One thing I've been working on in my riding is always offering the horse a place of softness which they can find and therefore obtain a release. This requires me to do a number of things, some of which I find harder than others. These things are about consistency, stability (of my position), posture, energy and thought. And it's not about doing things with my hands - it's about defining things - setting boundaries - with my hands, and every other part of my body, so the horse can learn to carry itself softly through its whole body. I think many of us come from riding backgrounds where there is way too much riding the head, doing too much with our hands, and sometimes amplifying the effect with gadgets, as if somehow this will magically affect, or "fix", the rest of the horse. That just isn't going to happen. Although I'm going to talk in this post about what I do with my hands, I'm learning to think of them more as boundaries rather than instruments of direction - direction comes from my focus, posture, energy and the "channel" I create with my whole body for the horse to flow through - this comes from the back half of the horse where the power is. Otherwise, if the flow isn't coming from the back end, all the hands do is create a big brace/blockage that the horse has to struggle against, and that's not what I want. So, what I'm trying to say about my hands and what I've been working on assumes a lot of other stuff - forward is essential regardless of the gait or the speed within the gait - and that I'm riding the back of the horse and not the front and keeping the rest of my body "allowing" and my focus up and forward where it belongs (not on my horse's head).
And one other important point - although I'm putting this down in words to try to communicate, none of it is really an intellectual matter. The concepts are pretty simple but sometimes hard to articulate. It comes down to feel, and how that feel changes depending on what I'm doing and what the horse is doing. But it's up to me to offer the horse the feel I want - the softness - so the horse can find it and we can be soft together. Although I can describe it to some degree in words, they're only an approximation of what the feel "feels" like. When I'm riding, there are no words or intellectual concepts about this. However, although there is breathing, energy and focus aspects to this, it's not mumbo-jumbo or mystical in any way, although it can feel like that at times when things really click.
Here are a couple of examples from my recent riding with each horse, which may help to explain a bit what I'm talking about. Each horse presents his or her own specific challenges to me relating to this, and each horse requires a somewhat different - although really consistent when you look at it - response from me. That's one of the things I love about having different horses to ride - they're individuals and require an individual response. And I'm still and will always be a learner - that's one thing I find very exciting about horsemanship. Heather has been very helpful to me with this, particularly with Drifter, where she's helping me refine how I offer him softness.
With Dawn, since she is so naturally forward and is easily excited, the challenge is to allow energy and forward together with relaxation (sounds like a paradox, doesn't it?), to not pull and to give her a soft place to find - pulling eliminates this and creates a constant brace. If the horse is pulling on you, the challenge is not to pull back (which will create a recoil if the horse softens, eliminating the release), but simply to resist in a way that gives the horse less resistance as they come closer to the soft spot you're defining, with almost zero resistance in the soft spot - just a live "connection". Dawn is still recovering from her bout with EPM, so she's finding using her hindquarters properly somewhat more difficult right now, which tends to put her more on the forehand, which can lead to bracing. Although all horses need a proper warm up and also rest breaks during work sessions, Dawn needs more frequent rest breaks right now at walk and trot on a loose rein to recover from physical and mental effort. So with Dawn, I'm working very hard on energizing the hind end while clearly defining the soft spot for her - no fussing with my hands but just a clear boundary. Right now, she's doing a lot of leaning on my hands, or even going up with her head and neck, as she works on regaining her balance and strength. I just define the soft spot and wait for her to find it, and then remind myself not to "throw her away" by dropping the contact, but rather try to mentally soften and allow her movement. We had some great moments last night where she was working on a shortened trot with more engagement behind, where she was able to stay in the soft spot more consistently. This requires me to be very quiet with my hands, and not to fuss with her when she leans on me but rather just wait.
With Pie, I have to consistently define the "box", which, since he is so green, is different at different gaits. He also needs frequent rest breaks, particularly at trot and between canter sets, since he's only just learning to carry his whole body softly and he's building his core muscles to do this. I also always give him a fairly long warm up at walk and trot on a longer rein - while establishing forward and still maintaining a connection through contact and defining the "box" - the goal with him right now is for him to never travel while inverted, which was how he traveled when we started his training. His softness is now consistent at the walk, and mostly consistent at the trot. My focus and posture is important with him to help him travel "in the channel". At the canter, all I'm asking him for right now is to maintain forward and travel fairly long and low - like my warm up work at walk and trot, I have him on a somewhat longer rein, but still have contact so I can define the soft "box" - it's not a "spot" yet as he's still working out his way of going and balance. (In the video from a few days ago, I had him on too short a rein - he's not ready for this yet.) As long as he's forward and not inverted, we just canter and canter and canter, keeping our turns big.
With Drifter, I've been working on making my softening/soft spot for him more a matter of thought, or energy, to counteract my tendency to "let go" with my fingers, hands and elbows. He's very uphill and is also more physically developed than Pie at this point, and can carry himself softly for long periods of time, although he also needs rest breaks. Since he's a horse that's prone to worry and also very senstitive, I need to offer him a place of mental and physical relaxation that is the exact soft spot, rather than opening my fingers, or giving way with my elbows, which makes it harder for him to find the soft spot since my actions change it. So no "throw-away" releases - even if "throw away" is merely a matter of opening my fingers. He needs the reassurance of a consistent and stabile soft spot, which he can reliably find and where I tell him with my slight mental/energy relaxation that he's found it. And Drifter's a horse that will tell you immediately if you aren't primarily riding the back of the horse and are too much focussed on the head - if you do that his head and neck become disconnected from the rest of his body and the straightness, forward and relaxation come undone. So keeping him connected from front to back is part of the feel I'm looking for. To prevent "throw-away" releases, I'm focussing on keeping my fingers closed and elbows bent and close to my sides, and having the release be primarily my communication of mental and physical relaxation when he's in the "spot".
Hope this isn't all too confusing . . . it's not that easy to define in words.