Red and I had a very hard ride last time on Monday. Out biggest problem seemed to be with the upwards transition from walk to trot - easy, right? Not easy . . . Almost every time I even thought about asking for trot, his head went up and he braced through his whole body. Sometimes I caught it and redirected (or tried to redirect) the energy rather than being the other side of the brace and pulling (harder to do than say, believe me), and sometimes I was late and got an almighty braced hop into trot, and sometimes into canter. He was noticeably annoyed - I even got some tail-swishing and a few attempts at balking, where he started to refuse to move forward. In the walk, back and trot, he was generally amenable, although he was somewhat cramped up in his head and neck and there was some bracing. The whole thing was very, very ugly.
My conclusion, since he wasn't really doing this stuff anymore with Heather, was that the problem was me - or at any rate me interacting with him. I was perhaps giving contradictory signals - go/no don't go by overcuing with my seat and legs, and driving the energy down, and bracing with my hands, and probably not breathing well - and not offering him softness, and he was justifiably annoyed and frustrated. He's an incredibly sensitive horse and the stuff really messed him up and he let me know.
So today I tried to change a bunch of things - asking Heather first if we could try them - these were my ideas for how I would deal with it. Heather had not ridden or worked him since my ride on Wednesday - he had Thursday off. I rode in one of Heather's other bits - a simple slightly curved sweet iron jointed snaffle with copper inlays rather than the KK with two joints and the lozenge we'd been using. Heather brought out a selection of bits and that's the one we decided to use - keeping things simple. I rode in Heather's Western saddle - he's comfortable in that and it's secure for me and my posture is better when using it. I was using soft, cotton rope reins which were thick enough that I had to hold them to keep them from sliding through my fingers but also thick enough that I couldn't clamp my hands tightly. These changes weren't essential, but I wanted "different" so I could make big changes in what I was doing. Before I rode, I asked Heather to "play horse" with me - this is a very valuable exercise I've done before at Mark Rashid's clinics - where one person plays the horse, holding the reins with the hands playing the bit, and the other person plays the rider and holds the reins. We took turns playing both roles - I wanted to get the feel of offering softness in a brace, and also the (very little) amount of pressure she holds on the reins when he's soft. We also worked on the distinction between physical softening - a movement of the hands - and mental softening - a thought of relaxation that's more subtle and doesn't result in much if any movement of the hands.
This concept of continuing to maintain contact while mentally softening, even in the face of a brace, is a hard one to grasp but once you get it it's very powerful. The trick is not to pull in the face of a brace, just maintain the pressure and then mentally soften as the horse gives and follow the horse's mouth so your hands don't either recoil - this happens if you're pulling and the horse softens and the result is the horse doesn't get any release, or your hands don't stay put, not following, with the result that you lose contact with the horse's mouth. Doing these exercises with another person is a very powerful way to learn.
My objective was to simplify/reduce what I was doing. My focus was only on forward and relaxation - I wanted him to move out and to stretch down to contact, not balk or cramp up his head and neck. My job was to have a soft, allowing contact - never throwing him away but never bracing - a very "live", slight pressure in my hands - just enought to maintain the connection. Red is a supremely sensitive horse - it's clear that it's possible to do most things with him using only breathing, energy and thought - physical cues seem to get in the way. Dawn is very much like this too, so I have some experience with this, although Red takes it to a different level. I worked to eliminate a lot of things - moving my seat too much - Heather said just to think about how it would feel with your own body and legs as you moved from short to long walk, and then to trot. No pushing with my legs. No holding his mouth - just a light, soft contact, following him and only resisting if he braced (which he didn't). Keep breathing regularly and deeply. Don't use any physical cues for the upwards walk/trot transitions - just exhale and change the rhythm in my head - same for downwards transtions. Keep my focus forward, not down - let things flow while following/allowing with my hands.
The result was wonderful - it was probably the best ride I've ever had on Red. On some of our early upwards transitions, he did move his head up a bit (probably expecting me to brace), but when I just followed, he didn't brace and his head and neck relaxed and stretched down to my soft but steady contact. After a few times of that, the head raising went away and all the transitions were fluid and soft, and we were both very happy. There was not one single hop into trot, not one - and this after two days ago when every transition was horrible and "hoppy". He did get distracted at times - horses and trucks coming and going, but was able to come back to me very quickly and keep right on working.
Red is very, very good for me - he's really refining my horsemanship and I'm beginning to see the glimmers of a true partnership.