Q: How can I be soft AND effective?
A: There is rarely one answer to help you be the leader you want to be with your horse. There are as many answers as there are combinations of horses and humans. .
This is why it is so important to become as aware as possible of who you are and who your horse is.... and remaining curious because that is constantly changing!
Even when you are confident in knowing who you and your horse are, as you progress, your dynamic may change (hopefully it is improving). In training there will always be moments where the comfortable status quo is broken. There is a quote by Maya Angelou that says: "Effective action is always unjust." Which I hope isn't really true, but what is true is that we may feel that way in some moments!
I will assume that most of my readers have a goal to be soft with their horses. What I have experienced in many students (and in myself too) is that sometimes 'softness' is really ineffectiveness in disguise. 'Soft' absolutely can be effective... Especially if you are practicing 'doing less sooner'... But how many of us have experienced ourselves trying so hard to be soft, that we one day realize that we are not so effective... And that can lead to a hard lesson.
I consider myself a fairly effective horsewoman. But my character does not enjoy conflict, and I can have a heightened sense of empathy (at least towards animals) ;-) so sometimes I find myself allowing some ineffectiveness in order to 'keep the peace'. Except in the end it does the opposite. It can lead to frustration for me, confusion for the horse. and having to reinforce something they would have done better sooner if I had just been clearer and more effective!
True 'soft' moments come from knowing I can be effective. The effective moments come from knowing how to be soft (Mark Twain said: "The right word may be effective, but no word was ever as effective as a rightly timed pause."). I watch my individual horses in the herd and watch how they treat each other. It helps me know where I can go with them. Ovation is a 'close talker'. He just barges up to any horse and bites them as if it is a hand-shake to him. He is also relentlessly annoying to any creature that will let him. They have to tell him so many times to move away!
This helps me to know what I need to be like with him and to not feel too bad about it, even if it is not my style. Things go better when I am blunt and clear. Once we have that going, he can have some room to wiggle and play.
Jedi (pictured above) is delicate, sensitive and cooperative. He loves attention. He likes to hang with the leaders and he knows how to get out of the way. It is easy to be his leader because he relaxes when he doesn't have to think. He is like a person who will never form a committee on his own, but he will be the first to sign up and will have lots of great ideas to contribute and let you take credit for! I need to give him tasks but I have to be careful to appreciate the enthusiasm he brings to the table; to thank him for all he offers... But he really does want me to be clear... When he is confused he gets tense, distracted and nervous.
Atomic is my big challenge. He is a leader and he wants everyone out of his way. He is NOT happy when challenged. He can also be scared so I have to be always cautious that I am not creating more fear with him when I exert my leadership. But I have observed his style of leadership and it is quick, non-negotiable and physical. He is a little scrapper. I don't want to fight with him, but I have to make sure I can be faster, less negotiable and be able to move his body if I need to. Sometimes I feel like if he gets me thinking too much he has already outsmarted me! The more I act on my instincts in the split second of the moment, the better we do together and the more truly soft moments we have. His expression softens and he shows me his warm, fuzzy side... Yet I am sure Atomic would agree with Maya Angelou's quote in many moments.
I guess what I am trying to say is that in our quest for softness we can't forget that it is effectiveness that will get us there. Effective doesn't have to be harsh or strong... It has to be what ever it has to be. As much as necessary, as little as possible. Choose a strategy and be effective. Place your pauses well. If you are ineffective, look at yourself and ask yourself: "Why am I being ineffective?" Answer honestly. Is it because you are scared, or unsure of what you are looking for, or because you feel bad asking for it, or because your horse says he doesn't feel like doing it and you don't want to force him? Take a good look at how you answer... Then do something to make it better... And you will be on your way to becoming more effective... and therefore soft.