Saturday, August 1, 2009

Using My Head Instead of My Hands

If we put ourselves and our horses into more exciting circumstances - especially my part-Thoroughbred Maisie - this will almost unfailingly reveal gaps in our training. Maisie and I still struggle with downwards transitions, and sometimes with speed regulation, although that has improved greatly. When she gets excited and very forward on the trail at the trot, and I ask her to slow or to come down to the walk, she does this thing that shows me where the gap in the training is. She no longer does what she would have done in the past when she knew nothing about softening, which was to just pull and lean on my hands with her neck, poll and jaw braced. She's got the idea of softening now, but I think only in part.

What she does on the trail when I ask for a shift downwards, either of gait or speed, is she continues to stay soft (but is it really soft? - I think it may be that deceptive pretend-soft that I call light) in my hand, but she drops her head lower, keeping her neck, poll and jaw relaxed. But she isn't soft behind the withers, and with her head low - often with her face somewhat behind the vertical - if you were to draw a line representing our energy, it would run from her hip through the point of her shoulder to her jaw - that is a downwards tilting line. The hindquarters tend to want to come up, and it's no wonder we can't get a decent shift downwards - the energy is driving her on the forehand. When she drops her head, I also tend to look at it, which also pushes our energy down. So bad speed regulation and bad downwards transitions - there's no real softness there at all.

In order to have nice downwards transitions, the energy line needs to run upwards - from the hip (or even the hocks), through the withers and then to the poll and jaw. That is what happens when the whole horse's body is soft from back to front, with no braces. Then the hindquarters can step underneath and the front end remains free. Some things that were said at the Mark Rashid clinic (see sidebar for links to my posts), combined with something my daughter said recently about her work with Dawn, have given me some ideas (which only coalesced in my head this morning) on how to work with Maisie on this issue.

The first thought that occurs to me is that Maisie and I have no trouble at all with our upwards transitions - she does them easily and softly, with a decent level of engagement of the hindquarters. Now, one thing that was discussed at the clinic was the idea that upwards and downwards transitions are really the same - they both involve riding forward into the new gait with energy and impulsion, and the angle of energy needs to be upwards - the use of the word "downwards" in transitions is actually misleading, I think. So if they're the same, and she does them easily upwards, what are we missing when we go to a lower gait? Two things, I think - I don't use my hands in upwards transitions, and I think of the transition as moving up - in fact my aid for an upwards trot to canter transition is simply to think the new 1-2-3 rhythm and lift my eyes slightly to the inside.

The second thought that occurs comes from something my daughter said, which came out of something we heard at the clinic. It takes two to make a brace - both the horse and rider have to be pulling for a brace to exist. If we take away the pull, the brace can dissolve. One thought that came up at the clinic was the "find the point of resistance and soften into it" concept discussed in my post on horse #1 (see sidebar). Even a step beyond that is to not use your hands at all - a horse can appear to be on the bit and be completely braced or carry itself completely softly with loose reins. My daughter's mare Dawn is exquisitely sensitive, and my daughter said she felt as if she were using her hands too much which allowed her mare to brace against her. So she's been working on downwards transitions without using her hands, and is making great progress just using thought.

So here's the plan I'm going to try out, this afternoon if the weather holds. I'm going to first work on my own thought - making sure I have a clear image of a soft downwards trot to walk, or trot to halt transition, but thinking of it as an upwards transition with just a change of rhythm. Second, I'm going to present the thought to Maisie so that she can learn to respond to the thought alone - this is where I want to end up so this is where I'll start. I may try some of this on the slight downwards slope behind the barn, since this will encourage her to step under. And I'm going to work not to use my hands to ask - instead I'm going to use the thought, followed by the relaxation of my seat and legs - that feeling of sinking through and into the horse - followed by exhaling, timed to the feet. We'll see what comes of this!


  1. Good luck! I hope this works for you - I really think it will. Our thoughts start a whole series of small little changes in our own bodies and seat muscles. As we think it, we do it, and then the horse does it too. I used to think I was some (psycho) horse-psychic because my "visual aids" would accomplish the goal without fail. Now, I know that I am sending tiny muscle messages through my body to the horse and they respond. They are very sensitive to the tiniest signal from us - for example, just breathing, as you said with your daughter jumping Lily. I laugh at the ease in which I accomplish unbelievable goals now that I know the "thought trick".

  2. Kate, I wanted to thank you so much for posting about the Mark Rashid clinic. I read all of it and think that this is what helped me through what could have been a really bad wreck with Gilly. I haven't posted about this latest bird scare but here is what happened on July 3. I was cantering down our hay field and a blue heron flew up out of the creek, scared me and the horse, he bucked I fell off. I was back to riding a week later, after healing up somewhat. Last week while riding in front of the house and by the creek another bird flew up right in front of Gilly's face! It was so close I could have reached up and grabbed it's legs. When I saw the wings spread and start to fly up I held Gilly steady, took a deep breath and sunk my seat into the saddle. Blew out my breath like the horse does when he relaxes and just waited. Gilly only looked up as the bird flew over his head, then it landed in the trees behind us. I took another deep breath and asked him to move forward, he did as if nothing had happened!!!
    I just kept thinking about riding down the road calmly and kept my hands and legs still and relaxed; my breathing slow and steady.
    Thank you for your great posts, your words really stayed with me so I give you credit for my safe ride!
    ~Jane and Gilly~

  3. Jane and Gilly - I'm glad you both did better the second time with the bird flying up - you do a great job describing what you did and how it helped - I'm glad the posts were of some help to you since I write all that down (mostly selfishly) to solidify my own understanding. It's really you and Gilly that did the job of getting things done!

  4. Sounds like a wonderful idea, and I am looking forward to hear about the result.
    I am soooo eager to get back to riding again after the summer, and your post adds to it!

  5. Great ideas, again. 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.

  6. I have used a lot of visualization with Bonnie lately with some success. Bonnie has been a hard horse to bring along and although she is five she has been more like a three year old mentally (although thankfully that has been changing lately!). I always try to keep an image in my mind of what I'm striving for as I'm riding and when I ask for something different. I think it not only makes me ride softer and to be more precise when I communicate with her but gives her a "heads up" on what I'm asking her for.

    I have also employed Jean's exercise that she describes in her comment with Bonnie lately as well, combining it with visualizing how I want each step to go. It has helped our transitions a lot.

  7. Jean and Melissa - thanks for the suggestions - I like the idea of a hesitation stride and always being ready to move forward. The feel of "forward" instead of "slowing/stopping/downwards" is the mental image to carry.


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