Having videos of my riding is so helpful. It helps me confirm things I already suspect that I am doing which are getting in the way of my horses doing their jobs. The things I've been working on with Heather have already helped a lot. First, she's had me work on keeping my chin and eyes up and my focus up and forward - this immediately makes a big difference to my horses as it takes my focus and weight off the forehand and leads to better forward, including in downwards transitions. This is particularly important with Pie and Dawn, as they are both built somewhat downhill, but Red also benefits as he's so sensitive that all I have to do is drop my eyes and he will go onto the forehand instead of carrying himself from behind. The second thing she's been having me work on is keeping my elbows back and close to my sides - this improves my torso position and also lets me more easily have a following/allowing hand. Both of these changes in my riding are on the way to being new habits - I work on them every time I ride, and I can see progress in my videos of Red.
As these things have improved, they've clarified what needs working on next. I'm also fortunate to have great teachers in my horses. In about a week, I'll be riding both Pie and Red in the Mark Rashid clinic, and I've got a pretty good idea of what I want to work on. There are two main things - eliminating blocks/braces I'm doing that interrupt the energy and flow, and continuing to work on following/allowing. Starting to fix these will allow my horses to give me real forward with relaxation too - asking for forward by pushing/driving, or blocking forward movement with your body/breathing/energy, are two of the quickest ways to make a sensitive horse less relaxed.
These issues are showing up in a couple of ways. First, I need to be clearer with Pie and Red that forward is their responsibility - they need to do it consistently without my nagging or pushing. And if they're not moving forward, then I've fallen into bad habits by overcuing or driving with my seat and body, both of which create blocks to forward movement. I'm doing better on this with Pie right now - I always carry a dressage whip when I ride him so I can immediately move to a secondary cue if he doesn't respond to my ask with the lightest cues possible - if I move to a heavier cue all I'm doing is training him to that level of cue and also blocking his motion at the same time. With Red I'm on and off with it - some days he carries himself forward without any need for secondary cues. But if I start pushing/driving with my legs, body or seat, stop breathing properly or direct the energy down with my posture, eyes or mind, we lose all forward and he gets "sticky" and our flow disappears. Right now I need to be carrying a dressage whip when I ride him so I can avoid upping my cues - which with his level of sensitivity should be pretty much just breathing and mental cuing - he's very sensitive to both "good" cues - no physical cues - but also super sensitive to "bad" cues - overcuing or blocking/bracing. Due to his history, he's expecting to get cues while his rider is braced/blocking, and we're still in the process of teaching him that he doesn't need to expect that, and I certainly don't need to reinforce that old learning.
Heather and I will work on this when I'm riding Red in my lesson with her next Wednesday - at this point it's a lot less about him than it is about me.
Second, upwards transitions. Downwards transitions are improving already just with the changes in my posture and focus - all I need to do to continue to fix this is to reduce any physical cues to the bare minimum - and with Red just a thought and breath will do. With Dawn, I have to be careful to never cue for a downwards transition while she's braced, even a little bit - otherwise that builds the brace into the transition and that's what she learns. That means we can't get those downwards transitions at a precise location - say, C, yet - but that's fine at this point. Once the transition itself is OK, then we can decide where to put it. With Red and Pie, so long as I maintain my posture, focus and mental flow, the downwards transitions aren't too bad.
In watching the videos, I can see that I really need to work on my upwards transitions. I can see if I look closely that there are moments, even if I'm not overcuing, where I brace/block and stop following/allowing physically and mentally. This results in my horses bracing back and eliminates the softness, if only for a fraction of a second (if I'm overcuing, things are much worse). I think this is going to be the primary focus of my clinic riding - getting those braces/blockages out of the way so that my horses can do what I'm asking with softness. Getting the timing right for the mental/breathing cuing - where the hind legs are in the right spot to be able to execute what I'm asking - will also help.
Here are a couple of videos that illustrate pretty clearly what I mean - if you want to view them in slow motion, which may help, hit play then immediately hit pause, then just hold down the space bar to view in slow motion:
Dawn trot to canter - my brace/block happens in the first second or so - I basically stop following/allowing with my hands and body as I cue for canter (and with Dawn that's an outbreath and a mental change of rhythm, so it's not the cue itself that's the problem), and my focus turns down - so of course she braces through the transition. This Dawn video shows the same thing - it's not quite as bad here, but it's still an issue - watch how my hands/body lock up for a second. Here's an example with Red that shows the same thing in the first second or so of the video - not as bad but still there.
Third, following/allowing forward/softness, particularly at the canter - this is more an issue of mental relaxation/hand/upper body position for me. I've begun to be able to follow/allow at walk and trot while providing a soft spot mentally for the horse to find, but canter is still harder. Here's an example of what I used to do all the time, that Red and Dawn and Heather have taught me (mostly) not to do - I'm not following with my hands in a way that allows Red to fall behind the contact, and my reins are too long, which doesn't help. The two Dawn videos show my lack of following/allowing at the canter really clearly. I am trying to ask her for some softness a few steps at a time here, and that can result in some momentary bracing, but I need to be following/allowing with my hands. This is a particular challenge with Dawn, as she's so naturally forward - but in canter forward tends to become gallop pretty quickly since that's all she knows and she's built downhill so can want to lean. So allowing forward - so she can relax and actually canter instead of feeling revved up and moving up to gallop - is a particular mental challenge for both of us. The video of Red above shows where I'm trying to go with following/allowing at the canter - my hands and arms aren't too bad although I'm still somewhat braced in my back - but he's forward and relaxed at the same time which is what I want.
So lots of good stuff to work on - my horses say they're trying hard to teach me but maybe Mark can help them out! I'm adding this post to my "Steps on the Journey" sidebar . . .