The clinic was a good refresher on things I already know (but don't always put into practice) and I always learn some new things too. The past several days, Dawn and I have been working on her softening at the trot, and on transitions. Today was the first day I've asked her to soften continuously at the trot (not just for a specific number of steps) - she's got the idea pretty well down and now it's time to ask for consistency. My job is to have my hands set a soft barrier, without either giving away too much - giving her a release when she braces or throwing my contact away when she softens - or pulling, which would result in my hands recoiling when she softens thereby denying her a release. The objective is for my hands to provide the boundary so that she gets her own release when she softens, while keeping that soft contact and connection. With Dawn, I have to also always be mindful of not giving her an inadvertent release if she curls up behind the bit - she's not trying to do this much anymore and I'm carrying my hands somewhat higher to avoid the inadvertent release.
Dawn does pretty well with this for the initial part of our work. Towards the end of our work, however, she begins to tire a little bit and then tries to put her head back in a braced position, leaning on the bit, or alternatively tries to curl up, or alternates between. I've found that this behavior - reverting to the prior patterns of behavior as fatigue begins to set in - is pretty common for horses learning new things, particularly things that require a change in body posture.
I used to be bad about chasing the horse's head with my hands, not providing a stable boundary so the horse could find it - this is one of the things I worked on at my first clinic with Mark - Maisie used to be a terrible head flipper and diver onto the bit and it was all about my hands - she couldn't figure out what I wanted. So in order for Dawn to be consistent with her softness, I have to first be consistent with my hands. When she gets a little tired, and her head moves around, keeping a consistent soft boundary with my hands gives her a chance to find the correct answer and respond. And she does, and gets her release. We don't work as long on this at the end of our sessions as she tires, but we still make progress. Once she's in better shape, and her muscles have adjusted to carrying her body more softly without bracing on the bit or curling up - it's a new posture for her - I think all of this extra stuff will just go away. When she softens, you can really feel the power come up from behind.
The other thing we're working on is precision in our transitions walk/halt/walk and walk/trot/walk and halt/trot/halt. My objective is for her to immediately transition, while carrying forward appropriate smoothness and momentum, on my thought/feel of the new rhythm, immediately followed by a breath out, without any other cue. As a secondary cue, on upwards transitions I use a leg cue and/or a chirp and on downwards slight resistance with my seat and/or slightly more pressure on the reins, but what I'm aiming for is precise transitions off my thought and breathing. We're making good progress on this - Dawn's sensitivity and intelligence really help, although upwards transitions are inherently easier for her because she's naturally so forward.
In between sets of this more strenuous work, we continued our work on turn on the haunches. She's made great progress to the left and we're close to being able for her to take continuous steps. It takes almost nothing to cue her, and all the braciness has fallen away and been replaced with soft motion. We'll do some work to the right next time and then begin to put the whole thing together. We've also been doing some backing - this is going well too. And of course we always take some breaks on a completely loose rein - she loves to stretch her head and neck almost to the ground.
I feel that if I can offer Dawn consistency, precision and softness of my own, that she'll be able to offer me consistency, precision and softness back - but it has to start with me.