In order for the work to progress, the horse must be able to express itself and try out things, and give the rider feedback about the rider's degree of relaxation. That's why devices like tight tie-downs or martingales, tight nosebands and flashes, draw reins, harsh bits and practices like rollkur (including almost-horizontal curb bits) are so counterproductive, in my opinion - the horse is forced and constrained and has no opportunity to express itself and its opinions about what is happening - learning cannot take place in this environment. Many if not all of those devices also reinforce whatever braces there are. Riders often reinforce braces with their bodies by pushing or driving with their seat and legs, and pulling against braces on the reins. My objective is for my horses to carry themselves, at all gaits and in all exercises, in relaxed self-carriage by their choice - they learn that it is comfortable and choose to do it - with the softest of connections through my reins, seat, legs and mind. When this happens, there's nothing else that feels like it, and it's possible for horse and rider to think and act as one.
Relaxation is not dullness, or deadness, or a horse that is checked out and almost asleep. It isn't about having a horse that is bomb-proof - although a horse's ability to relax together with the rider can help a reactive horse. And relaxation isn't about slowness - take a look sometime at a video of Secretariat racing - the relaxation and effortlessness of the stride at speed is there. Relaxation is about mental and physical engagement in the work while using the body of horse and rider in their most effective way.
Forward is a word that is almost misleading - it implies forward motion, and perhaps speed. But it isn't really about speed, and it's possible to have speed without "forward". Forward in my mind is really closer to the concept of impulsion - it's the ability of the horse to lift itself into action using its core while maintaining relaxation of the jaw and top line. Movement in a forwards direction, at any speed, isn't "forward" if the horse or rider are braced - a good example of this would be some modern dressage horses trained using rollkur - their legs are doing all sorts of flashy stuff (that's unfortunately often rewarded by the judges), but there isn't an ounce of softness or relaxation there - the horses are often braced from nose to tail. Similarly, horses who have been trained with methods emphasizing a "frame" or "headset" often aren't truly forward - they often are braced and not in self-carriage, which means there isn't any relaxation - all you've got then is false forward.
Forward can exist when the horse is standing still - it's potential - the horse stands softly poised with a relaxed top line and core engaged, ready to move forward with relaxation - Mark Rashid says the engine should always be running even in halt. This feeling of potential soft movement in halt is also unmistakeable. Forward isn't rushing, it's measured and has noticeable rhythm. Rushing, and the mental and physical bracing it represents, come from a lack of relaxation. True forward and rhythm both build on relaxation.
Dawn has made enormous progress in her softness and the mental and physical relaxation it represents. We worked on several things today - more transitions and maintaining softness through the transitions. We added a good bit of work in the halt/trot/halt transitions, and by the end of our work she was really nailing these transitions on just my very brief thought of the new rhythm and an out breath. I also worked with her on keeping her relaxation going as we varied the stride length at the trot - Dawn still sometimes wants to start bracing and rushing as we move into longer strides or more straight-line work. We made substantial progress today on maintaining relaxation, and as we did the rhythm really came through.
Then we did some trot/canter transitions - she does these very nicely on the thought of the new rhythm and an out breath. We didn't maintain the canter for long before transitioning down to trot. The challenge then was to maintain the relaxation once in trot again. We're not there yet, but progress was made.
And I rode Maisie today for the first time in over a month! She's been sound at all gaits in the pasture for a while, and the swelling in her left hind, although still visible, is reduced - she may always have some residual puffiness there. We only rode for about 5 minutes at the walk, but she thought that was pretty darn exciting, and so did I. I iced her hinds afterwards, and will continue to do this as we increase our walking time slowly each day.
When I turned the mares out - they went into the pastures normally occupied by the geldings - there was much excited galloping to and fro, from one end of the pasture to the other and all over, and in and out of the various gates - it's about 6 acres and they've not been out there in a while. It was fun to see the little herd galloping around, with Dawn in the lead.