Over the past two days, Maisie and I have been using an idea suggested by Jean of Horses of Follywoods. I love reading Jean's blog, which is excellent, but Jean also comments on other people's blogs in a way that is always interesting and often enlightening. Here's her comment on one of those earlier posts of mine:
I always try to tell people you need to stay forward in the "downward" transistions. If you ride them as if you are stopping, you will, in the sense that the horse will not put his/her hind end under. Another good exercise you can add to your training is a kind of "hesitation" in the gait. You can do a transition from trot to walk and back to trot, just making the walk a stride, or even simply a short trot stride. Do this with a half halt with your seat. Then immediately go on again. This will help Maise stay forward in the downward because she will be ready to go on again. And it will help your brain wrap around the forward as well because you will be thinking that she always needs to feel as if she can move off again in the upper gait without any extra effort.
We've been trying different variations - trot/2 strides walk/trot, trot/1 stride walk/trot, even trot/momentary hesitation/trot, and throwing in some halts and backing for good measure. Once in a while I add in longer periods of walk - 4 or 5 strides - just to mix things up and so Maisie doesn't think I'm only asking for just the shortest transitions but keeps listening to me. I've continued to use the thought of the new gait's rhythm, and breathing, as the way to ask for the new gait, but am also playing with Jean's idea of giving a (very slight) half halt with my seat. Thanks to Jean for reminding me of this - I've had very little formal instruction in riding and had forgotten (if I ever knew) this very useful tool. I've also been trying to keep in mind a thought from the Mark Rashid clinic (see the sidebar for links to my posts): that even in halt the engine still needs to be running, so the horse is immediately available to move.
One nice aspect of the momentary transition exercise is you have to know ahead of time exactly what you will be asking the horse to do, which of course is something I should do all the time when I ride, but this exercise is great practice because you can't do it successfully unless you plan ahead. Maisie was getting some very good, forward, flowing trot to walk transitions as we did the exercises. Her responsiveness to my "thought cues" was also improving, partly because she was really tuned in to me since she knew something would be coming up soon - I expect this exercise, if I do it from time to time, will improve her attentiveness, and it's probably less boring than trot trot trot trot . . .
I also was thinking as we did our work over the past several days that this ability to introduce momentary hesitations in the gait will also give me more ability to slow her down when she wants to go with a too rapid cadence - and without using my hands which has produced problems for us. Yesterday this really worked - we did a couple of circles at the canter in each direction, and then came back to trot - often after cantering her trot becomes too fast and it's hard to get her to regulate her pace again - this time she started listening again to my thoughts without much of a gap in attention. Another interesting thing was that two days ago she still attempted to lean on the bit again once or twice, but I didn't provide the other half of the brace and so she continued on - no racing, no hind end coming up. And then yesterday there was absolutely no attempts to lean on my hands or start to pull. This is a very good sign that what we are doing now is working for her.
Once I fully get her to understand that my hands are not primarily for cuing downwards transitions and asking for a slower cadence, I think this will go a long way towards clarifying our softening work - I think she'll be able to soften her jaw, poll and neck and not lose the softness in her body in the downwards transitions, and I also think I won't have to carry much if any pressure in my hands to do the job of softening.
Yesterday when she came out she didn't feel 100% right behind - although she wasn't off and moved willingly, there was something there - and sure enough we had a few instances of "catchy" stifle - once at the canter. We've been working hard and I expect her muscles are a bit tired. We're having a second session of chiro soon to "cement" the chiro work done last week, and I also expect the stifle issues to improve with more conditioning - stronger muscles support the stifle joints better - just like people and knees (the human equivalent of the stifle joint)! So we finished on a good note and went for a nice trail walk. We incorporated some of our transition work from walk to halt to walk, with backing thrown in. She was relaxed and willing, and we even went easily by the Scary Large Pieces of Plywood in the middle of the path which appeared suddenly as we came around the corner. I hardly had to ask at all for her to pass by quite close, although she did snort and keep an ear and eye on them!