On the third day of the clinic, I came out and told Mark that places that used to hurt when I rode (my lower back) felt just fine - this was wonderful, since my lower back has been hurting for years - since I'd let go of the bracing there that I'd been practicing for years my lower back was much happier. But because of that, an area between the bottom of my ribs and the bottom of my shoulder blades was now sore - Mark said these muscles were having to adjust to my change of posture. I now need to work on my shoulders, which still tend to carry tension - at the end of the clinic Mark demonstrated to all of us some shoulder stretches that can be very helpful - all they take is a resistance band or even just a lead rope tied to a solid structure that you hold as you do the stretches.
Mark and I also had a conversation about how important it is to build softness of intent and feel, and correct breathing, and good posture, into your life, every day and in every circumstance. Horsemanship cannot be separated from your life - it's all the same thing - and you can't be and act and hold yourself differently in only your horsemanship and expect it to be effective. If you build it into your whole life, it'll then be there and available in your horsemanship without your even having to think about it.
Pie and I did some walk/trot/halt/backing work and Mark said that it all looked very good in terms of how I was using my self and riding. At that point I stopped and asked Mark about Pie's bit. I said he was doing a lot of mouthing, and even some gaping and there was still the slightest indication of bracing at certain points. I said the bit I was using was the best option I could find, but it might still be giving him issues.
Mark looked in Pie's mouth and said that when his mouth was closed, although the bit I was using was giving him good tongue relief - Pie has a huge tongue - it was also in contact with the roof of the mouth since Pie also has a pretty low palate, and it looked as though the bit was starting to wear the ridges on the roof of the mouth. (Regular snaffles can also do this in horses with low palates.)
Here's the bit Pie and I have been riding in - the version I was using was without the slots for the headstall and reins:
Here's a picture of the bit Pie and I tried out:
Interesting, no? It looks sort of the same, but sits and operates in the horse's mouth completely differently.
A note about merchandise. Mark really isn't into selling merchandise - no special halters, leads or other goods. He does sell his books and videos, but they're rarely available at the clinics. The only exception he's made on his website are a couple of bits - one that he uses a fair amount - the regular Rockin S snaffle bit - and the ported version shown above. Here's a link to Mark's website with an explanation of how this bit came to be - Mark designed it in collaberation with the designer of the orignal Rockin S snaffle to solve a particular problem - horses with large tongues and low palates. That would be Mr. Pie.
So we did the rest of our work session in that bit. As is typical with horses trying out this bit for the first time, Pie did a lot of mouthing and tongueing of the bit - Mark said no other bit he'd ever been in would have felt the same. For a while we just walked and trotted around without much contact to allow him to figure out how it felt - it was interesting that on a loose rein his posture was different - he was letting go in his top line and stretching down, which is new for him. Once he was quieter in his mouth, I started taking up contact and asking him to work. Immediate big change - there was no bracing and the contact was very alive and soft and Pie's movement got bigger and more engaged. A note - this bit does not work for many horses - some don't care and some actively hate it. We did some very nice work and the transitions were much improved. At the end of our ride, his mouth was already quieter than it had been in the other bit, and a lot of the time his mouth was completely quiet - and Pie's facial expression was much happier too.
We went back to our canter work of the day before. Pie immediately took both leads correctly, and was able to really carry himself well at the canter and there were intervals of real softness and balance - this was due mostly to my letting go of the bracing in my lower back, but I think the bit helped as well since he could carry the soft contact without intervals of bracing. He's still finding his balance at the canter with a rider, but things were much better. At the end, Pie got a bit tired and had trouble taking up the left lead even after a number of tries. Mark said he was just too tired, and to take him right and let him canter on the right lead which is what he could do at that point, and that's where we ended. Mark wasn't worried about the leads, and there's no point in forcing a tired horse to do something he's struggling with - there's no positive learning in that.
In the afternoon, Red and I had a good and interesting session. For some reason, I came out a little bit too energized (too much caffeine?), and started out by overcuing Red for our upwards transitions. I started to attribute this to Red anticipating canter after all our canter work the day before, but Mark corrected me and said not to make up stories or explanations about what the horse is doing - first figure out everything you yourself might not be doing correctly - the softness has to come from us and then the horse can connect to that. There were some pretty big hops and leaps into the next gait - Red was saying "jeez, tone it down, will you!" - he doesn't suffer fools gladly. Mark came over and held my lower leg and had me practice reducing, and reducing and reducing my cue until it was only the energy of the thought. Once I got things dialed back down, Red did fine. Mark said again that everything was working very well - Red's movement was if anything more extravagent and engaged than the day before. We had a couple little hickups at the canter and one pretty good bolt - he spooked at the same area of the ring as the day before and just took off (man, that horse is fast!) which I interrupted pretty quickly and we just kept right on cantering as if nothing had happened. As usual, Mark didn't care about the bolt since it wasn't what I wanted and the canter was. I was able to let go with both my body and not hold him back - even immediately after the bolt which I felt good about - and the canter was very good on both leads. (I asked Mark after the clinic about the bolting (not to focus on what I didn't want with Red but just out of curiosity), and Mark said it could have been the reflections off the windows of the trailers parked along the ring, or it could have been a shadow from the corneal ulcer Red has in his left eye that is still healing - it wasn't anything I was doing.)
We ended up on some lateral work - leg yield at the trot, alternating directions as smoothly as we could. Red had an easier time moving right - with moving left, he could take a few steps but then would lose the back end - Mark said to support the front a bit more but also worked with me on my timing of discontinuing the movement the movement and riding forward. Forward has to always be there, and if by supporting the front end forward motion was being inhibited, then trying to force the back end over with your leg just made everything bracey and ended the movement with what I didn't want. Instead, he had me softly support with my hands but then ride forward before the back end got left behind - if it was only a couple of good steps that was fine - the important thing was to end with what you do want, not with what you don't want, and never get into pushing and pulling. Over time, those few good steps will build into more good steps.
Mark said that I'm certainly capable of effectively riding Mr. Red, even though he's a little powerhouse and very, very sensitive. I attributed most of the progress I've made over the last year to Heather and also to Miss Dawn mare - Mark knows Dawn well and calls her the mare whose only speed at canter was lightspeed - helping her to learn to relax and not brace or race has really challenged me in a good way.
A very, very good clinic, and Mark's set me some important challenges for the year to come. (And there's video - after I trailer home this morning, I'm looking forward to fun viewing and editing . . .)