How to Get Your Horse Soft and Light in the Face - Part 1

By Dana Hokana 

Step 1 – Learn to use your hands mindfully

Many people have the belief that to get your horse light and responsive you just go to a bigger bit. This is why you find many older horses in big, severe bridles. The problem with this theory is that at some point you can run out of bridle and then you still don’t have a light horse. I believe that you can develop a light, responsive, good mouthed horse at any age with the tips that I will give you in this article.

            There are several main components involved in developing this light responsive horse. So I’ve broken this lesson into three parts. In this issue I will teach you to use your hands mindfully. In part two, I will teach you proper hand position in a snaffle bit and/or a shank bridle. In part three, I will teach you how to teach your horse to flex in the head and neck and where a horse has to break or give in order to give you the softness and flexion that you desire.          

It’s also important to know that there is a difference between a responsive horse and a soft mouth. They are two different things. A responsive horse is one that gives or responds immediately when asked. A horse can be responsive but not necessarily have a light, soft mouth. Horses mouths can vary between soft and light to dull and heavy. Some of this may be hereditary, as traits like this can run common to a family line. It can also involve the shape of the interior of the horse’s mouth and tongue. Using your hands correctly and teaching your horse to respond immediately can definitely help your horse to get lighter in the face.

 Learn to use your hands mindfully

            There’s an old saying “light hands make a soft mouth”. This is true to some degree but it’s not the whole truth. The whole truth involves “mindful soft hands make a soft mouth”. This means that the secret is paying attention to your approach, your pick-up, and your release is crucial to developing a light, soft mouth. If you are insensitive with your hands, your horse will most likely brace against you for your pick-up. He does this for self-protection; he may have had quite a few hits to his face before.

            Ride mindfully is a saying I often use. To ride mindfully I recommend that you keep all distractions away from you while riding, especially when you are working to develop good hands. It is so easy to answer your cell phone, get talking to someone or lose focus, but to really ride well I encourage you to eliminate your distractions. Focus only on your horse. I am constantly diagnosing while I am riding, thinking about if my horse is giving to me or not. I also think about and diagnose if my horse is leaning or resisting somewhere I wasn’t aware of. Is there a body part that he is not giving with or sticking on me in some area? Stay alert, stay diagnosing and thinking, pay attention to your horse and his response. If you are mindful you will find yourself more consistent with your cues.

Horses Learn by the Reward

If you can learn to give clear messages of correction and reward you will find your horse trying to please and looking for that reward. When you release your horse, that is his reward. However, don’t release until he truly gives. Set your standard in your mind of what your expectations are. I determine this by how advanced my horse’s training is. If my horse is very green I won’t require as much as if my horse is a finished show horse.

Learn to Follow Through

The act of following through is huge in riding and training. I find a common problem in people that I teach is that they ask with their hands very timidly or insecurely, then don’t really get much of a response and then give because they just aren’t sure if their horse gave to them or not. It is very important that you ask confidently and clearly and stay in with your cue until you truly feel a response, then give clearly. So be clear in your pick up and release.

Practice Your Pick Up

I teach my students to practice their “pick up and release”. This will teach you how to effectively use your hands. Practice coming in contact with your horse’s mouth, then feel for a response, and then release. Your approach or how you connect to your horse’s mouth is important. I encourage people to “draw up” on the reins with a smooth steady motion until they make contact. If you grab out of mid air or snatch, you will find your horse will dread your pick up and may start bracing or resisting in his jaw to protect himself. I feel it is fair to bump or even jerk a horse as long as you have the slack out of the horse’s reins and he knows you are there. If you’ve connected with his mouth and he pulls back against you, then go ahead and bump or jerk until he gives to you. But don’t do this without warning. That is not fair play. I work to build a relationship between my hands and my horse. Jerking a horse out of mid air is like yelling at someone instead of talking to them. It damages the relationship. Remember to ask first, and then demand! Be in or be out.

Learn When to Give

We talked about your pick up or your approach, and equally important is your release. My own standard I have of when to release is that I want my horse to soften in my hand. I want to not only see the horse give through his head and neck, but I want to feel him soften and give in my hands. Horses can fake it and set their head appearing to give, but if your goal is to develop a light, soft horse the biggest secret to that is for him to soften in your hand every time before you give!

Forgive After Each Correction

            If your horse is fighting you or arguing with you in the face and you need to get tough with your hands make sure the next time you ask him you forgive what just happened and ask soft each time. All of us are capable of carrying our anger or frustration through to our hands but I stress to you to stay soft and forgiving with your hands. If you hold a grudge with your hands you will only prolong the fight. So many times I’ve found that I get through my horse a lot quicker by starting over in my mind and staying soft in my hands. Also keep your hands light on the reins. In other words, don’t have a death grip on the reins. Hold them in your hands lightly.

Apply these tips this month and perfect your hands. Be ready for next month when we will learn all about proper hand position. Be safe and have a great ride.