Pie and I worked today on clarifying what it means when I use my leg. I try to be consistent in the way I ride all my horses and not fall into the trap of riding each horse the way the horse's prior owner rode it - this is a common thing since the horse is already prepared to respond to the way the prior owner rode. Riding all my horses the same does make for certain challenges, though, since each horse starts from a different place and with a different understanding. As usual, my horses are my best teachers - they show me my inconsistencies and where I'm not clearly communicating what I want.
Dawn and Red have some common characteristics - they're both highly intelligent, sometimes nervous or high-strung, very alert and distractable, and naturally very forward. With all my horses, I expect them to be responsible for forward and my request for forward comes from energy and focus, not from leg. For me, my leg is for activating the corresponding hind leg - more engagement, or stepping under or over with the leg.
I do this because I want my horses to be super sensitive, never dull to the leg, and for forward to be automatic, saving leg for specific cueing. I can do this since I'm the only person who will ride them - you may want your horses to respond in a different way, and that's fine. I think these specifics about how I want my horses to go and how I achieve that is part of the answer to the challege Mark Rashid gave me at last year's clinic to ride all my horses the same. I think I'm starting to understand what he meant.
Pie is a different model than Dawn or Red. He's also very smart, but he is less compact - he's taller and also longer in the neck and body, and somewhat downhill. He's also greener with less training (although, unlike Red, he benefits from not having had any bad training). Despite being my youngest horse by 5 years, his default is not forward, it is standing still - he'd happily do this for hours. He's also a bit of a stoic, and can tolerate pressure well without overreacting - this means that it's easy to use too much with him as he doesn't complain.
Heather and I spent a lot of time last year establishing forward in Pie - before that he had these short-strided, choppy, dinky gaits. Getting him to free up his movement, and particularly his shoulder, was a big change for him. The way we did this was to use a secondary cue - an instant tap behind the leg with a dressage whip if forward didn't immediately come through.
Because Pie's tolerent of pressure, it's easy to fall into the trap of using too much leg, nagging and nagging. Neither Dawn nor Red would tolerate this. And since Pie is greener, it's easier for him to get confused - nagging with my leg, particularly if it was to get more forward, reduced the value of the cue and muddied its meaning.
So, as usual, it was about me making changes, in order to ride my horses in a consistent manner that was clear to them and effective. With Pie, I have to consciously think: "leg is not forward, leg means activate the hind leg or step over with the hind leg." Then I have to clearly distinguish between forward (communicated with energy and breathing only and reinforced if needed with a secondary cue using the dressage whip) and activate hind leg - using the corresponding leg to cue. And, with Pie, it is critically important to keep my eyes and head up and not slump - because he's long-bodied, long-necked and also somewhat downhill I need to avoid weighting the forehand or riding the head.
Today Pie and I had an outstanding session. We worked in hand for a few minutes, reinforcing that leg (or hand on his side) meant step over with the hind leg - we did spiral out and leg yields in hand. In our ridden work, we started with sidepass - progressing to doing it on a loose rein to really make the point. I worked hard on giving releases from leg pressure with every slight movement - even a lean - to really make it clear for him.
His ridden work after that was outstanding. I made sure to make him responsible at trot and canter for forward - no nagging with the leg - and only used leg to move a hind leg over to get bend into a corner or maintain or change the bend on a circle. I also tried to remember not to keep leg on, but to ask and then immediately release for him stepping over - horses get dull to the leg because they never get releases, so leg ceases to mean anything (and adding spurs changes nothing, just means that a lot of pressure means nothing). He was really connected with me, and his canter work included some very nice departures - he now canters around and around the ring, deep into the corners as if it's no deal at all - great progress for him (and me).
I was delighted with how well he did, and told him so.