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!