- by Don Jessop
Do you want a horse that is responsive and light? Do you want to feel what the master horse trainers feel on a daily basis every time they work with an upper-level horse or help a horse move toward the upper levels? If so... it starts with light, soft hands. You can never achieve lightness if you start heavy.
There is a story of two trainers. One trainer moves quickly and abruptly, constantly jabbing the horse for not being responsive. The other moves slowly and precisely, constantly encouraging the horse. As time passes both trainers advance their horses to the upper levels but only one trainer looks like they belong in that level. Can you guess which one? The story ends with the realization that if you have a habit of being abrupt, you may unwittingly continue the habit forever, even after your horse becomes lighter, simply because your Motus Operandi is to be abrupt and quick when teaching. But if your habit is lightness, then welcome to the master's journey through horsemanship.
BUT WAIT... there's more!
If you're light, does that mean your horse will be light and soft too? Answer... No, it doesn't.
There is an important difference in semantics that master trainers understand when using words like lightness or softness. First of all, you must start soft if you ever want to "be" soft. That's something we've established, but just because you are soft, that doesn't mean your horse will automatically be soft. For that, you must teach your horse to be soft too.
Sometimes it takes a firm hand to teach softness. Sure... you always start off soft to see if you get a light response without support. But if you don't get a response and wait too long, you might inadvertently reward your horse for being dull. Some people are so intent on being soft that they fail to teach the horse to be soft. It's like their waiting for the horse to learn a lesson when the horse doesn't even know there is a lesson to learn. The greatest trainers don't wait forever for the horse to be soft. They actually encourage softness but asking softly then increasing pressure smoothly until the horse realizes there is something important afoot. At which point the horse will respond and rewards will fall upon the horse in the form of praise, scratching, resting, etc. Then, in a cyclical fashion, the trainer will invite the horse to respond to the same signal again and again, until finally... the horse realizes that he too (or she) must also be consistently soft.
The pitfalls are plenty when you work with horses, but the master trainers keep these things in mind. One: start soft every time you ask for something (unless it's a dire emergency). Two: with a short time, smoothly increase pressure to demand the response instead of waiting. And three: Reward and repeat until the horse truly responds to that one simple signal without hesitation or heaviness.
Consider the path to mastery as you go out to play with your horse. When you get to the point where you truly understand the connection and differences to these words (Soft hands vs. Soft to the hands) you will most definitely find yourself on the path to mastery and your horse will love you for it.
Thanks for reading, please share and comment below!