When I was taking riding lessons - in college (I had no lessons before that) and then in my 40s when I came back to riding, I heard a lot of things like this: "push the horse with your leg into your hand", "have the horse in front of your leg", "half halt", "inside leg to outside rein", "bend the horse around your leg". And that's how I rode, and the results can be pretty good. I now think most of that way of thinking about riding isn't good enough, at least for me, and here's why.
All of those things involve braces. Even using your leg as a cue for forward or something else is often a brace. The good news is horses learn to deal with this. But if there's a way I can communicate with the horse that doesn't involve a brace, then the horse will be more free to move without my action interfering - better responsiveness and better quality of movement, more softness.
Mark's message to me in my lesson this summer was to do less - of everything. Part of this, for me, is understanding what my responsibilities are and what the horse's are, in turn. My first job is to know what I want - exactly what I want - and to communicate that clearly to the horse, using my thought, focus and energy, and physical aids, as softly as possible, when needed. The horse's job is to give me a response to my ask - that's the horse's try (assuming the horse hasn't had the try taken out of him/her). My job is to consistently expect forward, and it's the horse's responsibility to offer forward consistently. I don't nag or push or increase my aids - if I don't get the forward I want, I use secondary aids to make myself clear. All my horses completely get this, and I all have to do is signal forward with my energy level and rhythm with my thought, and we've got it. My job is to offer connection, and the horse's job is to take up that connection - it's a two-way street and I can't do the connecting all by myself. My job is to offer leadership and direction, and not to leave any gaps. My job is to keep my posture and body in a position to help and not hinder the horse. My job is to offer softness and the horse's job is to respond with softness.
It's in the doing less, and offering softness, that the metaphor of opening/closing doors applies, I think - it's a way I'm working on using to communicate with my horses that goes a long way towards eliminating the braces that come with pulling with hands, pushing with seat, leg or by leaning. It eliminates a lot of the "noise" that we inflict on our horses by doing too much, and it leaves room for energy, thought, focus and breathing to be "heard" by the horse.
As usual when I'm working on something like this, I do it with all three horses, but again as usual, Dawn's my primary teacher in working it through. I'll give two small examples of what I mean.
Take traveling down the long side in posting trot - nothing simpler that that, right? Not quite - I'm continuing to make some significant changes to my position - keeping posture upright and open and eyes and head up - no leaning forward or to one side or the other. And breathing in a relaxed manner in rhythm with the trot . . . And staying "tight" to the horse but with my hips slightly open - no clamping with either my upper or lower leg or forcing my heel down - since my horse is giving me forward without my having to do anything, my leg can be relaxed and draped . . . And posting using my core, not my legs . . .
If I can do this, Dawn travels beautifully on her hind end, in engaged trot, straight, with only enough tension on the reins to maintain a soft contact - like holding a baby bird with your hands. This is because I'm opening a door for her to move into - forward and upwards. The feeling is pretty amazing.
Now another example - turns. Going around corners, making circles, and changing direction. The only changes Dawn is having me make from my straight-ahead position and "opening" as we turn, is to keep my focus going up and around the turn and also to adjust what I'm doing with my pelvis, just the very tiniest amount. I open my inside hip just a tiny bit more - it's almost more of a thought - to create an opening for her to bend and step under with the inside hind leg. And I get lovely bend without pushing with my inside leg, changing how I use my seat or holding with the outside rein, just movement forward, up and around. And my outside hip stays where it is, slightly open but not quite as open as the inside hip, to close the door on that side and provide a boundary for her to use as guidance.
If overdone, any of these things could become a brace too, but Dawn's got me on the hunt for the least I can do, and the boys say she's doing a good job - they can see how I'm improving.
This stuff is very exciting and fun, and it's really delightful to see how the horses respond.