The difference between Soft...and Soft & Willing.

Uncategorized Feb 17, 2023

I truly got to see, feel and learn this lesson when I was 18, my dad (Doug Mills) signed me up for the Junior European Trainers Challenge in Switzerland. There was three “junior trainers”, 3 year old un-started horses, three "open" trainers to coach the juniors and four training sessions. The coaches had a mic, so luckily I had my dads help every minute of my sessions.

At this particular challenge we were  also using heart rate monitors, this would show the audience the horses heart rate throughout the entire session. It was extremely educational on a whole other level! My mind was blown at the level of peace I could bring to that nervous three year old... through leadership! The heart monitors made this very easy to see.

Throughout my sessions when I would release, my dad would be in my ear "one more time, take it one step further." At first I didn't understand because in my mind my horse was moving off my pressure softly without resistance. What my dad saw and what I learned that weekend was...although my horse was soft.... I had not achieved "acceptance." My horse wasn't 100% sold on me being the leader.

In those next few lessons I focused on acceptance from start to finish. Although I hadn't rode my horse yet, like my competitors, I was working on much deeper things that would set my horse up for success for the rest of his life. When I entered the finals that day I was the only one that had not loped my horse under saddle.

My horse shined so bright that at the end of the challenge people accused me of training him through the night. The reason he came so far was that he already accepted me as the leader, he trusted that he was safe to do what I asked him and understood what I was asking 100%. I had already covered A, B & C so he knew what to expect from me when I asked for D, E & F!

I could have never gotten anywhere with that horse safely, without acceptance. What dad taught me in that moment was that although I had him perfectly soft, he wasn’t accepting or leaning on me as his leader. He was just listening to me and there is a VERY BIG difference! The difference shows up on the trail, in the show pen, on a windy day or when they are fresh. When you put a horse into a stressful or scary environment you quickly find out if they think of you as the leader or just a jockey.

I never understood it growing up but I sure do now, acceptance is the most important thing I was missing and the thing that got me bucked off several times! I have always understood that my horse had to move away from pressure softly and I thought when they did... it meant willingly. I now understand that moving away from pressure softly and moving away from pressure willingly are two very different things!

Fast forward to now ... I have a 3 year that I have trained start to finish! I can confidently do anything on him and am so proud of the horse I created. Ever since the beginning he did what I asked, when I asked and softly. I didn’t have any of the day to day problems I did before. The worst thing he would do is take a step when I had him ground tried or crowd me on the halter. I believe he is this way because of that very lesson. From day one I have always made sure he understood my command and accepted it.

Getting acceptance and maintaining it takes very little time in the long run but a few more seconds every day. Acceptance can be recognized as peace, the argument is over. They won’t throw their head right back up or try to take a step as soon as you finish the command, when you have gained acceptance your horse will end the command waiting patiently and stop arguing over control. Acceptance can look like taking a breath, chewing and sometimes even yawn, they are at peace.

-Kaylee Walden (Mills)


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