It was an amazing day - Pie and Red and I made great progress - mainly due to some changes in me that allowed them to better be able to do what I was asking, but before we get to that . . .
One thing I omitted from my post about the pre-clinic demo discussion was interesting and important. Mark asked us a question - in the gradations of martial arts belts - from white (the lowest) to black (the highest), which belt is most likely to injure someone else? He said it's the brown belts, the level just below black belts - they know all the techniques but haven't yet got the feel, which makes them dangerous, and not in a good way. Makes you think about horses, and trainers, and training horses . . .. The other thing he said about black belts is that some people think of that as an achievement/status symbol, but that all it means is that you are a serious student and responsible for those you are working with and preventing injury to them - it means you are humble about what you know and what you may need to learn next . . . Like many experienced riders, I'm at risk of being that brown belt with all the technique and not enough feel . . .
Where to start about today? Well, Pie and Red and I worked on transitions. Our softening work at walk and trot is pretty established and consistent. But the downwards transitions - trot to walk, trot to halt - weren't as fluid as I wanted and there was a tendency to lose forwards and to have the horses fall on the forehand. Upwards transitions could be sticky with Red, particularly in the beginnings of our work sessions, and both Pie and Red tending to bring their heads up, and even brace, through upwards transitions.
As I suspected, all of this was due to me and my body mechanics. Some fixes, some attention by me, and things were enormously better, not after hours and days but immediately - talk about positive feedback! Through the downwards transitions, I was not breathing properly and locking up in my lower back, which affected my shoulders and arms, with the effect that I was "cutting the horse in half" and inhibiting their ability to engage the hindquarters and do a good transition. Attention on regular breathing - from the belly, not the upper chest - letting my lower back continue to move and thinking the new rhythm and exhaling, and we didn't have good downwards transtions, we had glorious downwards transitions - engaged, flowing and forward (even into halt), without any increased pressure on the reins, change of posture/leaning or any physical aids at all.
And as Mark points out, having a mobile lower back means your seat is much more secure - he says he himself might well have come off in the sort of spook/spin that Pie did with me last June, but that having a relaxed lower back gives you a much better chance of being able to respond and go with the horse if a horse makes a big move.
Upwards transitions - halt/walk, walk/trot, and halt/trot - only needed two things - first I had to know exactly what feel I wanted through a transition and in the resulting gait, and I had to be clear about asking for it - no dilly dallying around. Mark says we often "negotiate" with the horse about what we're asking for - "trot" and the horse says "um, not yet, maybe in a few steps" - that little bit of resistance is due to our lack of clarity. We worked on "NOW" - this is not at all like the usual ask, tell, make that you read about, but much more leading the horse with our thought and being focussed on what we want - so if you ask for trot and you don't get it that instant, don't wait and futz around, go instantly to a secondary aid, before the horse's thought of not doing what we intend fully forms - which could mean just slapping your boot with the end of the reins. It isn't that the horse is being resistant, it's that we're not clear enough with our leadership. Ride like you mean it from the first step of each ride and get ahead of the horse's thought and provide leadership.
There was a second refinement to my upwards transition from walk to trot that pretty much put an end to Red's tendency to hop or push his head upwards. This is related to the following/allowing hand I've been talking about. Mark says that a horse who is carrying himself softly will naturally draw the head backwards just slightly as the effort for upwards transition occurs - I was allowing a slight loss of contact when this occurred which created an opening for Red to go upwards with his head - all I had to do was to maintain my soft contact by bringing my elbows back a fraction of an inch as we transitioned and his head came slightly back - no loss of contact and no pushing upwards. Mark describes this as the "point of resistance" - you are just at it, not past it, so if the pressure rises due to a brace you're in a position to immediately redirect. It's active, breathing, living, softness - a live connection through the reins that's in balance - not a brace and not an abscence either, and it immediately responds to what the horse does and offers.
Combining these changes with just breathing and feeling the new rhythm in my head led to smooth, effortless transitions with both horses, and it felt oh so good. One additional thing that relates to this - we often ask our horses to move their feet in a particular way but we're not moving on the inside ourselves - we need to feel the movement in our own bodies (what would it feel like if we went from trot to walk, or did a leg yield?) - and then communicate that feel to the horse and do the movement together with the horse. This is how thinking the changes of rhythm in the upwards and downwards transitions works, and allows these transitions to be effortless - no leg aids, no seat aids, no rein aids and no stopping the motion - believe me, it's a special feeling of oneness with the horse since the horse feels what you are thinking and just does it too.
A big theme for me today was to focus, not on what you don't want - what the horse is doing "wrong", but on what you do want and what that feels like - just focus on getting that and a lot of the "wrong" stuff will fall away. Mark says we often spend too much time finding things that are wrong and then trying to fix them as opposed to reinforcing/building on the things that are right. Too much focus on what is wrong distracts from what we are trying to do - the thing that is right - it takes our eye/mind/body off the ball, and often just leads to reinforcement of the wrong thing since that's where all our attention is going.
Another thought - don't try to do everything at once - do one thing at a time. With Red, we had two things we were working on - getting an immediate upwards transition without a gap between intention and act, and on getting a transition without his head going up. Trying to work on both at once would be fruitless and confusing to him, so do one at a time - we got the immediate transition first, letting the head position go, and then refined what we had by working on my maintaining the feel in the reins through the transition.
We worked on my applying/removing aids with softness and smoothly, not abruptly - it's OK to be decisive but abruptness can create braces. This applies to everything, including how you pick up the reins to how you apply and take off aids for such things as leg yield - Pie and I were doing this exercise where you leg yield a few steps in one direction and have that flow into leg yield in the other direction with no interruption - it's all one movement - the key is smooth and soft application/removal of leg aids and stepping laterally in your own mind. The whole thing should just flow.
Another important thought - if you have a history with your horse, or know your horse's past history, and there were issues/problems there that are no longer active because you and the horse are past them, just let them go - don't let your horse's past define how you think about/ride the horse now. Although good horsemanship requires that we be able to deal with whatever comes up - and sometimes old stuff does reappear - it's more important to be riding the horse we have today than the horse we had last year.
One final point from someone else's session - breathing deeply - from the abdomen, not just the top of the chest - is the key to releasing fear that is trapped in the body, for both horses and people.
Mark commented that my riding was greatly improved - I credited my work with Heather for this. Mark said my intensive riding and work had prepared me to be able to make the really big changes in my riding fairly easily, with immediate improvements in both horses in response, in just one day - now I need to work to internalize this learning so it becomes part of my riding. I told Mark that until now, many of the concepts he'd been discussing - the feel, the point of resistance (following/allowing hand), the breathing and thinking the things you want and doing them yourself instead of using physical cues - were things I heard but never really was ready to understand until now. Maybe coming off of Pie last year, and the work I've done since. was the best thing to happen to my riding in a long time . . .
Tomorrow we're cantering . . . stay tuned!