If you're just checking in to this series of posts, you'll probably want to read my earlier post"Mark Rashid Clinic - Common Themes" and also check out the excellent slide show of pictures taken by jmk at Buckskin and Bay. I'm going to give each horse at the clinic its own post - this is horse #5, Scout from our barn, owned and ridden by jmk at Buckskin and Bay, who is also doing her own posts about her rides.
Here is Scout - he is a very cute (and big!) buckskin gelding:
She has ridden Scout in a previous clinic with Mark, when he was 4. When Mark asked what she wanted to do with Scout, jmk said that his canter departures were inconsistent - sometimes they were perfect and other times they were ragged. Mark watched her ride at the walk, halt and trot for a while and said that the reason her transitions were inconsistent and sometimes rough was that she was failing to give the horse sufficient direction - she was leaving openings for him to make decisions about speed, direction and destination, and also about when he should make the transition. So the result was that sometimes she got the transition she wanted and sometimes she didn't - but it wasn't because she'd asked the horse and he'd done what she wanted, it was because the horse happened to do by chance the thing she was looking for.
Part of it was a matter of expectations - she's been riding him since he was very green, and she still sort of thinks of him as a green horse. He's 6 now, and Mark says if you ride him as if he were green he will act as though he is green, and will stay green. You get the horse you expect to get, pretty much, funny how that works. It's time to expect more of him and not treat him like a baby. Ride the horse as if he were the horse you want him to be.
Mark said that a lot of the trouble people have with transitions happens because people (not horses) worry about them - if your horse is worried about it it's because of you. Horses make smooth, flowing transitions in the pasture all the time - it's the rider that gets in the way. If you think about the different gaits as not faster/slower, but as having different rhythms, this tends to make it easier to get the transitions. That's how you avoid things like getting a faster trot instead of a nice balanced trot to canter transition.
Most people ask the horse to do something, but aren't specific about it - we need to lead the horse with our thought but we can't do that unless we have a clear idea of what we want. We often ask the horse to do something with the aids instead of leading with our thought, and wait to see what happens, and then just tell horse what we don't want - we need to present and show what we want first, every time. The way to think about any action we want the horse to take, including softening or transitions, is to imagine how you want it to feel and look and then feel that in your own body - present that feeling to the horse. You want to give the horse an opening to respond to your thought, but follow up with the aid if needed - the time interval between the thought and the aid can be very short. Fairly soon, the horse may be giving you what you want just off the thought alone - be prepared for this and don't ask with your thought until you're ready. Get the horse's attention, present the thought and add the aid if needed - collapse the interval and be very precise about what and where you want the change to occur.
It was fun to watch Scout and his rider work - he went from slow, laborious, drawn-out transitions, to flowing, precise ones as his rider was able to give him more complete and precise directions. Pretty soon he was getting lovely canter departures on both leads.
They also did a lot of work on downwards transitions, trying to make them more effortless and flowing. Mark pointed out that, if you wait to give a release when asking for a downwards transition until the horse started to make the transition to the lower gait, you are too late - the release should be given at the first offer to shift the energy down to the lower gait - otherwise you stop the momentum and get a jerky slow/restart feeling that isn't flowing. Again, thinking of a downwards gait change as just changing the rhythm really makes it easier - if you don't think of it as slowing down that keeps the forward motion that you want - the slowing down will come right along if the horse is balanced.
They also worked on reducing the cues - if you turn the volume down the horse can hear you better. Don't use more cue/aid than you want to end up with. Present what you want to end up with every time, and put your energy into what you do want, not into what you don't want. If you want to only use energy/inside to get upwards/downwards transitions, start there - only use aids as a back up if you have to. They were very successful with this - Scout started doing the transitions pretty much exactly at the point she wanted and almost entirely off her thoughts alone. (Side note - my younger daughter worked at one of the week-long clinics in Colorado on this with her mare Dawn - Dawn makes upwards transitions easily with thought alone and no aids, and my daughter is now working on downwards transitions with no movement and no rein aids, just the thought - they're making good progress).
Jmk asked Mark a question about how to deal with people she trail rides with who are always telling her that she needs to fix her horse's headset. He talked about how we improve our horsemanship and our horse's learning. Look at anything - horsemanship is just an example. If you start with a cube of wood, how do you shape it? First you knock off the eight corners, then there are a lot more corners and you work on those, and so one - the early stages are big changes, and each stage requires finer adjustments to what you are doing. Each person and their horse are in a different place making those cuts. You are where you are and it doesn't matter where anyone else is. As you consider making cuts, only you know if you and your horse are ready for the next step.
Mark's message on unsolicited advice: "If I haven't asked for your advice I don't want it that badly." Don't worry about what other people are doing, and use your own judgment about what to do with your horse.
To summarize Scout and jmk's clinic experience - a soft cue doesn't have to be slow or imprecise - "do it, here, now" - but softly.
Next up is horse #6 - the good horse who told us he was sore.