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Alpha Natural Horsemanship

‘Ask with lightness, encourage without forcing, correct with softness’
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Soft on the Inside & Light on the Outside


What does being Soft, Firm and Light mean?

This is an interesting question that sometimes is confusing; depending on who you talk to and usually you will get different interpretations.  Everything starts from softness; whatever we want to do with our horses, it starts with softness and only then will there be lightness.  When a horse is not soft on the inside it is not light on the outside because there will be resistance from o pressure causing; tension, bracing resulting in lack of confidence and fear. Because we do not understand the process we humans usually will create undesirable behavior in our horses. So must start with a self evaluation confirming that we are not the cause.  Before we can control our horse, we need to be in control of yourself.


Establishing a Solid Foundation

Our experience is wonderful with a horse that was trained using soft and light techniques rather than one that has been broken to hard and forceful techniques.  That is if we are soft and light!  The horse trained soft and light has been better prepared on the ground Emotionally, Mentally and Physically for mounted training!  It will be calmer, more supple and responsive if we transfer what why established on the ground in a proper step by step process!  We should not be fooled into thinking we can only use soft techniques to achieve lightness.  Yes, we can achieve lightness through ground training strictly by being soft on the ground, get a lot of things done and the horse looks light from the outside until the horse and/or we get into a troubling new situation in the saddle.  Trying to shape a horse to follow a feel means exposing the horse to follow softness as well as firmness maintaining the soft emotional, mental and physical, minimizing resistance, building a “try and a soft feel”.  At first, there is tightness inherent in intent because it is achieved through more firm indirect and or direct pressure but we must not use it to often if we want to preserve the softness and lightness  We would just as soon not be firm or use direct pressure but if the horse is; untrained, spoiled, as issues, not moving off our cue; we will have to be more firmer and/or use direct pressure but we would rather not if it can be avoided!  When we have to use direct pressure it means the horse is not following a soft feel!  

The training a horse receives from his foundation on the ground will be transferred into the saddle.  We do not want our horse to respond out of fear; the horse will sense if we are soft on the inside and will know if we are light on the outside simply by the way we use our aids and apply our cues.  We need to educate the horse that we humans are capable of being soft on the inside and light on the outside.  Hopefully it is the softest feel and lightness we can be!  Once we do the result will be lightness and we can gain leadership without loosing trust if we established it.  It is very important that we remember; if we apply too much pressure our intent/request, there will be tightness, even if only silently, in the horse’s mind and it will show up on the outside as not being lightness. The horse is not responding softly and light but rather obeying to avoid the consequence of an escalation of pressure in our cues. As time goes on, the horse gains experience through repetition within the parameters of softness and lightness it learns how to respond willingly and calmly. His energizing concern about pressure fades into a dullness that evolves from habitual behavior, not unlike the change in awareness we experience from our daily routine.  But if we do not focus on our own softness and lightness; along the way the horse’s genuine softness and lightness, which are linked to its natural traits are lost.

For the horse-lovers who offended by the thought of being firm and using direct pressure, over the years I have learned that using pressure-release methods and praising for the smallest try is the best deal we have to offer the horse. However watch any DVD and compare the look of the horse that is free and control equipment and look at the expression in the horse’s eye. It is rare to find a horse with soft look and free movement if it is not ridden with light contact on a loose rein.  True horsemanship is reflected in the horse when the human who offers softness from the inside and what is asked with lightness from the outside. Lightness comes from a free mind and careful but unrestricted movement: lightness cannot be pressured into a horse; it has to be left in there and released. Lightness is the source of the horse’s natural athletic capacity, a beautiful ride and long-term soundness.  It is the hallmark of collection; so I hope what I hope to achieve in this article is by breaking it into the various kinds of ‘soft and light’ we might be talking about I can help us come to some common understanding. 


The Horse

Horses communicate basically from the outside with Body Language [physical]; they express what they are thinking [mentally] and how they are feeling [emotionally] with movement.  My Interpretation of softness, lightness and firmness in the horse is:

  • Lightness –is from the outside of the horse and there are degrees of lightness that can actually be too light. The horse may over react or move too quickly so the movement or action is too fast and lacks quality and flow. This is for sure desirable in some disciplines but it can cause miss-communications between horse and rider. This can be a horse’s natural temperament or tendency or they can be taught to be "Lighter" in their responses if they are a bit un-reactive or slow to react.
  • Softness - comes from the inside of the horse and a response to a cue can be very sensitive, reactive or over-reactive.  To me is about suppleness, flexibility, a calm mind, the flow in the horses movement, body, and mind. There is Relaxation, Rhythm, and fluidness between horse and rider whether you are moving at speed or slow. You'll note that I said a calm mind because to me you cannot have true "Whole" softness without calm, trusting and a happy minded horse. You cannot manufacture softness with gadgets, bits and force.  Softness is the feel that the horse has out in the pasture by themselves. 
  • Firmness – follow a firm feel, remaining soft on the inside, accepting it from human, remaining supple, responding willingly and calmly.  


The Human

Whether we are on the ground or mounted; we must also communicate from the outside with Body Language [physical], express; what they are thinking [mentally] and how we are feeling [emotionally] with movement!  Now let us discuss soft, firm and light in the Human:


  • Lightness – also comes from the outside of the human and again there are degrees of lightness that can actually be too light or too heavy.  We humans can be Light all the time in our communication or very heavy handed figuratively speaking. Using strong cues always "shouting" so to speak at the horse. This will cause a horse to become perhaps no longer light where he once was. So we want to be careful of training that into a horse and thinking it's their problem and not one we created.  A person needs to understand the full spectrum of "Request levels" starting with a whisper and escalating to a firmer (not louder) in conversation and everything in between.
  • Softness – also comes from the inside of the person and all the same things apply; suppleness, flexibility, a calm mind and flow in the persons movement, body and mind. There is Relaxation, Rhythm and fluidness between horse and person because you are able to effectively mirror the traits you are asking for from your horse. And again without the calm, happy, mind and body, you cannot have true "Whole" softness in yourself.
  • Firmness – being firm without being harsh, not overexposing the horse to it, not using it to correct a horse instead allowing it to make a mistake and then correcting it, maintaining softness on the inside and remaining calm.


Softness, Firmness and Lightness All aspects of Horsemanship

It is always good to ask ourselves because it starts with us as the leader in the relationship if we can do what we are asking our horse to do; being; calm, fearless, courageous, flexible, responsive, energetic or quiet.  John teaches a greater truth about the so-called soft/firm feel and ‘lightness’; what it should mean to both the horse and the rider.  In my opinion, too many people equate softness merely to the rein. Involves all aspects of horsemanship; caring for, feeding, handling, training and riding.  This concept that dictates that we try to never demand but always ask, rather than force and understand before we punish:


  • Demands - We need to remind ourselves that; softness is our goal, firmness is fine if absolutely necessary and never overused but using hard, harsh and/or forceful demands we should never use.  This is something we need to remind ourselves.
  • Body language - Horse communicate with body language and express themselves with movement so it is very important the we understand theirs and our body language on the ground and mounted.
  • Pressure and Release - This is not so much about how hard the pressure is that we apply it is about how we apply it and when we release it.
  • Riding - Again lightness is very importantalso  In order to effectively ride our horse we need to be; natural, soft, supple, flexible, balanced and have rhythm. 
  • Lightness in our cues Our goal is to be as light as we possibly can; whether we are using Natural or Artificitial aids. 
  • Equipment & Use - Using control equipment on our horse such as; bigger bits, martingales or tie downs only indicates there are holes in the foundation training.
  • You are who you are - There is no need to mimic other trainers, compare yourself to others because we all have different personalities, knowledge and skills.  We all bring something to the table and a little knowledge goes a long way.


The horse that won’t go is just as stressed as the horse that can’t stop. Both are close to their limit for stress so anything you try to teach will not be fully understood. In either case it is likely that you will have to abandon your lesson plan and concentrate on helping your horse find some kind of comfort in moving his feet.  If we can be aware of what the horse’s body language and feet are doing, we can help him. If his head is elevated and he is too fast, we need to be less firm and assertive. If the feet won’t move at all, we may need to be firmer and more assertive but also less concerned about where he goes. We don’t care where he goes as long as he goes. Eventually we and the horse will find a rhythm and then some balance and things will get much easier. We can learn all we need to know if we just watch the body language and the feet.  I stress lightness and softening using a triad of exercises that work the whole horse beginning with a solid foundation on the ground that is transferable to the saddle.  This is not just focusing on softness in the response to the lead or rein. Softness, Firmness and Lightness have to come as a package to be correct and to last.”  If you just develop a ‘soft feel’ and expose the horse to firmness – you don’t have the support of the lightness, the horse will not focus and positively engage.  “You have to remember that the horse is rarely wrong. He only does what he thinks the rider wants and what he knows how to do“.  Prepare the horse Emotionally, Mentally, Physically and then ask correctly, add giving the horse time to develop mentally so he understands what you are asking and you may have an ideal method to implement your training program.”