In Search of Softness

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By Jonathan Field

Sometimes in our lifetime, a rare individual who will shape the way we see things forever crosses our path. Ronnie Willis was one of those rare people. Pat Parelli introduced me to him many years ago.

Ronnie was regarded as a Master Horseman. He would never say it, but he was. He learned his skills mainly from working and observing horses through a lifetime of ranching, but also from friends like Tom Dorrance.

Early each morning, Ronnie would get up, saddle his horse “Roany,” and then give him his morning hay. While Roany ate, Ronnie would lean on the fence, sip his coffee, and quietly watch the other horses.

I too would get up early just so I could stand with Ronnie, mostly in silence, and watch the horses with him.

Much of the time not a lot was going through my head. I would stand there, looking at the ground, moving the dirt with my boots, wondering what I should say to Ronnie, not realizing how much more was at play here.

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(L-R): Ronnie Willis and Jonathan Field many years ago. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Field

On one particular morning, Ronnie was watching a mare about 50 feet away intensely pacing in her pen. I didn’t really think much of it. The mare was clearly herd bound and separated from her buddies. It was a predictable behaviour.

What I do remember noticing at the time was how intense and how consistent this frantic horse was. Back and forth along the fence she would pace, the trench beneath her hooves getting deeper and deeper. She would occasionally call for her herd mate.

That was about where my observations ended. I had seen horses pacing the fence before so I took no more notice of this one and, instead, fixed my attention back on the nicely groomed dirt beneath my boot.

“Right there,” Ronnie said, as if I knew what he meant. 

“Right where?” I asked, clearly missing something. 

“The mare… she just made a change,” Ronnie clarified.

The mare still paced back and forth. She approached the corner as she did each time before, but this time, rather than continuing back the other way, she stopped. Not for the day, but for a second. And then on she went, back and forth.

By now I was watching a lot closer, but was still not really sure what I was looking for or why it mattered enough to mention it.

Ronnie said it again. “Right there!”

I watched and saw nothing. I kept watching and sure enough after about two more laps, the mare paused again.

In all of the seemingly mindless pacing, Ronnie saw what mattered. He saw the mare’s stop for a moment two laps before it happened. Although I still wasn’t sure why, Ronnie seemed to think it was noteworthy.

We continued to watch this mare and Ronnie continued to call it. I was baffled as to what he was seeing. All I could see was a mare running back and forth along a fence, randomly stopping for a moment or two.

Ronnie finished his coffee and headed off. I stayed behind for the next two hours and watched the mare.

jonathan field training articles, natural horsemanship softening horse, how to create a soft supple horse

Search for ways to further understand your horse and his behaviour. Photo: Robin Duncan Photography

I never did see what Ronnie saw that day, could not predict when the mare would pause, but the experience invoked in me a desire to search for something I didn’t even know existed until that day — the desire to see what Ronnie saw so easily, the softness of movement that happens the moment before the momentum changes, the pause that became a stop.

That morning, leaning against the fence with Ronnie and watching that mare pace back and forth, started me on a path. I wanted to learn the “feel” of a horse. On that day, it was not about causing the horse to stop. It was about awareness.

This is a mindset. It is not the same as when we look at our horses to see if they are sound or to see if they are healthy or ill; it is about observing them, detached from ownership or expectations.

To see what Ronnie saw that day takes more than a few hours of watching a horse in a pen. It takes an overall awareness of the subtleties of the “language of the horse.”

My friend Steve Buyrne and I were watching Ronnie one afternoon. Ronnie was sitting on his horse Roany when a herd of horses passed by. Steve pointed something out that I never would have noticed.

Roany was looking at the herd, ears pricked forward. As the horses got closer, Roany wanted to join the herd. As his ears pricked even more forward and his mind started to pull towards the horses, Ronnie very slightly wiggled his right foot in the stirrup and Roany looked back at him. It was as if to say, “Oh right, I’m with you.”

Most of us are too slow in noticing these little signs. Before we know it, the horse takes that step and we take action. By this time, the horse has already said: “I thought about it, I got the feeling in me to go, then I moved my feet, and now you tell me you don’t want me to go?” 

Because Ronnie was able to feel these subtleties in his horse, he noticed when the horse thought about moving. It only took a tiny wiggle of his foot to say “I’d like you to stay with me” and his horse responded.

For years I could ride, rope, and even show, but I couldn’t see what came so easily to Ronnie. Even now, I continue to strive to see these subtleties in the horse, those that Ronnie saw his whole life. Observing a horse’s communication, the bond they establish with each other, and how strong that can be is instrumental in understanding their behaviour.

My hope is that everyone who loves horses will begin this search for softness. A horse is never wrong for acting like a horse. We need to understand that they are doing exactly what Mother Nature is telling them to do.

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Watch a herd of horses and observe how they interact with one another. See if you can pick out who the leader is. Photo: Robin Duncan Photography

Horses have no natural desire to impress the neighbours, to win a ribbon, or to trot down the trail by themselves away from the herd. I encourage every rider, horse breeder, trainer, and recreational horse owner to look for ways to broaden their understanding of their horses.

Some of you out there already share this path, but for those of you who have not yet begun to observe your horses in this way, think about this: while Ronnie didn’t stop the horse that was pacing that day, he did stand there, quietly watching, interested in seeing the change in that horse’s behaviour, waiting until he could predict its movements, constantly challenging his expertise in reading just that one mare. He was just that deeply interested in horses.

This is the subtle understanding the masters have. It’s easy to begin and exciting to do. This is where the secret to horsemanship is!

Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Observe a herd of horses: Observe your herd. If you already know who the boss is in the herd, then determine who the leader is. The leader is often quite different from the boss horse. If you don’t have your own herd to observe, stop and watch a herd of horses on the other side of a fence for a while or ask a friend with several horses in their field if you can spend some time there.
  • Watch a mare and foal: This spring, take the opportunity to experience the wonderful relationship between a mare and her foal. Watch it take shape. See how their bond, language, and respect are established. It happens in this situation more quickly than in the herd and is worth sitting for periods of time observing. Take some still photos and look for the subtle body language and connection between them.
  • Observe a rider and horse: Observe the horse’s response to its rider. Don’t judge it, but watch how this particular horse responds to that rider. How aware is the horse or the rider to their surroundings and each other’s movements? What does the horse look at and what does the rider notice?

The possibilities are endless…

To read more articles by Jonathan Field on this site, click here.

Main Photo: Robin Duncan Photography - Master horsemen can see the subtleties of horse language, the tiny moments of thought before an action.


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