Monday, June 4, 2012

Soft Hands - Soft Mouth

There was an interesting question posed on the Equine Mind Meld. The rider was wondering if his hands were too soft. He figured he rode without bit contact about 97% of the time. I really couldn't come up with anything better than, "It depends on if you're getting the job done."

The thing is, how often the bit comes in contact with the horse's mouth has nothing to do with how soft the horse or rider is. Under the previous definition, a dude horse who will do his trail route with his reins hanging and some screaming little kid on his back, would be considered soft mouthed, and the kid, who's doing head stands and riding backwards, but never picks up his reins, would have soft hands.Until he tries to take the dude horse off the trail. Then, when the horse's head goes down, he starts to eat, and no amount of hard handed yanking by the kid will get his head up, he's hard mouthed, because he'd rather let that rough handed kid rip his mouth bloody than miss out on another bite of grass.

This kind of logic would also imply that riding disciplines which rely on contact are harder handed than those that don't. Which is nonsense.

One of my riding gods, Ray Hunt, spent a lot of time teaching riders to get their horse to respond off the softest cue. He encouraged his students to find the softest, lightest, gentlest touch they could to work their horse. The reasoning was perfect. A horse can feel and respond to the tickle of a fly on his flank, so why would we kick them in the belly when we cinched them, or yank their heads around to turn them, or kick them fifty times to trot when a shift of our seat could do the same?

This seemed to set off a mindset of,  how soft can I go? Which is great, but only if there is an actual understanding of what makes a horse soft-mouthed and a rider soft-handed.

If anybody ever went to a Ray Hunt clinic they probably saw what would happen to one of his well broke horses if they quit listening. Ray got their attention, fast and hard. Whip, spur, bit, whatever it took to clarify his position, he was using it. His misbehaving horse would go scurrying back to soft obedience as fast as it could. Because Ray made the wrong thing very, very difficult if his horse knew better.

Horses don't become soft if they don't understand there's a consequence for not being that way.

They need to understand the gentle touch of the rein or leg will be followed with a much firmer reminder of what's needed.

My approach to my horses runs this way.
1. I ask with a whisper (actually, it's a touch, I'm not much on whispering). Once.
2. I say what's required with a firm explanation (using legs and hands). Once.
3. I make it happen. No matter what it takes, I make it happen.
   Then I take a breath and go back to step one.

My horses have a choice. They can work off step 1, 2, or 3. It's amazing how willing they are to go from step 3 to step 2. Then, they go to step 1 and usually work pretty hard to stay there. But once in a while, they all test. Just in case you aren't capable of making them do their job that day.

My responsibility to my horse is to know how much to ask.
It can be just the flick of an ear from a range a colt or a mustang.
It can be a clean round in the cutting pen from my seasoned show horse.
Thousands and thousands of questions asked and answered take my horse from range colt to show horse.

So, if I want my horse to ride with only 3% contact, then I have to make sure he understands everything I expect of him during the other 97%. He has to know if he doesn't respond to my question, I'll explain it once, then make him comply. There would be contact during the compliance, because I would want him to desire my whisper. I would want it to be very important to my horse that he doesn't need contact from me. He needs to know his safe place is when he's listening and I'm not touching the reins.

A horse ridden with contact, say a snaffle bitter, will be asked the exact same questions. The difference is only in the communication. My snaffle bitter will be every bit as soft to handle, within the limits of his education, as my bridle horse will be.

The soft mouth is not created by soft hands. Every horse is born with a soft mouth. It hurts them when we pull. All of them. From the flighty three-year-old to the been-there-done-that dude horse, it still hurts to get yanked on.
Timing and communication is what creates a soft mouth. Feel. The ability to tell when the pressure being exerted has accomplished it's goal and to quit.

Desensitization is what creates a hard mouth. Yeppers, the very self same learning tool embraced by round penners everywhere, teaches Old Ironsides to tune out your spurs, ignore the big wonkin' long shanked bit you've got hanging from his face and do whatever his goal is, not yours.

When there is no purpose to the yank, the pull, the whip or spur, then a horse is going to tune it out. He can't make any sense of it, except that it hurts and it happens on a regular basis, so he learns to ignore the pain. He doesn't try, because trying doesn't do any good. He doesn't think about it, because that hasn't helped much either. He just shuts things out and gets on life as best he can.

I have always felt that most hard mouthed horses are pretty darn good natured. Mainly because they tune their riders out instead of trying to kill them, which they probably deserve. The choice was pretty much this -- become dull or become a murderer--and these sweeties chose dull.

Here's a couple of very simplified version of how hard mouthed happens:

Scenario #1: Horse and rider go down trail. Horse wants to trot, rider pulls on mouth. Horse speeds up feet and tosses head, rider doesn't understand. Rider hangs on mouth. horse tosses head. Rider hangs harder. Horse veers into brush. Rider hangs harder. Horse spooks. Rider hangs. It hasn't occurred to the horse he should slow down because the rider has explained nothing, only hung on his head. He doesn't want to slow down, he wants to go home, to his stall, where nobody pulls. Rider obviously doesn't get it. Nothing the horse does works. goes home. The only way he can think of to get the rider off his mouth.

Scenario#2: Rider pulls as a cue to the horse. Pulls to turn, pulls to stop, pulls to guide. The horse leans on the bit to brace against the pull. The neck and shoulders go into blocking conversation instead of working with the rider. Rider uses increasingly harder cues or stronger equipment. Horse tunes out rider with equal strength.

Scenario#3: The rider gives up. Cues once, cues twice, still doesn't have a response, and releases while thinking up another approach. Comes in with more firepower, but all the horse remembers is the release. If he waits, the pulling will stop. So he waits.

Desensitizing is essentially teaching the horse to tune out stimulus that distracts them from us. If you look at that horrific video of the Big Lick trainer beating the crap out of a horse to teach it not to react to pain you see desensitizing  taken to a terrifying extreme.

The thing to remember is, you can dull a horse to anything through repetition, if the stimulus is without communication or reward.

I know there is no such thing as a "hard mouth." One of the benefits of being a mid-level horse trainer was I got to ride lots of schlock in order to keep my business afloat. I found I could teach the most closed down, hard headed, 20-year school horse veteran to respond to the lightest touch. It was hard getting through sometimes. I had to ask very little, tiny questions. I had to accept minimal responses. But by God, when the light when on, those horses welcomed my communication with everything they had. Because horses are the coolest, most forgiving animal on the planet. "It's about time!" they seemed to shout.

So, back to the original question. Can a rider have too soft of hands?

Depends on if you're getting the job done.


  1. Hey mugwump - so the correct response to scenario #1 has me very interested. I run into that scenario many times and I hate it, I don't want that to be what happens but it does because I don't know what I should be doing instead. The best I've come up with is to make trotting difficult by turning her, calmly, into small circles requiring her to cross her back legs over themselves and to me, that seems like work for her. The lightbulb hasn't gone off in her head yet so I'm convinced this isn't working for her - what would you do?

  2. Sarah,
    I had a scenario 1 horse for many years. Here is what worked for us.

    Horse would be fine headed away from home. We'd turn towards home, and he'd pick up a trot. I'd immediatly turn him around and trot away from home. Fine, you want to trot? Ok, but we aren't going towards home. After a couple of minutes, I'd walk, then turn towards home. Be prepared to spend some time doing a LOT of back and forth. Don't start this fight if you don't have the time and energy to finish it.

    If the trotting occurred when we were headed away from home, I leg yeilded back and forth across the trail, asked for shoulder in/shoulder out, and basically made trotting so much work that he wanted to walk.

    This was a paso fino endurance horse with a TON of go, so it took a bit for him to decide it was just easier to walk. I didn't care how fast he walked, as long as he did. He finally got it, and I had the fastest walking horse in the world. But that was ok....

  3. I have an Arab mare who wants to run once she gets on the trail. It is extremely hard for me to stop her, and we often get into a pulling match. I usually stop it, but I'm not sure how to stop her from surging? We are often with some other riders, so that may add to the confusion..

  4. sarah and anon...I am a big fan of the zig zag. Left rein, right rein, make sure the horses feet move with the direction, you're not just winging the head back and forth.
    this an go on for hours BTW, be prepared.
    Anxiety is reduced in the horse, because he is still moving forward, anxiety is reduced in the rider because you get to maintain contact, only one rein at a time.
    The second, I do mean second, the horse takes a walking step, relax all cues.
    As soon as the horse breaks gait, resume the left, right, left right.
    This is very similar to what Jwilkinson did, in part 2 anyway, but I don't worry about getting a correct leg yield, just move the feet.
    I don't want to punish the horse for his anxiety, just make it harder to move forward.

  5. Thanks so much JWilkison and mugwump - I've noticed trainers all across the board emphasizing forward movement but now I understand how to incorporate that with the zig-zags/leg yields etc. Now I just want to skip out on the rest of my day to work and watch this unfold with my mare. I'm so happy this is directed towards reducing anxiety, not stifling my mare's natural response. And I'm glad it will take hours - I usually feel pressure that what I'm working on would be resolved quickly if I really knew what I was doing and I'm too worried about confusing my horse that I don't take the time to continue working on it, calmly. Most days I just feel like I'm hopping on and off my horse because I'm not pushing us because NH (ok, that was a low blow) has me uber concerned about what progress is and I feel like I'm never really getting to know her. And nothing feels so good as when you've worked long and hard over something and the both of you get it. I really am afraid of putting time under the saddle for fear of screwing up my horse.

  6. Time in the saddle is the ONLY way to develop feel. Horses are incredibly forgiving, they can learn the "right way" after you figure it out.

  7. Good post. No contact definitely does not mean soft hands. I think that to really have soft hands, you need to be able to gently hold a horse in the bridle to collect, and have it be a happy and willing conversation-- not just the pull-give-release method that a lot of tv trainers advocate.

    At one point, I may have been said to have hands that were too soft, but it wasn't my hands that were too soft, it was my brain. I was rewarding the smallest try, but never asking more from my horse, so of course he never gave it. I had all the baby steps down, but wasn't demanding more speed, more precision and more try from my very athletic, and perfectly happy to be in baby-land, gelding. When Les Vogt tells you at a clinic that he wants to come back as your horse, it's not really a compliment, but I haven't forgotten it.

  8. And I agree that horses are very forgiving. One of the reasons I was too soft was that I was afraid of screwing up. But, if you don't try, you won't ever get anything done and a horse will forgive, relearn, and move on. They really are lovely that way. :-)

  9. A wonderful and timely post! Going from the bosal to the bit I had been worried of making my gelding hard mouth or hurting him. Therefore, I had not been asking clear and concise questions to my horse and finally did the other day. I did receive the answer I wanted from him.
    Who'da thunk it?....*grins*

    I was so concerned about making him insensitive to cues that I literally was not cuing clearly....or asking questions at all well.

    Anyway, thank you mugs for a very good piece of writing.

  10. "If anybody ever went to a Ray Hunt clinic they probably saw what would happen to one of his well broke horses if they quit listening. Ray got their attention, fast and hard. Whip, spur, bit, whatever it took to clarify his position, he was using it. His misbehaving horse would go scurrying back to soft obedience as fast as it could. Because Ray made the wrong thing very, very difficult if his horse knew better."

    After 30 years in the saddle I am just now accepting this. In my resistance to use discipline to make my cue clear I have instead hung on to the horse's faced or nagged with my cues. I've only recently realized just how ineffective that was and that both the horse and I are happier once we both have a clear picture of the expectations.

  11. I have a student that doesn't want to do anything that she considers "hurting" the horse; and she's a very analytical, thinking rider. She doesn't want step by step instructions, she wants to know what to do then have a chance to try it out and fix it on her own. However, because she doesn't want to be "mean" and get her point across once, she often ends up getting the horse the ignore her if I don't step in and get her to just "do it".

    I've tried many times to explain to her that the 1, 2, 3 method is nicer to the horse because then you can be soft and not nag. At the same time I have to balance letting her figure it out and keeping her from desensitizing the horse. It's actually really fun to teach her because it keeps me thinking so much!

    One of my favorite dressage quotes from an old trainer: "You'll never know what your horse is capable of if you don't ask for too much at some point" The key of course being able to recognize when you have asked too much!

    and PS to those with horses that GO GO GO, voice commands really helped me. It cut through all the confusion for my mare because "WHOA" only means stop unlike pulling can mean slow down a little or turn; and she is the master of negotiation with cues!

  12. I'm so glad you wrote on this! (Long time lurker, don't know if I've commented before.)

    I started riding a horse a number of years ago who was extremely strong and hard-mouthed. He was also energetic and spooky, which made for a difficult ride. I remember having to saw hard on his kimberwicke to avoid walking straight into other horses in the beginning. It was like riding a wood barrel...he just ignored you completely.

    I now just have to say "whoa" and he stops instantly. I ride him English, but I give him an extremely loose rein. My instructor sometimes yells at me for not having enough contact, but what do I care? As long as he's going the speed and direction I want him to go, I don't feel the need to have any more contact than is necessary. It's not like we show and have to look pretty.

    I never really thought about the training process, but I guess the reason he became so responsive is that I try to ride very softly. In the beginning I would get nervous and start hanging on his mouth when he was energetic, but (as was pointed out to me) that just made him tenser. I had to trust him and give him as much rein as I could without completely sacrificing my control. He responds much better, paradoxically, when I ask softly. Sometimes, for example, if I get impatient and kick him, he'll just stop dead in protest. When I take my leg off completely and just cluck a few times, he moves off again.

    I'm grateful to have had the experience of riding a horse who is far too willful to be 'manhandled' into doing anything, because it's made me think about the way I communicate with horses and how to make them want to cooperate.

  13. Great post! I too have an issue with hanging on my horse's face sometimes in an attempt to stop it. It's MY fear that he will get out of control.

    My solution is A.) more saddle time and B.) Letting my horse go forward, but he is going to have to work harder than the flat walk I'm asking from him.

    In the arena of course before I reattempt the trails.

    These are just my thoughts on the matter...

  14. I had a similar conversation the other day. The scenerio we were discussing was the rider who balances on his/her reins. We were watching a newbie trail rider and she would balance her seat with her hands and reins. Poor horse.

  15. JustMyStyle said: I have a student that doesn't want to do anything that she considers "hurting" the horse; and she's a very analytical, thinking rider. She doesn't want step by step instructions, she wants to know what to do then have a chance to try it out and fix it on her own. However, because she doesn't want to be "mean" and get her point across once, she often ends up getting the horse the ignore her if I don't step in and get her to just "do it".

    It took me a few years to get out of that mindset so I sort of know where your student is coming from (and I admit, I probably still don't take care of issues as quickly as I should). I finally came to realize that the proverbial back handed slap across the face was A LOT less annoying and certainly clearer to the horse than the perpetual finger poking in the ribs.

    The one analogy that my instructor has used until he's blue in the face is what action would you take with a kid that keeps running into the road, trying to touch the hot stove, getting drunk when not legal, etc etc? Pleading (ie, the nagging we do) is nothing more than empty threats that the kid (horse) can easily ignore and keep plowing through. However the spanking, month-long grounding, taking the toys away (ie, the swift attention-getting action), is what usually gets the point across and it only needs to be made once without the unsafe/naughty behavior happening more.

  16. This is a great and necessary post. It took me so long to learn that gentleness and kindness are not the same thing, that in fact kindness is often a matter of firmness, and it's certainly a lesson that horses taught me.

    My teacher said it as "the softness of your horse comes from how firm you are ready to be."

  17. Good answers all... what I was thinking is that horses learn from the release, not the pressure.

    So if you don't ever take ahold of them, there's no opportunity for release, is there?

    Those of us who understand this can get horses to respond with little more than the thought of what we want. Our horses know that if they don't respond to our asking, will have to tell them.

    Sad thing is, if we sell those horses to people who don't understand, and worse, who don't KNOW they don't understand, the poor horses think they have gone to hell.

  18. The problem I often see over here (UK) is that people start riding in a riding school. Great, a good foundation. But often they learn how to ride without training. That's ok as long as you are riding a horse that has other people around (for a tune up). Then these people go and buy a horse and don't know anything about training the horse.

    These horses get worse and worse mannered (on the ground and ridden) and become 'menaces'. I used to get a lot of free rides as someone who could 'tune up' your horse. I am not the most confident rider but I am consistent. And I tell you what - most of the bratty horses would revert back to a wonderful, light, responsive ride in two 30 minute sessions. Quite often it was like a light bulb going on in their head - they remembered that someone had taught them like this before (as mugs described - 3 steps) and it was a relief for them.

    One lady called me a miracle worker! Her horse used to stop when confused and bounce on the spot until surging forward. So she would kick, kick, kick and grab at his mouth as the surge forward came. I wanted forward movement and stopped poking him as soon as I got it. He only ever did it twice with me. I rode him for 6 months for her and they were doing well in local dressage competitions. I had to move out of the area and she sold him 2 months later as he was 'dangerous'. He was the nicest horse ever - I have never felt so safe on a 17hh warmblood! He was just bratty . . . I think he ended up in the hell that LuckSC describes . . .

    Its the same with dogs - 99% of serious behaviour problems are caused by scared confused dogs in a scary confusing world with owners who don't help them out. Little Fluffy needs training as well as huge ol' Fido!

  19. JustMyStyle - I've also incorporated verbal cues into my training the past few years. Whoa, walkon, and trot are easy to teach when you're doing groundwork. The funniest experience I've had in proving that it worked was riding my current project (under saddle about 6 months at the time) in the roping pen - a pro trainer working a colt on cows shouts "WHOA" at the top of his lungs, and my colt does a 15 foot butt-plant sliding stop. (Of course I had to pick him back up and try to tell him that he wasn't supposed to whoa because it wasn't me telling him...)

  20. Phantom, my gelding is the same as the horse you describe. Increasing pressure got increasing resistance from him. I accidentally discovered that going softer got much better results. I am very grateful he insisted I could do better, he has started me a fascinating journey.

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