Monday, February 22, 2016

Riding within your aids

I've lived a fairly clean life for the past 43 years.  I'm not a smoker.  I don't drink to excess.  I am not a binge eater.  I don't have what others would call an "addiction" problem.  I am horse crazy, and always have been, but that's different, right?  Unfortunately after 43 years of being clean and sober, I have to admit, finally, that I am addicted.  My name is Jenni Grimmett, and I am addicted to soft feel.

My addiction didn't start out to be that bad, as I was just beginning to learn the basics.  It's nice, after all, to have your horse do what you ask him to do without a fight or attitude or copious amounts of rein or spur.  That's neat and kind of fun.  I was sold on the whole idea of having a compliant mount. My first real "hit" of pure soft feel came the very first time that Eitan allowed me a glorious ride on Santa Fe Renegade.  Once I got over just being star struck with the gorgeous stallion and paid attention to what was happening underneath me I was thunderstruck by the depth of the lightness as well as true self carriage, which is, of course, a product of lightness.  

The next spring Dan and I traveled to our first Cowboy Dressage school and spent a week learning from Eitan.  That week I felt the first glimpses of true lightness and soft feel in my own horse.  That's when I became completely hooked.  Now, I want it so bad and am so consumed with it's pursuit that I will often wake in the middle of the night trying to recreate my past ride and relive those moments of lightness. Or, what will keep me up even longer is after those rides lacking in soft feel, rehashing where I went wrong and why things weren't working for me and the horse that day.
The more I learn about soft feel and the more hours I spend ruminating on exactly what it is, the more I am convinced that true lightness happens not when the horse responds to your aids, but when the horse responds to the air between you and your aids. In other words, the horse learns to respond to not just your cues but the intention of your cues.  When you and your horse are riding "skeleton to skeleton", your horse's body can mimic the positioning and energy of your own body.  Eitan has shared countless beautifully colored illustrations that help to drive home this point. 

 Your hips and lower legs cue the horse's hips and hind legs.  Your upper body,  including head, hands and shoulders, direct the horse's front legs, shoulders, neck and head.  The energy in your core, spine and hips drive the energy in your horse's hips which drives the energy in the gait.  The final piece of the puzzle in cuing the horse for soft feel by correct use of your body is timing.  Knowing foot falls and the timing of the gait allows you to more directly communicate with your horse's skeleton with accuracy and softness. 

You can use too much leg or spur creating a horse that is dull to that pressure, or you can ride with timing and energy in your seat instead of driving with your legs and keep the horse light and responsive and willing to go forward.  You can use too much hand and reins to the point that you create not only dullness but resistance in the horse, or you can direct the horse in bend using your upper body and lightness in the reins to keep the horse happy and soft in the head and neck.  Even when a rider has been struggling with position for years, creating confusion in the horse, the moment it is finally corrected the horse seems to say, "Oh! Well, why didn't you say so?"  There is no "re-educating" that needs to happen or rehabbing from the inadvertent misuse of your skeletal aids.  It is more like the horse is just waiting for you to do it correctly.  

On the bit, on the aid
Self carriage, riding within the aid
Many riders talk about the horse being on your aids.  Modern dressage riders talk about having the horse "on the bit".  I believe in Cowboy Dressage our goal is to have the horse completely off our aids.  When the horse is riding within the bubble created by our aids he is holding himself up without our help and building true self carriage. 

The more horses that I jump on and ride the more I come to realize almost all of them are looking for that soft feel.   We, as riders, often teach our horses not to look for soft feel by the overuse of aids.  Horses being good, quiet and compliant creatures often learn to deal with our overuse of aids by  ignoring them because we just won't stop pushing on them.  When I jump on a horse that the rider is having to thump with a pair of spurs every other stride and start driving with my seat instead of my legs they very quickly figure out to follow my lead and before you know it he is willingly moving forward in time with my seat without the need for driving with the legs.  It is my belief that horses are born addicted to soft feel too.  They just get so used to not having it there that they learn to live without it.  Once you reintroduce it to their system they are generally more than happy to follow along.  

Re-educating your skeleton to be your main aid is a very difficult thing to do for many riders.  Many of you may have physical limitations or aches and pains causing your to not have full, even use of your skeleton.  Do not despair!  With consistent riding your horse will learn to compensate for any cues you have to give a little differently due to such infirmities.  Soft feel, I promise you, is still within your reach.  

One of the most helpful things for riders, and one of my main jobs as a Cowboy Dressage educator is to help people correct those subtle imbalances or inadvertent miscommunication between their horse and their skeleton.  The two most common problems that I see in riders is 1, little to no use of the weight as an aid and 2, incorrect positioning of the legs and seat for bend. 

I wonder if in the english world the riders are maybe a bit better about their weight aids.  I think as Western riders we have a tendency to use our seat for one thing and one thing only.  Stopping.  Most folks that have been riding in some western discipline, know that if you want to stop you drop your weight down on the horse.
The folks in the reining discipline are so good at it that you can see them drop that weight down from the stands.  They'll rock back so far on their pockets that it looks like they are slumped in an easy chair.  It comes as a surprise to many riders that they can ride the horse forward with their seat.  Having an active seat and riding with your horse, stride for stride, is the first step towards building communication between your two skeletons.  When the horse understands you're not just sitting up there pushing him around with your legs and pulling him around with your hands but riding each and every stride, suddenly your seat takes on a whole new meaning.  As western riders I think we tend to sit too still in our saddles.  Those Western saddles with big cushy padded seats often stirrup fenders that limit the riders leg movement are meant to keep the rider in one steady position rather than moving along with horse.

But even in our big western saddles, the horse can and does feel your seat and can respond to changes in the way you weight your seat so that he learns to move and bend with changes in the way you position your skeleton.  Understanding how the horse's skeleton moves through a bend helps us to understand how our skeleton also needs to move through a bend.  Our shoulders mimic the horses shoulders and guide them through the bend and our hips mimics the horse's hips and helps drive them forward evenly through the bend.

One of the things I love most about the swishy armitas that I ride in is the big long fringe that moves with me when I move.  When my horse and I really get a good free walk going on there is fringe a-swishing all over the place.  It's like jingle bobs or rein chains that are helping me to exaggerate that tempo of the walk.  You need to move to really ride your horse with each stride.  Loosen your hips, relax your legs and soften your shoulders and let your body move with your horse.  If the bubble within your aids is a nice soft place to be, your horse is going to be happy to meet you there.


  1. Great post- I am really working on the soft feel, as far as I understand it, and I'm really looking forward to visiting you in May for the Jon Ensign clinic.

  2. Fantastic description! Thank you Jenni for all you do to make this available for all to learn. For me, with limited resources I am able to learn through information available on FB, blogs, and Eitan's books. Really hoping to come audit as many clinics as possible this summer.

  3. Fantastic description! Thank you Jenni for all you do to make this available for all to learn. For me, with limited resources I am able to learn through information available on FB, blogs, and Eitan's books. Really hoping to come audit as many clinics as possible this summer.