Mark Russell - Elements of a Soft Feel

By Rick Larson, reprinted with permission from the Horseman’s Yankee Pedlar, February 2007

How should you feel softness?

MusicLightResponseSpending considerable time blending the benefits of natural horsemanship with the theories of classical dressage, Mark teaches a greater truth about the so-called soft feel or ‘lightness’ and what it should mean to both the horse and the rider.

In his view, too many people equate softness merely to the rein. While this is one display of softness, Mark cautions riders that it is a mistake to focus on just the horse’s response to rein.

“For both the horse and the rider, it is a lot more involved than most people think,” Mark said. “Teaching lightness to the aids isn’t difficult once the rider understands how to move the horse forward in ways that efficiently use his energy. Softness in the rein and head position are results of suppleness throughout the horse’s entire body, and then, depending on the discipline and level of training; the horse’s strength to hold balance more toward his haunch. In my book and in my clinics I teach what I call a circular movement of energy. This is crucial to softness in the rein.

From Mark’s point of view, the exercises that supple and strengthen the horse must start in his jaw and work progressively back down the spine – until you reach his hind fetlock. Once you have suppleness from front to back, you can then ride the horse’s energy forward in a soft or unrestricted manner. Mark says, “When I talk about a soft feel, that is what I mean – the softness is through the whole horse. Riders get hung up on the rein and the head. To get beyond that requires faith in the concept of lightness and preparation. That is what riding in lightness is all about.”

An Imbalance Can Lead to Evasion

“You don’t want the horse to feel it necessary to evade through the vertebrae of the neck or back,” Mark said. “This happens when the horse is forced through stiffness and/or when he is unbalanced. When you ask a horse to release to pressure he must be able to articulate the spinal column up, down, and sideways – what ever it takes to find the release. If a horse is less flexible on one side or one leg when we ask him to shift then energy will be blocked. This causes the horse to evade or shift onto a stronger leg. If you don’t release that stiffness early on, then the horse becomes more crooked instead of less crooked.”

“For me, the job of a rider is to straighten the horse and equalize the flexibility through the shoulder, the spine, and the haunch. Both horses and riders have different muscle tone and flexibility from one side to the other – it is just a matter of degree. In addition to changes from side to side, the horse’s conformation or condition of the back is paramount. The connection between the shoulders and the pelvis must be strong enough to carry the rider in an educated balance. If you just develop a ‘soft feel’ in the rein – when you don’t have the support of the back, the horse can’t fully engage. This is why I stress the softening and strengthening exercises that work the whole horse – not just in the response to the rein. Lightness has to come as a package to be correct.”

“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,” Mark said. “Prepare the horse and then ask correctly. Add giving the horse time to develop mentally and you have an ideal training program.”

Relaxation to Get to Straightness

Relaxation in both horse and rider makes it easier for the horse to become straighter; both vertically and longitudinally. Straightness facilitates equal or proper development of strength and suppleness. Add impulsion and you have all the ingredients to introduce a soft feel.

In his book, Lessons in Lightness: The Art of Educating the Horse, with Andrea Steele, published by The Lyons Press, Guilford, CT, Mark describes the flexions he uses for both ground work and mounted work to encourage the horse to relax and yield. Mark explains, “I teach horses how to relax [during schooling], not by force but by positioning them for a release to pressure. A horse’s innate response is to brace or push against pressure. Teaching them to yield instead is the first step to building softness.”

“I emphasize the release of the TMJ (temporomandibular joint) because this is the key to unlocking and aligning the entire spine. I teach small manipulations of the skull to release the head at C1 (first cervical vertebra) and C2 (second cervical vertebra). These joints control head movement front to back and side to side. Once the horse is supple to a different range of motion, they will look for that position and the subsequent relaxation it brings. I have found that when riders understand the horse’s ‘body mechanics’ at a deeper level they are encouraged to seek out more and more lightness in their horses. It is impossible to explain these complex issues in a short article. But horses want to be comfortable, so when you guide them to find these specific positions they will form the necessary muscle memory and relax into the position. That is when you can introduce your legs, your seat, and the rein aids, and [the horse] will respond with softness to all the aids.”

Adding Impulsion

Once a horse learns to yield to pressure the rider must think about a truly forward gait. “To me,” Mark said, “impulsion is not driving a horse forward with your lower leg. It is allowing the horse forward [because he is perfecting the freedom of forward energy flow within his body]. The rider must now be as relaxed as the horse so as not to impede this natural flow. Both horse and rider must think forward. The circular flow of energy comes through the horse, up through the rider, and back into the horse. When it is right, it feeds off itself and is intense power – much more harmonious than driving force. ”

In contrast, a soft feel, without sufficient energy is an empty sensation to both horse and rider. It is a little bit of style without any substance and easily identifiable because the horse will roll up in a ball without momentum.

Don’t Throw Him Away in the Pursuit of Softness

Mark warns, “Efforts to release the rein can go too far. The rider must be supportive as well. This nuance is part of the ‘art’ that makes teaching lightness elusive for many riders.” While rein aids in some stages of training can consist of bigger movements – such as allow the horse to take the rein all the way down [to the ground]. Progression requires the length of, or freedom in the rein be narrowed. To be clear, there comes a point in the training when you can’t drop the reins. If you do you not only throw the horse away physically, you lose him mentally as well. “The way to get around this,” he continued, “is to soften your hands to allow the reins to slip just a little bit. In a novice horse it might be an inch or two. In a more educated horse it might be a fraction of an inch. They may only need to feel a lengthening of one finger and take that as a reward. Allow the softness in the rein to be a function of relaxation in your body. Don’t throw him away. You can be supportive without a weighty contact.”