Sunday, August 1, 2010

Consistency, Precision and Softness

Dawn and I have been working hard in the mornings. My younger daughter likes to ride her on the trails in the late afternoon or early evening, so we talked and she agreed that it would be OK if I kept working with Dawn in the mornings - I'd like to keep the connection and progress going and Dawn is fairly overweight and could use the extra exercise. My daughter and I are doing different things with her and I think she'll like the variety. She's already lost one hole on the girth since we started doing our serious trot work - progress in the right direction!

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.


  1. The revelation that so much of the responsibility of a good ride is the rider's instead of the horse's is always pretty daunting.

    You had a solid handle on the concept and seem to be putting your theories into good practice. How nice that Dawn is rewarding your efforts. She is a good girl and you have come really far with her.

    As I recall...I think I said this wasn't that many months ago that you were a bit intimidated about riding her. I'm impressed.

  2. Great post Kate. As always I gained a bit information that I can take on my journey. The breath-out on queue. As a rider we have to remember to be soft too, and breathing I believe is essential in that.


  3. I'm really working on softness, but can only get a few trot steps (walk seems to be coming fine). I really appreciate reading how you are going about it. Sometimes asking for a slight bend in the neck helps get it back too.

  4. You're amazing. :) I'm delighted when Dixie transitions on a verbal cue. Every now and then, on a longer ride, I can feel her ask to speed up or slow down, and she'll respond on a tiny body movement from me. I suppose one day we might get where you are.

  5. Funder - actually, I think it's Dawn who's the amazing one!

  6. Great post, Kate! Softness, I am working on that for me and trying to use it in everyday life not just with the horse.
    I thought about your posts of Mark's clinic, Mark's book I am reading about softness today. I still can't ride because of the B52's eating us alive so I went to the barn to just brush the boys. I worked at brushing the tangles out of Gilly's tail as softly as I could. Everything I did with them I was aware of softness. Softness is a lot of work but if I can be aware of it at all times then it will become second nature. I have to be soft in myself before I can ask it of my horse.
    Thanks for the greats posts you always provide, I do appreciate it! :-)

  7. Softness....yes. Let me say that I LOVE your header shot.


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