Then I bridled her and mounted up - she's pretty solid on standing still at the mounting block on a loose rein until I've mounted, adjusted my stirrups and asked her to move off - but I needed to review a bit as she's still wanting to be a bit wiggly - she knows what I want and she does it, but it's not "built in" yet. I tried her in the Rockin' S snaffle to see if it would help her with her softening work. The answer, almost within a few minutes, was no. She really didn't like the bit at all - some horses don't, although Maisie really does. (There are pictures of the bits I talk about here in this old post.) For those of you from the hunter/jumper world, the Rockin' S hangs in the horse's mouth a little bit like a full-cheek snaffle with keepers - it's pretty fixed in position, although the rein action works a little differently. When I asked for backing, I got a raised head, steps to the side instead of backwards and a lot of violent tail-swishing - this was her way of telling me she really didn't like it. Dawn's one of those horses who's really clear about what she thinks.
So we went back to the barn and switched back to her usual bit, which is a Mylar full-cheek with a single joint, and I don't use keepers. She was much happier, instantly. I think with most horses, you can figure out within minutes if they're comfortable in a particular bit. So we'll stick with that one and just work through the issues she has with softening. I may also try to get hold of a traditional Western sidepull to try - she did pretty well in the halter and the very direct action of the sidepull might work well with her. I think the Dr. Cook's won't work for her - the action is too indistinct and "mushy". I think for her the issues may be less the bit itself than what she thinks she's supposed to do when you ask for softness.
So we did some preliminary work on backing with softness to see what we had. She did what I thought she might do - she worried, rushed, and ducked behind the bit. When I lifted one hand to ask her not to duck, she worried and rushed some more. I didn't stop until we got a couple of true, soft, backing steps, but I stopped at that point because I wanted to back up (no pun intended!) a few steps in what we were doing so we could work through the worry. This was exactly the behavior she has exhibited in doing other tasks, such as stepping over a ground pole, and we were able to work through her worry and eliminate the rushing by taking things one step at a time. I dismounted, and worked with her in hand on the backing for a little bit - more worry and rushing. We got a few decent steps of soft back, repeated a few times, so I stopped asking for continuous back steps.
I finished up with a little bit of what we're going to work on today, which is in hand backing in the bridle, but going very slowly in very small increments - the one-foot-at-a-time exercise we used over the ground pole, but in reverse. She responds to a whisper of a cue - but I want her to respond to the release and stop moving and not anticipate and continue to rush backwards without true softness. She was able to do a few "leans" and small steps for me, with somewhat more relaxation, so I stopped there - this told her clearly that this is what I'll be looking for. At this point I have confidence that we'll get where we need to in order to back with softness. Until this issue is resolved, I'll work her under saddle on a loose rein - we can work on our relaxation, turns and halting using my seat - that'll be no pressure on her and fun. Once the backing in hand with the bit is better, we'll resume our backing and softening work under saddle.
One of the main reasons I have confidence that we'll get there and the worry will go away is that Dawn has demonstrated that she can worry, accept my help and direction to deal with it, and then let the worry go. She worries when she's asked to do something and isn't sure what to do except rush through it. Once she starts worrying, it's hard to have a conversation with her. If she can learn through each set of exercises we do that she can think through things, not rush, and offer up various tries without being concerned about being right, and then learn which one is right through the release, we'll get there, bit by bit. Her progress in her attention, leading, ground-driving and scary object work has made this clear to me. I think the more we work, and the more things we successfully work through, the less the worry will come up in new or challenging situations, and if worries do arise, we'll be able to resolve them together more easily.