The rain came and the rain went. Maisie was only a little bit damp, and the sun and clouds were trading places in the sky as the wind gusted a bit. So we rode, with the objective of working on our downwards transitions using my thought rather than my hands. We didn't get all of the way to where I want us to be, but we made substantial progress.
We started out doing some walk/halt transitions and also backing. I focussed on the feel of the whole horse rather than the headset. I'm one of those people who can be goal-focussed to the point of going overboard and that sometimes leads me astray - I sometimes reach my goal but other things fall by the wayside in the process. One of the things Mark Rashid said at the clinic (see the sidebar for links to my posts on the clinic) really made a difference to me - headset, or frame, matters a lot less than softness. If you have a headset, or frame, without softness, getting softness through the whole horse, from jaw to poll to neck to hindquarters, may be impossible. But if you have softness, the horse can come into whatever frame or headset you want, and together you can pretty much do anything. It's the feel of the whole horse, which you can feel in your hands - whether you're maintaining contact or not, the reins are still alive - that's important.
I've been riding with Mark for a number of years now, and you'd think I'd be able to get this stuff by now, but I guess I'm a slow learner. Maisie and I were doing great with our softening work at the walk, trot and canter, and could back well, we could do lateral work, and our upwards transitions were really pretty good, but I think I was missing something. This missing something showed up big time in our downwards transitions, and the moments when she became excited. At those times, she would keep the heatset/frame, but she wasn't soft through her body behind the withers and there was a lot of bracing and some ugly downwards transitions, and even unattended flying changes at the canter - she was balancing on my hands and that was the result - the energy would move at a downwards angle and the hindquarters would come up.
So in our work yesterday, my primary objective was softness, flow and making sure I wasn't using my hands to communicate, except in the softest possible way. I wanted the energy to flow at an upwards angle, even in downwards transitions, through the hindquarters and the shoulders and then to the neck, poll and jaw. If she wanted to "dive" into my hands, I would not brace against that - which would just drive the energy downwards, but would find a way to dissolve the brace.
So in the backing, I wanted the feel of the whole horse being soft, and her back lifting with slow and regular diagonal steps in a 1-2 rhythm. It took a few tries of backing most of the length of the ring to get this - before that she was just softening in her jaw, poll and neck and moving her feet. The back lifting and the engagement of the hindquarters feels completely different.
Then we moved on to walk/halt transitions - using, first an offering of the thought of the transition, followed if necessary by a sinking of my seat and an exhale as my cue. She pretty quickly got the idea of this, and we did a number of halt/walk/halt transitions with great success. She never once "dove" onto the bit and was able to start doing the transitions off my thought alone. We then walked around a bit on a loose rein to allow her to stretch, relax and process.
Then we moved on to the trot. Initially, as is often the case for her, she was sluggish in moving into the trot - she often starts out slow and almost dull and comes more and more alive as we work - sometimes to excess. I was careful not to increase my leg aids (after first offering her the thought of the 1-2 trot rhythm) beyond where I wanted to end up - which is a very soft 1 (on a scale of 1 to 10 with 1 being the least aid you could use and 10 being the most) - and went immediately to a secondary cue (slapping my leg with my hand) if she didn't respond to my leg at 1. Interestingly, she tended to be more sluggish in the walk/trot transition to the right - I'll have to look more carefully at my body position in that direction to see if there is something I'm inadvertently doing to inhibit her forward motion.
When trotting, I focussed less on her softening her jaw, poll and neck to the bit and more on the total feel of the trot - its rhythm, relaxation and engagement from the hindquarters. If she started to "dive" onto the bit, I didn't pull on her - avoiding the brace that we usually set up - but instead gently lifted one rein (usually the outside rein - Jean: any opinions on this?) to tell her that I didn't want her face and energy downwards but rather forwards. She was initially a little confused by this - "but I thought you wanted my face there!" - but quickly got the idea. She was incredibly soft in my hands - I didn't get any of that "I'm driven by my energy into the bit and hanging there" feeling she often gives me. Often, once she starts "diving", she becomes more and more forward and in fact nervous and we usually lose the ability to accomplish anything. Today, by asking her to lift her head, she actually settled down and although she was forward she was listening and responsive.
Then we did a number of trot/walk and trot/halt transitions. When I didn't get the transition I wanted because we lost the softness, we backed until the softness came through. As I had planned, I led with my thought of changing the rhythm and then followed with sinking with my seat and then exhaling, but thinking of the movement as forward into the new gait or into the halt - the halt should be an expectant forwards - instead of downwards. She was working hard to figure out what I wanted - sometimes she got it and sometimes it took a few strides. I wanted it exactly on the exhale. I think the idea that I wasn't messing with her face took her a while to understand. Because I wasn't giving her my hands to brace on, she had to do things differently. We got a few really good, flowing trot/walk transitions and then called it a day, with much praise. We took a little trail walk and she was relaxed and happy.
My being softer allowed her an opening to be softer. Jean of Horses of Follywoods had some excellent suggestions in the comments yesterday - using one- or two-stride transitions, or even momentary hesitations, to maintain the forward and upwards feel. We're going to continue to work on this and see what progress we make - I'm expecting good things!