse was stressed, or at least I could feel it. The partnership I had shared with my horse previously had changed. 

The stress in the horse was causing the muscles to tense up, taking the fluidity out of the performance. The muscles that  were locked made the muscles that were in operation work harder. My horses still wanted to perform because that is the way horses are, but I had not made it easy, I had lost the centaur connection. My mistake was thinking that I could rely on strong aids to get back the soft feel.  People tend to choose strong aids because they don’t believe that a soft feel approach can bring a horse to a magical dance. 

To get back to the soft feel, I found the right coaches and returned my focus to prioritize light aids, the connection and partnership, more than the performance - like how I started in the first place. The reason the “push” stopped working is that my aids became too aggressive.

Sharing a soft feel approach is so valuable to the well being of the horse and to the human’s soul. When a person achieves this understanding they find the magical dance that force could never produce. 

My mistake was jumping over many steps that would bring about the magic for the centaur ride. I forgot the importance of giving a horse a chance to get into a soft feel before putting on a halter. I forgot to pay attention to getting a horse to give me his full attention before I asked him to follow my lead. Freedom in the union must be present in dressage for self-carriage to happen. This is my understanding of what dressage is built upon.  

I fixed this problem by training in short windows so that I could focus on the connection at the same time I was schooling. Between the short windows of training in a single session, I spent as much time in relaxation by walking or cantering my horse on a loose rein or pauses at a halt on a loose rein to give time for the horse to embody the advancement of his training. I ask a horse to follow my lead only when he is relaxed and willing. I have learned that knowing when to lead, when to follow, when to act, and when to pause creates a natural magnetism and must start out with a soft feel (a shared gentleness).   

Sharing the pause in relaxation brings out the desire in the horse to want to perform. A horse needs time to think and process, and with the focus on the connection, we were more than ready to dance together as one as the training advanced.

Dressage should come easily and naturally. If we start connecting with our horses in this manner the residual effect is that our horses will automatically go into a soft feel with us when being led. 

The secret to getting a horse to follow your lead easily is to focus on the soft feel more than the performance, and of course, staying away from the push or the feeling that the horse owes you his cooperation. A horse owes  you nothing. Being on the back of a horse needs to be by invitation only. I want my work with horses to look like a premeditated dance in freedom coming from a natural bond.

I've made it my mission to help other equestrians find their way back to the soft feel, and avoid the need to use stronger aids. With time and practice, sharing a soft feel will become second nature, and you will be able to enjoy the magical experience of true Horsemanship. It takes a bit of study, but it's well worth the effort. I like to call it the long journey home.

May the spirit of the horse be with you!

Carolyn Resnick

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