Softness is sometime commonly referred to as a “head set”. Which is like comparing oil to water.
A “head set” is forced, uncomfortable to the horse and achieved quickly. and incorrectly by forcing the horses head “down” which isn’t down at all it’s a stiff neck and hollow back and pinched throatlatch.
Softness is first achieved on the ground, preparing the muscles and showing the horse what we are expecting and helping the animal move correctly and comfortably first before ever asking them to soften under saddle. Softness takes conditioning, consistent release when they’re doing the right movements and short rides so we don’t make them sore. Just like humans they’ve got to get used to working new muscles also. Be patient and all good things come to those who wait.
Once the horse learns to carry themselves correctly without a rider then we put the surcingle on, a very soft bit they like, I prefer to use copper Snaffles. Then with just the inside rein tied loosely to the surcingle let them travel normally like this so they get used to the feeling of just the loose rein on them. Reverse and switch the rein always to the inside bend of the circle. Once they’re used to that just bring in the slack on the rein and send them back out at a walk first then a trot I never do this at a lope. Then little by little tighten it so they feel the pressure and find the release on their own JUST AT A WALK. Don’t force speed until the horse is very soft at the walk and dropping their head and carrying themselves with an inside bend. Then introduce the trot and don’t tighten anymore. Only tighten to where the horse feels the pressure and starts seeking for the release. When the horse rounds out it’s back and drops it’s head he will realize what is being asked and will start to soften.
Once softness is achieved from the ground then we apply inside rein and squeezing with our legs to ask for softness. Your legs will get tired fast. End on a good note and release at the slightest effort. The next day, do your groundwork again the same way, easing the horse into softness then once achieved, saddle up and review until the horse gets softer and softer everyday.
Softness at the lope is the hardest part it will all come with time don’t worry. Once the horse is ready to add speed they’ll let you know. They’ll be very soft in your hands and ready to “level up”.
Be patient this doesn’t come right away it takes months sometimes years but that’s how you get a quality trained horse v.s a forced and rushed horse.
It’s the best feeling after all the hard work and the horse is soft at all gaits and happy. My horses do it now just slight pressure of the inside rein and slight leg (depending on the horse).