Soft feel is the philosophy Cowboy Dressage is based on and so of course it is mentioned and talked about a lot, but it is not always clear or understood. What is “soft feel”? Well, as the word says it is a feeling and therefore not easy to define. It is not like explaining to someone how to tell when a horse is on the right or left lead in the lope. There you can tell them the footfall sequence, how to see it when on the ground and how to recognize it when in the saddle. It is concrete and it is clear. Soft feel is more visceral, more emotional, more like art and less like science! To me, soft feel is where horse and rider cease being individuals and start working as one. There is harmony, there is partnership and there is beauty. The rider doesn’t demand, or MAKE the horse do anything. She communicates her wishes and the horse willingly receives and executes them. The rider feels and is in tune with every movement of the horse and adjusts her seat and aids to help the horse’s balance or reassure him when he hesitates or is unsure. A casual observer might not even be able to see the aids given by the rider to the horse. There is no abruptness or sharpness. Horse and rider move in unison. The rider is in balance with the horse’s movements. There is no bouncing or flopping arms and legs. The horse’s back is rounded and his neck slightly arched. While there can be floppy lips or playing with the bit, there should be no tension in the jaw, no teeth grinding or obsessive chomping on the bit. No pinned ears or overly swishy tail. All these are signs of tension and any tension in either horse or rider will make attaining soft feel much harder.
What does this mean for the show arena? Soft feel is part of every movement in your test and it has it’s own score in the collective remarks at the end of the test. Because most tests will not be perfect, your soft feel score will likely vary throughout the test and the stand alone score at the end of the test will be an average of that. It would be very unusual for you to receive a high score on your test but a low score on soft feel. A low score on soft feel means there was tension; harsh corrections, disobedience etc. and none of those should correlate with a high score. That doesn’t mean if your horse spooks in a corner but you have an otherwise well ridden test, you can’t still end up with a high overall score. The movement that was affected by the spook will have a low score, but if everything else scores high you can still end up with a good score. Let’s say your test averages out in the 70’s. Your score for soft feel should be in the 6-7 range, depending on how you handled the spook. An 8 for soft feel in this situation would be generous and less than 6 would be quite harsh.
Now let’s look at another situation: You have practiced hard at home and you and your horse know the test well, but the moment you arrive at the show grounds your horse turns into a snorting, bug- eyed alien. When it is test time, you ride your test accurately and without going off course, but your horse is hollow and tense throughout. You’re relieved there was no buck or spook and think to yourself “that wasn’t too bad”. Then you get your test back and it is in the high 50’s to low 60’s! Now you’re devastated and wonder what the judge was thinking. Well, that soft feel score that goes into every movement is what brought your percentage down. Yes, your transitions might have been right at the letter and your circles might have been placed correctly, BUT if your horse was tense and hollow, with his head in the air and you clutching at the reins for dear life, your scores are going to be in the 5 range for the most part. A little more or a little less, depending on how prevalent the tension was, but a ride like this cannot score in the 70’s or 80’s and your soft feel score will likely be below a 6 as well.
Soft feel is something you strive to attain every ride and every minute of every ride. The moments where you are totally in sync with your horse will be rare and most likely of short duration, you are after all both living beings influenced by the world around you, with all its distractions and aggravations. Once you have experienced true soft feel, even for a moment, it will change the way you ride and attaining the fleeting moments of perfection will become the destination of your horseback-riding journey!