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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

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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.

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