Since my post criticizing the claims made by Cowboy Dressage that it is based on classical principles, I decided to look more closely at what is a central tenant of the discipline, which is ‘soft feel.’
When I was younger and a student of dressage I never once heard my teachers talk about soft feel. So when I began taking an interest in horsemanship, I was confused by this term. A lot of the trainers talked as if soft feel was important and how it changed the entire physical and emotional outlook of a horse. But when I observed what they were doing, this did not appear to be true. Their talk did not match their walk. I believe it’s still true today.
For many years I have heard, seen and read about the concept of soft feel. I have heard everybody talk about it. Those that try to teach soft feel interpret it as anything from vertical flexion of the neck to heavenly harmony of horse and human (don’t ya just luv alliteration?). It appears that different people assign different definitions to soft feel. For the most part it seems the common usage of soft feel is taught as a horse yielding to the reins through vertical flexion of the neck (whether at a stand still or in motion). However, I have seen a video clip describing it in mother earth statements that tried to convey soft feel as much more than vertical flexion without actually saying anything. It was portrayed as the ultimate achievement between man and horse, without actually saying what it is. My own view is that soft feel is not the ultimate achievement, but the very reason why so many non-dressage folks confuse soft feel and collection (which should be the goal).
Irrespective of what various teachers choose to define soft feel as being, it is my experience that they are all teaching it as one thing. Every person that comes to one of my clinics who has had previous experience with the concept of soft feel understands it as vertical flexion on a light rein contact. From memory, this is without exception whether the student has a minimum experience with the idea or is deeply entrenched and committed to the notion that soft feel is their ultimate goal. It is only after I discuss and demonstrate it at clinics that the concept of soft feel evolves beyond that for many of them.
So it doesn’t matter what trainers or clinicians say about soft feel because their students are all coming away with the same interpretation. And what they are learning (ie soft feel = vertical flexion on a light contact) has little long-term value and definitely not in anyway related to the classical principles of dressage. It is deceitful to say otherwise in my view.
I will try to expand on the problem in a little bit, but in a nutshell it comes down to the difference between lightness and softness. Just to remind people who have forgotten or have not heard my interpretation of the two concepts.
Lightness is a physical response to pressure.
Softness is an emotional response to pressure
A horse can be light, but not soft through evasion of pressure. But a horse that is soft is also light through a mental and emotional yielding to pressure.
In my research before writing this essay, I watched and studied a lot of videos, read a dozen or more articles and blogs and have concluded that almost universally that when people are talking about soft feel they are talking about lightness where the influence of the reins runs from the horse’s poll to its withers, and no further. I am sure there are a few people who get it and are not guilty of this, but from what I can find the vast majority seem to be. In all the clinics I have attended where soft feel has been discussed, people are only talking and teaching about lightness and the reins being blocked at the wither. I am sure the vast majority doesn’t even know the problem exists; yet their horses do. So cries from people that tell me I am wrong and that I don’t get it hold no sway over my opinion because the evidence is everywhere despite the rhetoric from gurus and students.
So let’s examine the basis of my concern about soft feel and why I believe it is anti-dressage and good training.
In essence, the issue is that with soft feel horses are learning to give vertical flexion in response to the feel of the reins WITHOUT influencing the topline to soften and the hindquarters to carry more weight. This makes it very (if not extremely) difficult for horses to develop self -carriage and eventually collection. Collection is the ability of a horse to soften mentally and through its whole body to raise the base of its neck, relax the muscle across the back and offer more flexion of the hocks. Whereas soft feel is simply the ability of the horse to flex its neck without pulling on the reins. See the problem?
Once soft feel is taught to a horse, it is very difficult to convince it to connect the reins through the whole horse and not just to the end of the neck. It is far easier for a horse to learn early on that the influence of the reins should go all the way to the hocks. It does take longer to teach this than it does to teach vertical flexion, but that it is because it is physically more demanding than soft feel. So connecting the reins to the entire horse (via mental and emotional comfort) needs to be done in much smaller increments as the horse both understands and builds the muscle strength to carry itself in this new correct way. Soft feel is easy to teach and requires very little muscle development from a horse. It is a trick.
I see no advantage to teaching horses soft feel. It is mostly taught as an evasion and requires no alteration of the way a horse carries itself that is much different from how it carries itself in the paddock (except for the bent neck). It offers no advantage to a horse during periods of work. On the other hand, collection has huge advantages for a horse’s physical well being during workloads. That’s why I am at such a loss to comprehend why Cowboy Dressage thinks soft feel is the pinnacle of harmony and is not interested in collection. To me, that’s like saying Ikea is the ultimate in furniture craftsmanship – looks good on the outside, but falls apart easily and not made to last.
I am excited that people from western disciplines are interested in incorporating dressage training into their ranks. I believe every horse benefits from good dressage. But the emphasis needs to be on good dressage. It doesn’t matter if you ride in a dressage saddle, western saddle, racing saddle or bareback. It is irrelevant if you use a snaffle, curb bit, double bridle, or no bit. It does not matter if you do it in an arena, on a trail, paddock or in a yard. Who cares if you ride a Warmblood, Fell Pony, Mongolian Pony or Akal-Teke. None of that stuff matters. But correctness and softness does matter and there is no substitute for it if your motive is to benefit your horse.
Photo: This horse has developed a soft feel.