Over the past several days, I've been adding some of Mark Russell's thinking on relaxation to my work sessions with all four horses. His focus on relaxation in the jaw (no tight nosebands or cavessons), and stretching down through lateral and longitudinal (front to back) bend, without forcing/holding, in order to get mental and physical softness, has really been a really excellent addition to my work.
The whole point isn't the position of the head, it's the stretching/rounding of the top line and also laterally. This permits the horse to be physically, mentally and emotionally relaxed and also engages the core for lift and impulsion. It's the first stage of the work Mark outlines in his book, but it's fundamental and something always to be returned to.
Although there is a lateral element to this stretching, it most definitely isn't what a lot of folks refer to as "lateral flexions". None of that nose to boot stuff, which I see a lot of folks doing. I find that type of mechanical lateral flexing completely counterproductive and in fact harmful - it tends to produce a gumby-necked horse who is disconnected from front to back. Red came to me that way, and it was a pretty difficult thing to work through to get his front to back and back to front connection again. What I want is an even, relaxed curve from nose to tail, with the horse coming through from behind.
Both my rides on Red and Pie were spectacular - they were happy, with quiet mouths, and their impulsion and rhythm were impressive - in fact they both did some of the best trot work we've done. Dawn and I also had a nice work session at the walk - our first ride in almost two weeks - where she was able to find some good relaxation - relaxation has always been a big challenge for her so this work is going to be very beneficial. Once things are well-established at the walk, we'll move up to trot. Missy and I had our second walk ride, and we've been working on her softening, in hand and also under saddle, and she's making very good progress.