Softness From Ground to Saddle

by Chantal Marleau

Have you ever witnessed the effortless grace with which some horses are able to carry their riders? It’s as though both parties are so in tune with one another that they simply glide from one manoeuvre to another.

To be sure, this type of masterful riding starts with hard work. In the opinion of Josh Nichol, a well-known clinician and trainer, two other parts of the equation are clear communication between horse and rider and softness within the horse’s mind and body.

In this article, Nichol shares his advice on building better flow between you and your horse as you learn to transition your leadership from the ground into the saddle.

First, let’s clarify a few points about the equipment you will need. Since the following exercises are designed to create uncluttered communication between you and your horse, Nichol believes that simplicity is best.

For the groundwork, you will need a halter and a lead rope that is roughly twelve feet long. “I prefer to use a rope halter, as I like the way it fits a horse’s head,” says Nichol.

You will also notice frequent references to the use of a flag. Essentially, this is a stick (a two to three foot crop works nicely) with a plastic bag attached to it.

At this stage, Nichol discourages the use of a bit. “Until you are absolutely certain that you are not holding resistance in your hands and that you have properly defined the rein as something that means “soften” instead of “brace”, I recommend using something like a side-pull when you transition to the saddle,” explains Nichol.

Replacing Tension with Feel
Many riding methods teach us that effective riding requires very precise aids applied at just the right moment. Whether you ride English or Western, you’ve probably been taught to think more than you feel.

As a result, Nichol believes much tension comes from within our own mind and body.

“Any brace in you is going to be reflected in your horse,” says Nichol. “This is why I like to concentrate on how I am affecting my horse rather than where he is failing.

“When we work horses with demands and control as our focus, we lose the opportunity of working with a partner who is relaxed and attuned to us. If we can ride with a softer flow within ourselves, the horse is better able to match that feel.”

Horse Language Demystified
Nichol sees the mastery of horsemanship as communicating with your horse through the energy within you rather than teaching your horse a multitude of specific aids and cues. After all, this is how horses relate to one another.

When engaged in conversation, there are four distinct parts to the language of the horse. “These are the four pillars of my training pyramid,” explains Nichol. “I refer to them as thought, intent, presentation and aid.”

He goes on to explain that when a lead mare is directing horses, she isn’t just doing it with her feet. “Instead, there is an energy around her that the herd is attuned to,” says Nichol. “In my opinion, this same type of energy forms the base of fluid riding.”

The mare first thinks about moving a certain horse out of her space. She then lets the energy of her thought fill her space as an intention and then presents this with strength towards the other horse. This might be as subtle as a look or as suggestive as a lean in the right direction, accompanied by a pinning of her ears.

If the message still hasn’t been understood, the mare might choose to kick at the horse that has failed to move in order to clarify her original thought and intent. This kick would serve as a very clear and decisive aid.

Let’s apply these principles to working your horse from the ground.

Softening the Hindquarters from the Ground
First, your horse must understand how to soften while he moves – this builds the foundation for softly carrying you in the riding.

Before you start, get yourself organized. If your horse’s head is closest to your left shoulder, hold the lead rope with your left hand and face the horse’s hindquarters. Loosely fold the remainder of your lead rope over that same forearm. Ensure that the rope is never wrapped around any part of your body or that the tail end does not dangle so low that you might trip.

Hold the flag in your right hand so that it is easily available should you require it.

“Your horse has 360 degrees of space around him and as you work your way through your training you should be able to soften all 360 degrees,” explains Nichol. “For the purpose of this particular exercise, move directly towards his hindquarters with a very clear thought and present the intent that your horse will step his hips away from you.”

You would like to feel that your partner is moving out of your space in a fluid manner. His inside hind leg should step well underneath his body.

Observe your horse’s actions and feel his movement. Is he tight, quick, braced or relaxed? If your horse moves out of your space with any brace in his body, consider this a form of resistance that needs to be removed.

“To successfully remove the tension you have encountered, first visualize a scale of resistance from zero to ten,” explains Nichol. “Again, with the thought and intention that your horse’s hindquarters are going to softly move away from you, step towards the hip with energy in you that clearly says “move” and shake your flag as necessary.”

This approach is only part of the exercise. Many horses will become more responsive but will still carry a brace in their body. “I call this light and not at all soft,” clarifies Nichol. Removing this tension allows a horse to truly become soft; and, work with the lead rope will accomplish this.

Softening to the Lead Rope
Once you are able to successfully step towards the hip and have the hindquarters move away from your space, confirm that there is freedom from one end of the spine to the other by feeling for softness in the lead rope. If you feel weight in the lead, recognize that this is a form of brace.

Focus for a moment on the hand that is closest to the halter and lower it a few inches. Does your horse’s head follow the movement downward or is he braced against you? As you continue to walk towards the hindquarters, feel for tightness in your lead rope and stay connected to it. Aid your horse by gently shaking your flag until you feel slightly less resistance on the scale discussed earlier.

“Your goal is to feel the horse soften to the lead as he also softens out of your space,” adds Nichol. “The slack in the lead rope combined with visible relaxation in the body confirms that the horse has yielded to your leadership on the ground.”

Transitioning to the Saddle
Everything essentially remains the same as you now transition from the ground into the saddle.

First, understand that your lead rope becomes your rein, and your flag is replaced by your legs. We will continue to build on the same hindquarter exercise.

 “To have your horse’s hindquarters step to the right, begin by focusing on the inside hind leg and envision that your hips are connected to your horses hips,” explains Nichol. “Hold that thought in your mind as you gently bump your inside leg until your horse makes an effort to step in the right direction.

“Cease to pressure your horse as soon as you feel him try to move his hindquarters away from your leg. The quicker you recognize and reward this try, the more responsive your horse will become in the end.”

Be prepared to hang in there with your horse as he tries to figure out what you are asking of him. He may struggle at first, especially if he has become accustomed to being mechanically directed with pushes and pulls. “As a result, most horses will brace when first asked to move off the leg,” continues Nichol. “This is where the rein aid plays its most important role.”

Remember that your reins are simply a replacement for your lead rope. They are not handlebars for you to hold on to, nor should they act as a steering wheel. Your reins are there for you to verify the softness or lack thereof that is present in your horse.

Just as you have one lead rope, focus on using only one rein at a time for now. Let your reins fall loosely as you hold them by the buckle. Cross your split reins over your horse’s neck if you are riding Western.

For the purpose of this hindquarter exercise, ask for the hips to move over. Once you have obtained the movement, confirm that there is softness through the spine by picking up your inside rein and fluidly sliding your hand in towards your hip, visualizing the connection between your own hip and your horse’s hindquarters.

“To help you visualize what I mean, I would like you to imagine that you are sitting on the end of a dock,” explains Nichol. “At rest, your hands lay just above the water. When you reach down along your rein, try not to splash or cause a ripple in the pond.

“Now, hold the rein as you would the hand of a dance partner and feel for resistance in your horse’s head. If you feel tension, gently bump your legs once again and give your horse the opportunity to relax. If you do not feel him try, continue to gently bump, focusing on the rein and release both questions when the horse softens to the rein.” Begin this exercise at a standstill and, as with all movements, practice on both sides.

Once you and your horse understand the timing of this exercise, Nichol recommends trying it at a walk and then at a trot.

The techniques discussed here represent important building blocks that will develop ease and softness in both you and your horse. “Now, ask yourself if you are concentrating on movements and responsiveness alone, or whether you are focusing on softness,” adds Nichol. “Softness is definitely what you should be striving for.”

Apply the same methods to all parts of your horse’s body. This exercise will also be helpful in tense areas, such as the shoulders.

As you become more and more effective at removing resistance within your horse and at developing suppleness within yourself, you will be well on your way to moving in harmony with your equine partner.