A Pie ride, a Red and Pie story, and some more on finding softness with Dawn and Red adding in their part.
"Steady as a Pie" doesn't sound as usual as "steady as a rock" but that's what I mean. Pie and I went on a two-hour trail ride with two other boarders and their mares - horses he hadn't been out with before and that he doesn't really know as they are in a different pasture. He was great - better than great. He led, he followed, he was unfazed by all the things we'd seen before on our prior trail ride - he didn't even look at the electric power substation, or the cars speeding by at the two road crossings, or at the bikes we met, and he didn't hesitate at all at the wooden bridge and just walked right over. Even when one of the mares was apparently stung by something and leapt sideways towards him and started bucking - he didn't bat an eyelash. But he was alert and responsive and seemed to be having a good time. Good Pie!
A sweet story about Pie and Red - the guys who do bring-in in the afternoon tell me that they're often the last in and frequently don't want to come in - the guys have to walk out and hunt them down. I happened to be at the barn one day last week at bring-in time, and as the guys were bringing in the last couple of horses from the gelding pasture, Red and Pie were nowhere to be seen - but look! there they were, lurking under some trees about 50 yards away, and clearly not interested in coming in. So I went to the gate and called "Red! Pie!" and they came running at a gallop - I was flattered . . . although maybe they were just hungry for dinner.
I often ride Dawn early in the morning as soon as the indoor arena is dragged - the footing is pristine and I can actually keep track of the figures I'm riding since they show up well if we're the only ones in the arena. I like this routine with Dawn - she's my most challenging horse to ride and I need every bit of my attention and concentration to ride her well, and morning is my best time of day. She likes being in the arena by herself - other horses can worry her since she is protective of her personal space.
I've been working with her, and the other two horses, on beginning to figure out how to ride all my horses the same, and developing my own style - the challenge Mark Rashid put to me. I think it all comes down to how I present myself - to the horse and everywhere else - and what I want that presentation to be. I think for me, one of the fundamental things is to internalize that you can't expect the horse to offer softness if you don't offer it yourself from the beginning - this has to do with how you approach the horse, how you halter it, how you groom and tack, and how you interact with the horse while you're riding, with your thoughts, your energy, your weight, your focus, your breathing and posture, your hands, seat and legs. As Mark points out, being soft isn't about being tentative, or ineffective or indecisive - it's important to give the horse direction and leadership - a clear idea of what you're to be doing together. Softness certainly isn't about overcuing or being too loud or just being an overly declarative rider - this means the live interaction between the horse and handler isn't there. So, offering softness while directing and leading . . . And one of the hardest things to master, I think, is continuing to offer softness when the horse is braced or not yet soft in return - what Mark calls "softening at the point of resistance". I'll try to describe a couple of cases with Dawn and Red that may make clearer what I'm talking about - I'm fortunate with both of them that they are both super sensitive to everything - including energy and thought - and are perfect teachers for me in that they are demanding and precise (Pie is a bit more easy going about this sort of thing, but also appreciates softness, although he doesn't hold me to the same standard - although it's my job to hold to the same standard regardless.)
Another part of riding all my horses the same is not to fall into the trap that Mark decribes as riding your horse the same way the last person who had him rode him - since that's what the horse expects and most readily responds to. The trick is to offer the horse a better deal - like Red, he may not be convinced at first that this is safe to accept - where the horse can continuously find a soft spot to be with you as you work. Doing this is part intention and expectation and part execution . . .
Two examples . . . Dawn and I worked on lots of things today - she can tend to get very revved up and braced, particularly once we do canter work. My objective was to have her stay soft at all three gaits, and through transitions, and halting and backing. With her, keeping cues minimal to the point of being just thought and breathing helps a lot, as does keeping relaxation in my body - the "minimalist" posting I worked on at the clinic is a big help - it keeps the tension out of my legs and seat. And with Dawn, the "point of resistance" is often about rein contact. When she braces on my hands, I have to stay soft - not brace back. This doesn't mean there isn't pressure on the reins, but it does mean that my contact is alive, that I'm not pulling - I'm going with her - and that I'm offering a consistent place where she can find softening - I have to know what I want and offer it so she can find it. I don't set my hands - that would be participating in the brace - I go with her although she can decide if the pressure goes up or down based on whether she goes farther away from softness or closer to it. We made a lot of progress today - she seemed satisfied that her teaching was getting through to me. The more consistently I can offer softness, the more consistently she can carry herself softly. The hardest things for us right now are downwards transitions and canter - she's learned to brace in these, partly because of her downhill conformation, but that's not what I'm asking her to do - it's not how I'm presenting to her - and we're beginning to get there. Every time she was able to soften through a downwards transition, or to maintain some softness for the canter, I praised her and we too a short break. Left lead canter was actually pretty good today, and we got some moments in right lead, which is very hard for her.
Red has had a few days off - we think he tweaked his left hind ankle when we were riding a week ago in a very torn up arena (someone had been running horses loose in there before I rode) and he stepped in a hole and almost fell with me at the canter - he did catch himself but we think wrenched his ankle in the process. We've been icing twice a day (using Ice Horse boots which I really like) and today I'll put him on the lunge to see how he looks - he looks sound at trot and canter in the pasture when travelling in a straight line but circles are the real test. Today, I brought him in from the far pasture, by himself - he didn't even hesitate - and put his boot on in the arena. His job was to stand there with me for 15 minutes and there were only two requirements - he was to stay an arms' length from me at all times (although I didn't care if he looked or moved around), and he was to respond softly to the lead if he put pressure on it. This required me to pay attention all the time and offer him a soft place to be - he was praised and got face rubs for staying at the correct distance - I approached him, he didn't approach me, and this included no stretching out and putting his nose on me, and I instantly asked him softly to move out of my space if he got too close. I also worked on offering him softness at the point of resistance if he braced on the lead - this meant, as with Dawn, that I didn't pull or brace against him, but followed with the pressure increasing the farther he got away from the soft spot and decreasing to zero as he found the soft spot. He did really, really well - he stood well with me for 15 minutes with very little fidgeting or bracing, and then trotted and cantered off when I put him back in the pasture.
Hope that gives an idea of where we're going . . .