Today was an amazing day in many respects. Much cantering, and lots of good learning. Before we started our work session today, Mark had some things to say to me - he was sitting on his horse Baxter - a big paint gelding that had been a rodeo pickup horse and came to Mark with many issues - and me sitting on Pie. Mark said two things to me - first, that it was time for me to start riding all of my horses the same, and second, that it was time for me to develop my own style of working with horses - more on each of these below. None of this is about technique, and it's about me, not the horses - although the horses are affected by me and how I ride and work. He said this is what I'm ready for based on how I am riding now - I was able to make big changes in how I rode and how the horses worked with very small adjustments to my riding - and this is the next stage in my horsemanship. A comment - things are moving for me in my work with horses way beyond technique or specific training objectives - it's more about horsemanship from the inside (of me and the horse). I'm not there yet, but I can see where I'm going.
So what does this mean? The idea of riding my horses the same is connected to the idea of keeping your focus on what you want, not on what the horse is doing that you don't want - the idea is to have a consistent presentation of intent and feel to each horse at each moment. I've been edging up on this with the bleed-over of my softening/allowing work and transition work with Dawn, Pie and Red, where things I was doing with one horse started to have immediate application to another horse. Mark says I need to take it one step further - he pointed out that I've been watching him on numerous horses over the years and that all the horses end up with the same softness and "quality" of behavior and movement regardless of breed or origin, but always taking into account what they know or don't know or are more or less physically capable of doing - the idea is consistent presentation (by me) without losing the individuality of the horse. Heather is the same as Mark in this respect. This has nothing to do with being programatic or training horses with cookie-cutter methods, or failing to ride the horse you have today, it's about presenting yourself to horses in a consistent manner so they can rise to the occasion.
Mark says that I need to ride every horse, every time, with a consistent presentation of intent, energy and feel (and softness) that I want, and that this is specific to each horseman or horsewoman - it's important to develop your own style and not just try to imitate your master teachers - it has to come from you and evolve with you - the goal of each good teacher is to have the student surpass them. You (I) need to develop your own consistent style of presentation of intent, energy and the feel you want from the horse, every time, with every horse. You may be doing different exercises with each horse depending on what they know or need to learn, but the presentation should be consistent and you should end up with horses that are each able, with their own personalities and abilities, of responding to that presentation of yourself in a consistent manner.
It's a big job - Mark said I should spend time thinking it over. Mark said that it's often the case that people end up riding each horse the same way its prior owner did - since that's what the horse knows how to do and so we just fall into that rut. We can present more to our horses than that, and in a consistent manner.
After that big conversation, we got down to work. We confirmed that I could still carry out the letting go in my lower back and shoulders (and hence seat) that we talked about the day before, and that my transitions were working, both up and down, with breathing and flow, and that my horse would immediately give me the forward I wanted. Then we worked with Pie at the canter - I've cantered him a bit but not much. Mark said that I shouldn't worry at all about him taking the wrong lead - horses that have mostly done cantering in a round pen often do this since they're looking for the security of a wall/fence and often take the wrong lead in a big open arena like the one we were working in - just softly come back to trot and ask for canter again until you get the correct lead. This will dissipate with time and experience on Pie's part - a great example of completely ignoring what's wrong and keeping the focus on what you want. As long as I made sure to let go in my lower back/shoulders/seat so I could follow the motion, Pie's canter was great and we even got some very nice softness. He also made a point that with a young horse like Pie who hasn't done a lot of canter work under saddle, that preparing for canter - visualizing the feel and softness of what you want, focussing outwards and upwards and then asking - will really help him out, and as he gains experience the time frame for this will get shorter and shorter until all you have to do is think the new rhythm and you'll be there - this is where Red is already.
And a tiny, very cool thing - I've been having trouble with how Pie's saddle fits/shifts during the work. It's an About the Horse trail saddle, with good should flare and the appropriate tree size, and it fits in the front at the shoulders, but Pie has a dip behind his shoulders just below the withers, and as we worked the saddle tended to move back and then dip down in front - not good. So today I took two thin front Mattes pad inserts and put them between the Diamond wool pad and the underside of Pie's saddle - but just behind the shoulder - where I could feel a gap when I slid my had between the pad and the saddle - and they worked wonders - the saddle stayed put and level and Pie was able to work with a free shoulder and without my weight on his forehand.
In the afternoon with Red, I had another very good session. We confirmed all of our halt/walk/trot transition and softening work - everything was very good. We worked some on refining my rising trot - you know how the sitting trot, if you're allowing your back and seat to move in a relaxed manner, has a side-to-side up/down movement? Well, rising trot has that too - instead of working to rise, just allow the horse to lift you as the hip moves up - it makes it immediately possible to tell without looking what diagonal you're on (!), no matter how smooth the horse's movement, and if you just let the horse lift you rather than working at posting, you end up with a posting trot that is just a slightly exagerated version of the sitting trot and where your connection to the horse is much closer. A small thing, perhaps, but a big revelation to me, and the change in the quality of my horses' trots in response was amazing - we were participating together in the trot.
Red and I had one big spook with a sideways/forward bolt across half the ring - something in the trees, I guess - I lost one stirrup, got him turned and took my stirrup back and just kept on working at the trot. Mark made no comment - he doesn't care about what the horse is doing wrong but only cares about what you want the horse to do. I didn't intend for Red to bolt, so Mark and I just ignored it and kept right on working. With Red's canter work, we concentrated on getting me to let him move out - he's got a powerful, very big canter and if I hold him too much he can't move correctly, so Mark just kept coaching me to let him go forwards with soft contact and no constraint - I need to ride him as the horse I expect him to be (in a positive sense). We also got some very nice downwards transitions, including canter/halt. I had been concerned about getting the timing of my upwards canter cues (thinking the rhythm and then exhaling) in time with the hind feet, but Mark says he doesn't worry much about that any more - instead he says the rider should just focus on the rhythm and feel in their mind and let the horse take up the connection and organize itself to execute the movement. This makes it a true partnership - we offer up the feel and rhythm and the horse takes us up on the offer - it feels rather great and it removes the worry over getting the timing of cues correct. (Of course there are movements - like flying lead changes - where getting the timing of our thoughts/breathing correct make a big difference.)
I am so fortunate . . . tomorrow we ride (some more)!