I believe true softness is a frame of mind that comes from leadership. Leadership starts with respect from me being able to move my horse away from me as it does in the herd environment. In other words, ‘the pecking order.’ The more specific I get with the control in that direction, with a slow build of pressure with a timed release, the stronger the leadership becomes.
I’ve been learning to communicate with horses as long as I can remember. And in the last 20 years, I have developed a simplified step-by-step program that I can teach others.
Two major cornerstones of my program are horses and people. People have taught me as much as the horses. Understanding your personality type plays a big role in your ability to train a horse.
There are generally four personality types; however, I will focus on the two opposite extremes — aggressive and passive.
1. If you are an aggressive, energetic and organized type of person, you will have a hard time letting a horse make mistakes because of the need to control their every move. Your commands will tend to be fast and hard to follow mentally, more in the mind set of making them do it physically. You want results and you want them now. You will have control of your horse but he will be rushy, tense and full of anxiety.
2. Then there’s the more passive personality type, who are quite happy to just go along for the ride, not wanting to ask too much of their horse or upset them. They
don’t feel the need to perfect each maneuver because they are happy with minimal results. Your commands tend to be mundane which is hard for the horse to follow mentally, and not wanting to upset them keeps you from tapping them to move physically.
This relationship will roll along smoothly until the horse doesn’t want to do the task at hand. The problem is the horse is fully aware of our expectations. One refusal turns into two and keeps snowballing until the horse won’t even leave the yard.
In order to be a leader, I need to cause movement in my horse in a specific direction. Stick with that direction through all of his evasions until he mentally accepts that direction.
It also helps to understand what motivates your partner. I believe a horse’s strongest motivation is to conserve energy. His second strongest motivator is to avoid discomfort. Knowing that makes my approach very clear. I need to first make things a little bit uncomfortable until my horse seeks the right response, in the right frame of mind. Then I need to let him rest. Now I am working with his natural instincts to do the right thing because it’s in his best interest.
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Another important piece to the puzzle is in understanding all of your horse’s evasions. I believe horses have only three evasions to every command.
The maneuver I’m going to use to illustrate what I’ve been talking about is the backup from the ground. Remember my goal is leadership and softness. I’m using
the backup to attain it. When delivering a command, the only way to gain leadership is to cause movement, then maintain that movement through restarts of the command until the horse softens.
Restarts come from releasing my command for doing a part of the man-oeuvre but not all of it. Softness will be the last response that I release for. He’s going to try every evasion at least once. The dominant horse will try more.
I’m going to apply very light pressure to the lead shank, asking my horse to back up. Remember, I only want to irritate him and add a little discomfort. If he ignores my suggestion, I start to tap him with a dressage whip on the shoulder very lightly
until he moves his feet, while maintaining my original backup command.
If he pushes forward, I don’t want to get into a muscle match. I want to just maintain the command, allowing him to come forward but the command is not going away.
Wait for him to make a decision to back up, then release for the mental response.
As soon as I release, my horse is going to try to get away from the command by going forward again or lifting his head up to the left or right. This shows the horse is doing it physically but not mentally. As a leader, I need to restart my command and continue until he backs up again. I repeat this process until my horse softens his whole body, drops his head down and yields his nose in towards his chest. This is when your horse becomes mentally soft.
When I release the command, my horse stands quietly showing no resistance. This will only happen after my horse has tried all of his evasions, and trusts me as his leader for that particular maneuver. Sometimes this process takes as many as 50 restarts.
When you deliver your commands, be aware of how easy you are to read for your horse. Robotic moves with no emotion are easiest for your horse to understand.
In conclusion, if you are aggressive, slow down; allow your horse to make mistakes and follow through with each command until you get that soft look.
If you are passive, increase your command until the release; don’t be afraid to tap your horse to move his feet. He will still love you! Demand a little more perfection
and follow through to softness.
Have fun, stay safe and enjoy the journey!
- Doug Mills, 5 time Mane Event Trainer's Challenge Champion
Over the past 20 years Doug Mills has developed and refined his Training Thru Trust
horsemanship program, and now teaches in Canada, U.S., and Europe.