I really didn't think it likely that Dawn and I could have a better ride than our outstanding ride last week, but today we did. We had the indoor arena to ourselves until the very end of our ride, and when we started, one half of the arena was relatively unmarked - no one had ridden much in that part except on the rail since it was dragged this morning - this was helpful, as you'll see.
The particularly outstanding bit of the ride - it was all very good - was Dawn's canter work. Dawn and I only started real canter work this year. Dawn has a very big, forward canter. The issue with our cantering is that Dawn has difficulty staying in canter, and also tends to brace, rather than softening - these two things are related. When she braces at the canter, she leans on the bit and ends up on the forehand - this is why she can't sustain canter - she can gallop but not carry herself effectively at a proper canter speed. This is pretty well baked in as a behavior, even though she now softens well at walk and trot - Dawn was a racehorse and my younger daughter also did a lot of galloping with her at high speed on the trails. Using my legs to try to keep her hind end engaged causes her to brace even more, defeating the purpose and causing her to become annoyed and agitated - no softness was going to come from that.
A couple of things I've been working on made a real difference today. In our walk warmup work on a relaxed rein, I work to establish my neutral posture, breathing, focus up and out and the relaxed feel of the hind legs in my body, particularly my seat and back, and I work to carry that feel and position into my trot and canter work. But there was a new insight today that made a big difference.
I had already figured out that doing canter work on a looser rein was helpful - if she doesn't have my hands to lean on she can't brace and has to carry herself. But she has to be relaxed for this to happen - if she's tense she just revs up and you're off to the races. On a loose rein, she was also tending to fall in around the corners, and since she was unbalanced laterally, that would also lead to her speeding up. The piece of the puzzle that fell in place for me this week was our small circle and tracking up work at walk and trot.
As a reminder, what this work involves is making smallish circles - you can do it with circles of any size but the smaller ones are more challenging and also show up where you're going wrong more clearly. The objective is for the hind feet to exactly track up in the steps of the front feet - if you do it properly, the hind prints will obliterate or be exactly in line with the front hoof prints - a clean arena surface makes this easy to see. It's not that easy to do at the beginning - it requires a lot of attention and care. And if you don't have it at the walk, you're not going to get it at the trot and certainly not at the canter. It can't be forced - it has to come out of that combination of relaxation/forward that's so powerful. A horse that is tracking up will be balanced laterally, and if you've got a nice uniform bend, with the softest of contacts - neither laternal rubber necks or a brace on the rein will produce tracking up - and proper impulsion/forward, you're well on the way to softness - and once you and the horse know what this feels like, it's a lot easier to find again. And when you remove the bend, tracking up turns into straightness, just like magic! Once you've got it in one direction, you can switch bends after barely a step or two of straight - the objective is to be able to switch bend at any moment and just maintain that soft feel of tracking up.
There's no one right way to achieve this, but here's what I do. I ask for a particularly amount of bend in the neck, using the inside rein - the feel of this needs to be soft on both the horse's and my part. I leave the outside rein without any contact to speak of - more on that later as it's at variance with how I was taught to ride and maintain a bend. I use my legs, the slight turn of my upper body and head, and my eyes, to ask the body to follow the same curve - I'm riding the hind legs and where they go. There needs to be a connection - a feel - from the back of the horse right up to the front - hind feet to jaw - but it doesn't come from the bit, or driving the horse into it. If you have a horse with a "rubber neck" - many horses, like my Red, who've done excessive lateral flexion work, disconnected from their body, are like this - you may end up with a popped out outside shoulder, and no connection between the head and neck and the rest of the body. (That's a little bit like driving one of those shopping carts at the supermarket that just doesn't move right due to a problem with a wheel.) Forward, and hind feet stepping under the horse energetically, is essential - otherwise the front end just drags the hind end around on whatever track just happens - the hind end has to come "through" and carry the horse. (Forward needs to be a default condition - I don't nag or push - there's no hope of softness then. Forward is the horse's responsibility in response to my ask in the form of my energy and connection.)
A note on my prior learning - I was always taught to maintain a bend, and prevent overbending (shoulder popping to the outside) by maintaining contact on the outside rein and using my "inside leg to outside hand". For me, now, in my riding, that puts too much emphasis on the hands, and contact with the horse's mouth, and can result in the horse being "trapped" between leg and hand. Now, I'm maintaining the bend with a soft inside rein and using the relative position and feel of my inside and outside legs to direct the hind legs where I want them to go. It's more directing the inside of the horse, down to the horse's feet, rather than shaping/constraining the outside of the horse. Now I'm not saying that inside leg to outside hand isn't just fine for those who use it effectively without introducing tension and bracing - it just isn't how I ride now and my new way of thinking about, and feeling, things is working better for me. (A rubber-necked horse may need outside rein for support until the tendency to over bend laterally is changed by enough correct work riding the horse through from hind end to front end, where the horse gets the feel that its head and neck, and body, are parts of the same horse instead of two unrelated horses.) Ultimately, I think, softness has to arise - come forth from - the inside of the horse, and isn't something I apply or determine from the outside of the horse - my job is to set things up as best I can so the horse can be soft, and then let the horse do the work and rise to my offer.
Here's the connection with our canter work - a horse that isn't tracking up exactly when circling or going around corners is unbalanced. An unbalanced horse isn't soft, and will brace, or lean, or speed up, in an attempt to provide the balance that is lacking. In our earlier canter work, in addition to her natural tendency to brace on the bit at that gait, Dawn was also unbalanced around the turns, which just made everything worse. Tracking up was the answer! She was able to carry forward our tracking up work at the walk and trot - and the feel we both had of that - into the canter work today. In our laps of the arena on both leads, both my reins were loose, and the feel of my legs and seat carried her hind legs into the corners with proper tracking up. When we did big circles, I used a little inside rein to ask her for consistent bend. Her canter was elevated, and forward, and relaxed, all at the same time, on both leads equally. Just outstanding - she was pretty pleased with herself too! I'll take a ride like that any day!