• Create an account
    Fields marked with an asterisk (*) are required.

Light Hands / Soft Feel

What does the term "Light Hands” or "Soft Feel" mean to you in regards to Western Dressage?

dress nh dressage tension


What can we learn from great leaderships like Ronald Reagan, Teddy Roosevelt, and Dwight Eisenhower? The USA won the cold war in part because President Reagan was willing to back up his words with unyielding military force. Does "Speak softly, but carry a big stick", ring a bell? "Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it." – Dwight D. Eisenhower The principles of leadership are the same whether we are leaders of man or domesticated animals.

Closely examine the above pictures.
What do you see? Do you see heavy handed riders with stiff resistant horses? Look closely at the HAND of the rider in red. Notice that a short rein with contact does not necessarily lead to heaviness. He has an open hand while holding the horse with three fingers. Also notice that the horse is happy without a gaping mouth. What contrast do you see regarding the dressage rider and horse?  Have you ever watched a competition horse going around the arena with a blue tongue, a gaping mouth, and rider riding with white knuckles? Is this the type of riding you want? Of course not. Because of the unwanted resistance, it is not uncommon to hear western folks say that it is wrong to be in your horse’s face. Have you heard the terms “Light Hands” or “Soft Feel"? Its obvious to a person with a trained eye that the rider on the right has a “Soft Feel” on his horse. Some folks think having short reins leads to heaviness and resistance and the “Soft Feel" can only be attained through long reins, with minimal contact. The use of the terms, “Light Hands” and “Soft Feel" seem to be a growing trend in the Western Dressage community and can be applied across the board. Can you identify with this thinking? 

In the Dressage world
self-carriage, lightness, and softness are highly sought out and valued. The premiss of any form of dressage is collection, self-carriage through building a balanced, soft, supple horse, that is responsive to your aids and working of the hind-end. Who does not want these qualities in their horse? Over the recent years Modern dressage has come under fire and criticism for what is perceive as heavy handed riding instead of lightness and soft feel. Western Dressage was created as an alternative by taking all the good things from both disciplines.  The question now is: How do you achieve that level of horsemanship while maintaining the "Soft Feel"? Can you recognize a soft, light horse when you see it? Is it through light hands we can achieve a light horse or the soft feel? 

What are your expectations? 
Do you have a balance understanding of the terms “Light Hands” and Soft Feel? To fully appreciate this article you need to view it from the perspective of training western horses with Classical principles (Western Dressage). We are all concerned about the welfare of horses, but many folks are sacrificing higher performance for fear that they may somehow hurt the horse’s feelings. Some folks feel that higher performance means that we need to be unkind to our horses. 

The reality.
Depending on your perspective, I have learned that these terms mean different things to differnent folks. Dont you agree; however, there are far too many folks that rely mainly on their hands not on their legs and seat. Did you know that true softnes and lightness comes from the seat and legs not from your hands? The reins should only be taught as a secondary aid to the seat and legs. If you want a "light horse" and "soft feel" the first directive is to have an independent seat not light hands. Far too many folks rely on their hands to balance themselves not to teach the horse to have balance. 

So why do you think I felt the need to tackle this topic? Over the last few years there seems to be a trend that Light Hands or Soft Feel means long reins. Let me help you understand some fundamental concepts of classical training. Hands that “throw away” the reins are doing a disservice to the horse, even if the rider thinks that letting the horse go is a good thing. An effective contact, whether on a long or short rein (and in a long or short body outline), is a support system to help the horse maintain his balance. Training with long reins means long frame. Training with long reins will lead a horse to be flat and downhill. This is great if you are building a western pleasure stock horse, but the tenants of a Western Dressage bridle horse is collected and uphill.  If you are going to build a true "Western Dressage Bridle Horse” that is willfully guided one-handed with classical principles, you cannot do it with long reins. In addition, Western Dressage requires the poll to be the highest point in a rounded collected frame. In order to shift the weight back to the hind-end, you need to create a barrier in the front end to lift the shoulders and drive the hind-end to the bridle. You cannot do all this without making contact and shorten the reins. Contact does not mean pain to either the horse's mouth, nor the rider's hands. It is a fact and it is mandatory that you need to get into the face of the horse to teach it to carry itself in the correct and proper frame until he learns to do it himself. You need to understand that for some horses it takes years to build muscles to hold a frame like it is demonstrated in the picture on the right. Yes, you need to teach a horse to carry himself by carring him first. Are you starting to see my point?

To achieve this level of ride-ability while maintain kindness to you horse, you need to memorize and apply these concepts at all times:
  1. “Soft as possible and firm as necessary” 
  2. “Start soft and end soft.”
  3. “Ask, insist, demand" 
  4. “Get in, get it done, get out”
  5. “Do not nag and peck”
  6. “Retest for softness”
I want to clarify a huge misconception;
horses lean and push into pressure by instinct, NOT go away. For an example if you make contact with any aid, they will push and resist. In order to get lightness in a movement, you first ask lightly, then insist, then demand until you get a reply (turning up the volume so to speak).  This will cause the horse to be uncomfortable and resistant until he learns what you want. Because of this concept, light hands alone is NOT what creates a light horse! To be effective, you need SLOW, FIRM, and CONSISTENT hands NOT "Light Hands". No horse respects a light touch without some type of consequences. Lightness and softness is a result or an end product of proper training. One of the tenants of western dressage is straightness, but straightness lends itself to resistance and stiffness. Lightness and softness is created through bending and creating situations where resistance can be eliminated. By teaching lightness you automatically cause discomfort and resistance as a result. Yes, it is no secret that you cannot get a light soft horse with heavy hands, but lightness is supported by firmness. There is a direct correlation between lightness and firmness. The degree of lightness you want is directly associated by the softness of your voice and sized of the stick you are willing to carry.

Supplementary information, see video.

Add comment

Security code


Written on 11/01/2016, 12:26 by admin
modern-vs-classical-dressage-is-there-a-differenceModern vs Classical Dressage, is there a difference? You Have you ever heard of an instructor say "I only teach classical principles" or "classical dressage"? After all, isn't Western Dressege built on classical principles? I can't recall anyone bragging about teaching competitive or modern...
Written on 23/04/2015, 11:23 by admin
genghis-khan-in-the-art-of-riding-correctlySomehow I don’t think Genghis Khan of the Mongol Empire (1162-1227 AD) rode "two handed” in a curb bit while cutting off the the heads of his enemies on horse back.  For years I have felt that my rants have fallen on death ears. I am glad that I am not the only person that feels...
Written on 23/02/2015, 13:06 by admin
light-handsWhat does the term "Light Hands” or "Soft Feel" mean to you in regards to Western Dressage? What can we learn from great leaderships like Ronald Reagan, Teddy Roosevelt, and Dwight Eisenhower? The USA won the cold war in part because President Reagan was willing to back up his words with unyielding...
Written on 11/02/2015, 09:08 by admin
new-article Where has common sense gone these days? Have you ever seen something that made you shake your head in disbelief? This reminds me of a phrase I have heard: “If you tell a lie long enough, it becomes the truth.”  “Wisdom is not just the use of knowledge, to properly use wisdom you...
Written on 11/05/2014, 09:01 by admin
seeking-truth-one-hand-at-a-time “The greatest enemy of knowledge is "NOT" ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.”  ― Daniel J. Boorstin, The Discoverers: A History of Man's Search to Know His World and Himself What does the above statement mean to you? What is the best way to gain power and infuence over folks? The...
Written on 20/03/2013, 18:25 by admin
what-does-true-collection-look-like Randy, "How do I know that I am doing Western Dressage correctly?" That is a great question, I am glad you asked. I get this question quite often. It would be helpful if the water was not so muddy, right? To help answer this question I have a few questions for you as well. "Are you a truth seeker...
Written on 10/03/2013, 13:49 by admin
proper-use-of-holding-a-bridle-horseRiding out on the trail or schooling, riders often hold their reins in whatever way is most comfortable or useful. Riding casually, we might use two hands, or cross the reins, or switch frequently from hand to hand, but in the horse show ring, rules are very specific about how the reins are held, and...
Written on 01/01/2013, 21:31 by admin
the-what-is-the-difference-the-five-ws-of-western-dressageThe “What is the Difference?” "The Five W's of Western Dressage": “What? Why? Who? Where? When?” Do you need an excuse to be with your horse? If you are like me, probably not. Even mucking Carbon's stall is enjoyable; I love every minute I spend with my boy. Have you ever gotten on your horse and...
Written on 28/12/2012, 23:58 by admin
demystifying-the-pyramid-what-is-the-training-scaleDemystifying The Pyramid "Training Scale?" Do you remember sitting in high school and not understanding the question that everyone else seemed to know the answer to?  Do you remember being so afraid to raise your hand that you pretended you already knew the answer and regretted it when the...
Written on 15/12/2012, 21:31 by admin
the-five-ws-of-western-dressageThe “Why?” "The Five W's of Western Dressage": “What? Why? Who? Where? When?” In the last year, there have been lots of people asking, “What is Western Dressage?” You may have seen an article or two labeled, “What is Western Dressage?” Simply put, Western Dressage is a method of training that brings...
Written on 15/10/2012, 18:00 by admin
snaffle-vs-curbI have a question, Randy: If a horse goes nicely in a snaffle, why do you need to change to a curb or (bridle)? Good question, here is the answer: "Very few folks can ride bridlelss, but even fewer can ride with a bridle!" ~ Eitan Beth-Halachmy The simple truth is that you do not need a...
Written on 14/10/2012, 16:37 by admin
what-did-your-horse-teach-you-today  Question: I have a beautiful 9 year old Paint/Qtr gelding. He hadn't been handled in over a year before we brought him home, but we've been handling him everyday. However, most of the handling has been allowing him to graze on the lead. Last weekend, I attempted to give him some wormer...
Written on 29/09/2012, 15:08 by admin
the-use-of-the-curb-bit-a-lower-levels Bethe Mounce Question---"why the curb chain and not a plain snaffle? This is lower level dressage, right?"This question is in reference to riding Western Dressage tests in a curb bit or snaffle bit. I am not sure if I fully understand the question, but  you mention a curb chain… I think...
Written on 29/09/2012, 15:03 by admin
why-use-a-cavasenRandy I have a question, "why do you use a Cavesson?"thanks Brock HolbrookThat is a great question and here is my answer: Analogy:Think of using a cavesson like you would if you went to the orthodontist to get braces put on your teeth. It is a temporary tool to fix a problem. Once the problem is...
Written on 22/06/2012, 22:40 by admin
randy-byers-truth-revealed"Rearing and flipping over backwards is the single most dangerous thing a horse can do!"Why does a horse rear?Rearing is a refusal to go forward or an evasion to your "go forward" aids or cues!""How do you fix a rearing problem? Simply put, "keep the horse's feet moving in any direction except...
Written on 11/04/2012, 12:29 by admin
what-is-a-bridle-horseDeveloping a good "Western Dressage Bridle Horse" is all about your expectations of what you want in a "finished horse". There are many training methods claiming that they are the only correct way to train a horse. Even though there are many ways to "start", "develop", or "finish" a horse, the...
Written on 04/04/2012, 16:44 by admin
q-a-flying-lead-change"Transitioning from a Simple Change to a Flying Change"   "I am going to be showing this summer, but I have been working for a few months on lead changes and my horse can get where he does like half a trot stride then goes to the next lead, but I can't get him to do an actual flying...
Written on 26/03/2012, 01:13 by admin
ground-manners  "My name is Briana. I’m training a 2-year old mare and she does not know her ground manners. What do I do and how do I teach her good ground manners?"   Thank you for asking these questions. This is a very widely researched topic. There are many books, videos, DVDs and other educational...
Written on 26/03/2012, 01:12 by admin
how-do-i-get-her-to-slow-down  "How do I get her to slow down, collect, and accept the bit and stop being so neurotic about whenever the reins are gathered and the bit makes contact with her mouth?"   This is a great question and you have given me lots of detail to help in forming a response. I like to define a...
Written on 26/03/2012, 01:11 by admin
speed-control  I like to define a ‘broke horse’ by saying that you have full control of direction and impulsion, regardless of how good your ground work is and how soft he is. Using this definition, If you cannot control the speed of the canter, he is not broke or not broke enough. The quick and simple...
Written on 26/03/2012, 01:10 by admin
anthropomorphism “My horse sleeps better at night in a barn because he feels safe, my horse comes to me in the field because he loves me, my horse won't take its medicine just to spite me.” We can’t help but love our equine friends because of their social nature, but can we be accused of the dangerous behavior of...
Written on 26/03/2012, 01:05 by admin
i-can-t-control-my-horse-on-the-ground  Question: I have a beautiful 9 year old Paint/Qtr gelding. He hadn't been handled in over a year before we brought him home, but we've been handling him everyday. However, most of the handling has been allowing him to graze on the lead. Last weekend, I attempted to give him some wormer...
Written on 26/03/2012, 01:01 by admin
active-vs-passive-leadership "In a world full of horse trainers, clinicians and equine professionals competing to make a mark for themselves, many find new ways to reinvent the wheel; however, several try to put their knowledge into some package where we may identify with it all. In the equine world, leadership is the key to...
Written on 26/03/2012, 01:00 by admin
natural-horsemanship-what-is-its-message In the world of “Natural Horsemanship”, there is a widely used phrase “be as soft as possible and as firm as necessary.” It you ask 20 people what Natural Horsemanship means, you will get 20 different answers. There is also a growing concern about how firm is too firm and how gentle is too gentle. If...
Written on 26/03/2012, 00:58 by admin
confidence-is-leadership-in-action-and-fear "I have been raising a family for the last 20 years and I need help with my confidence. I was a fearless rider when I was younger, but now I am nervous. Last year I got hurt and I am not sure if I want to just hop on, now. My horse is very pushy on the ground when I lead him." “Confidence” is...
You are here: Home Home Articles Articles Light Hands / Soft Feel