This post is about exercises you can do to learn to feel and offer softness, and they don't involve a horse!
Body Work. The purposes of these exercises is to help you learn to carry more relaxation and softness in your own body, so you can offer it to the horse. The first one is very simple - when I wake up in the morning, before I get out of bed, I remove all the pillows and lie on my back with my knees somewhat bent. Then I pay attention to any areas of tension or soreness or muscular tension in my body, and consciously relax them - I'm getting on towards 60, so there's always something if only a little stiffness. While I'm doing this, I'm also working on breathing deeply and slowly, and paying particular attention to fully exhaling. The concepts of this exercise - paying attention to your body and consciously letting go of tension, and practicing breathing well - can be done anywhere, anytime. When I'm riding or working with a horse, I try to do these exercises as well - they're a big help in staying calm and relaxed and preventing braces. Someday I hope that these practices will be automatic for me, but I'm not there yet.
The Don't Pull Exercise. This exercise doesn't involve a horse - you can use a grandma, husband/wife/partner, friend, child, you name it, and they don't have to know anything about horses! The really important thing about this exercise is that you get to be the horse, and then the rider, so you can feel things from both ends. And you can practice as much as you want and there's no worry that you're doing something wrong. And grandma/etc. can tell you what she's feeling. To me, this exercise is fundamental - getting the feel is the important thing and you can get it with this - at least it made a big difference to me. Then once you have the feel, you can carry it forward to the rest of the exercises with the horse, and you're on your way.
The objectives here are to learn to ask for softness with softness - and without pulling - and to make sure that you are giving a release when there's even the slightest softening. Pretty simple, no?
All you need is grandma/whoever, yourself and two reins/ropes/dog leashes/leadropes, etc. Something that has the weight and feel of your reins is ideal, but you can get the idea no matter what you use. Hold one end of each "rein" in your hands just like you would the reins. Have grandma stand facing you and hold the other end of each rein in her hands. Start with you being the rider and grandma being the horse. Take up the slack, but don't put on any pressure yet. Now you ask grandma to give to you - to soften - by applying pressure to the reins. Make sure your reins are short enough that you don't have to move your hands towards your body - just increase the pressure - you may find this part difficult to figure out at first. Ask grandma to resist by pulling on your hands, not hard but firmly - this is the horse bracing. Now tell grandma to give to the pressure, just a little bit, when she's ready - but not to tell you ahead of time that she's going to do it. When she gives and softens by moving her hands towards you, what happens? If your hands move towards your body when she softens, you were participating in the brace - most people, including me, find that this is what they were doing. If your hands recoil, even a little bit, you were pulling, and the recoil will often eliminate the release the horse should be receiving. That's how we teach horses to brace, by pulling and not allowing the horse to find the soft spot where there's a release.
So what do you do about that, and how do you avoid bracing against the horse's brace? The answer involves using your hands to softly set a boundary - the objective is for the amount of pressure you are applying on the reins to be zero to a minimal amount - say 1/2 on a scale of 1 to 10 with 0 being no pressure and 10 being the most pressure you can imagine - when the horse's head (or grandma's hands) is in the position you are looking for. This is a basic give-to-pressure exercise, but the real point is for you to educate yourself, physically and mentally, so your hands don't recoil when the horse softens and so that you can increase the pressure without moving your hands towards your body. If you hands are the boundary, then the pressure in your hands will increase if the horse moves outside the boundary, and will decrease if the horse moves towards the boundary, until it reaches zero when the horse softens to the pressure - but without your hands moving backwards towards your body. Until you've got it down, you may find this takes some concentration on your part - many, if not most, of us are pretty programmed to brace against a brace.
Now try being the horse, and see if grandma can show you what it feels like when the rider's hands recoil when the horse softens, and when grandma's hands stay put, offering the horse (you) a soft place to be. There's a big difference, and that's the feel you want to offer the horse in all your work. Even grandma should be able to pull this off, but if she's having trouble with not letting her hands recoil, try tying the "reins" to a fixed object, and then you play the horse - brace and then soften - this isn't the same "living" feel as working with a person, but will give you an idea.
Now there's a further refinement of this that can be pretty helpful. It'll sound a little bit like ESP, but I don't think it is - it relies on the extreme sensitivity of the horse. When you're the rider, and the "horse" is bracing, and you are setting a boundary but not pulling, try mentally softening - feel the softness in your whole body and mind and offer it to the "horse". Even though you are setting a boundary, the feel needs to be soft - no teeth-gritting! This exercise is called "soften at the point of resistance" and it really works - the "horse" will usually soften right towards you. If you can also play the "horse" in this exercise, you can feel the power of it. But don't worry too much if this mental softening doesn't work for you right away - the basic exercise should still make a difference - at least it did for me - but then the first time I did the mental exercise Mark Rashid was playing the rider and I was playing the horse (but I've successfully duplicated it since with non-horsey partners)!
The next post in this series will have some simple in-hand exercises that I have found helpful. I'm also adding a new sidebar with these posts listed as they come along.