Progress in my horsemanship is pretty much about working on me - when I find ways of being softer and more effective, my horses rise to the occasion and deliver. One of the things I find most interesting about the journey I'm on with my three horses is the layers involved - each concept I'm working on has different levels, and over time my understanding of the concepts has changed - from a basic/rough understanding, to a better understanding, to a more refined understanding. I've been fortunate to have teachers - Mark Rashid and now Heather as well - who have met me where I was at the time and taken me farther down the road to softness with my horses. I apologize in advance to those of you who have been down this road and are already where I am going - this stuff may seem obvious to you. It's hard to write about this, as it's a matter of feel and hard to describe adequately in words.
One of the concepts that I think has deepened the most for me over time is the concept of the "release". Initially, I learned to do the big release - if a horse gives you a certain number of soft steps at a particular gait, give a big release. This is an important beginning stage for the human - how and when to release and getting the timing right - and for the horse: telling the horse that yes, that's what I want you to do. I learned at one of the Colorado clinics with Mark, and my mare Maisie, that to release effectively your hands have to be stable and quiet to begin with - a big point for someone like me who had tended to have busy hands. And I do think this is an important stage in learning how to release.
But there's more . . . a lot more, in fact several layers. The next stage for me in learning about releases was learning to make the release not a big throw-away, but rather a smaller physical movement that maintained contact with a soft feel. That wasn't too hard, although I did have to learn about "allowing" with my hands - not fixing them - to follow the horse and never block the motion by fixing my hands. (See my post from last year's Mark Rashid clinic on allowing.)
And now I'm to the next level of understanding, and it's like I'm seeing something important for the first time and really understanding it - I wouldn't have been ready for it until now and my human and horse teachers have (patiently) waited for me to get there. It's hard for me to say how big this discovery - I'd almost say revelation - is for me. It's made an enormous difference to my riding, and to my horses, already, and last week with Red (see my post from last Friday) and today with Dawn show the powerful difference it makes.
With Red, my work involved my following him, maintaining soft contact, and not bracing - this was all it took to cause him to adopt a soft posture with a relaxed top line and engaged core. With Dawn, the issue was more complicated. Dawn has a long-standing habit of moving her head around - she braces, then she falls behind the contact, creating a somewhat loose rein, then she's soft and the contact is just right, and then she repeats the whole thing, often in less than a second for the cycle. So her head is never stable and she's never soft for long and I loose the connection a lot.
So, two things made a difference today. The work with Red last week introduced me to a better understanding of a following/allowing contact, and the concept of a mental softening rather than a physical release, and something Heather said to me really stuck with me - that horses (like Dawn) that bob their heads around or go in/out of softness but don't stay there, are searching for the right spot but not getting a consistent answer. What would happen with Dawn is that, even when I kept my hands stable, she would go from a 3 in pressure (on a scale of 1 to 10 with 0 being no pressure and 10 being the most pressure you could imagine), to a 5, to -2 (falling being the bit with a loop in the rein), to a 3, to a 5, to a -2, etc., etc. She was searching.
So, using what I had learned and what Heather said, today Dawn and I did some ground-breaking work at the walk. Instead of allowing her to reduce the pressure to -2 by falling behind the bit, I followed her motion with my hands, so that there was always a slight pressure - say a 1 - no matter if she put her head behind the vertical, although if she poked her nose out the pressure might go up. This is the important point - she didn't get a release for going behind the bit - since I was following her motion with my hands, the pressure stayed constant, until . . . she got to the exact spot I was looking for - relaxed through her top line, engaged core and stepping under herself and head about or slightly in front of the vertical. (An important point - although some of this is about head position, it's really a lot more about the feel and the horse's use of its whole body.) Then I gave a mental release - not a physical release but just a mental softening - almost like a big mental sigh. I think this feeling of mental relaxation is strongly communicated to the horse, and helps promote both physical softening and softening from the inside of the horse. Following her behind the vertical with my hands and also not throwing her away (even the slightest amount) with a physical release seemed to make a huge difference to her. This was very hard for me to do - I had to concentrate very hard to follow her head movements with my hands without allowing the reins to go slack. Within a few moments, we were able to get 3, then 5, then 7 perfectly soft and engaged steps with my soft, following contact. The feel is the complete opposite of a horse that is put/placed/held in a particular head position - instead of that she was in self-carriage with a live, but very soft, connection through the reins. (See the quote from Philippe Karl in my reply to Lap123 in the comments below.)
It's hard for me to articulate how profound a change this is for Dawn - a horse that's always pulling, and then falling behind the vertical, and getting more and more revved up by her uncertainly. Tomorrow we'll try the trot with our new mutual understanding.
I am so grateful to my horses for presenting me with challenges I needed to solve that required me to make changes in how I ride, and for the teachers who have helped me get there - this is what has resulted in improvements in my riding, and therefore in what my horses are able to do for me - the joy of this is a very big thing. (And this new found feel/understanding of mine is so important that I'm adding it to the Steps on the Journey sidebar.)