Sunday, September 2, 2012

Offering Softness

These days, most of my work with horses is really about working with me - how I present things to the horses so they can most effectively respond and do what I ask.  I think a big part of my job is setting my horses up for success - presenting things in a way they can understand, building the links in a chain of knowledge in a way they can use, and helping them position their bodies so they're balanced and in a good situation to be able to respond to my asks.  This doesn't mean that we don't have our confusions and misunderstandings - it's part of the learning process - I want the horse to feel empowered to try things out in an attempt to find the answer I'm looking for.  But to the extent I can shape what we do to make things easier for them to find the answer, that's something I should be trying to do.

One thing I've been working on since the clinic is eliminating/toning down my tendency to be abrupt - with how I apply my aids and how much I use when I ask.  I'm fortunate that I've got a couple of extremely sensitive horses who tell me right away if I'm over cueing - with these horses almost any physical cue is over cueing.  They've been teaching me about using my intent, focus and breathing to get the job done more quietly and effectively, particularly when they know how to do what I'm asking. With a younger/greener horse like Pie, sometimes a more specific physical cue is needed initially so that he's clear on what I want, but even that can be quickly reduced as he learns.  I need to end up offering him the same softness - the same feel - as I do my other horses - this is part of learning to ride all my horses consistently, as Mark challenged me to do at the clinic. The release is in the feel - that going-with-the-horse feeling when our bodies and minds are in sync and moving together to a common goal.

One thing I've been working on with all my horses is how I take up the reins.  If I take the slack out of the reins abruptly, I get bracing.  This has showed up with all the horses - the first taking up of contact, whether when asking for softness at the halt, in backing or in taking contact while moving, almost invariably has resulted in some sort of brace on the horse's part - which means they're finding my abruptness to be a brace in itself that they're then bracing against.  I pay a lot of attention when things show up as an issue in all my horses - it's a clear signal it's something I'm doing and not specific to the horse.

Heather had me work on this some in my lessons, and I've been really working on it again - taking up the reins with softness.  If I do it right, I'm offering the horse the same soft feel I want back from them, and I pretty much get it.  I had great success with both Pie yesterday and Dawn this morning - as I took the reins up as softly as I could, they were offering me softness even with slack in the reins - it was delightful.  I'm getting to the point with all my horses that I can ride them with virtually no pressure on the reins - even with a little drape - and still get real softness and responsiveness - there's a live feel there.

Red's a little harder to deal with on this issue sometimes - he can get distracted by things that are going on and lose connection with my stream of thought - on those occasions I have to very, very softly redirect his attention to me.  He also can tend to get ahead of my thought - he's a big anticipator (this arises out of his tendency to worry about getting things right) and can start answering questions I haven't yet asked or offering up movements we were just doing even though we're no longer doing them.  These tendencies are improving as he worries less, and I have to just keep offering him the softness I want back from him while affirmatively giving him direction - but I have to do it without abruptness or overcuing - this is a real challenge for me and part of the task Mark gave me to ride all my horses the same.  I have to offer him the same softness that I offer the other two and give him the opportunity to respond in kind - muscling him into what I want isn't soft or productive - he's a horse that will mentally as well as physically brace if I do that.

I've also been getting a brace on mounting - he wants to move off and he braces when I ask him not to - I think my abruptness is having an effect there as well.  He's been full of energy lately with the cooler weather and because he hasn't been working hard under saddle as we get back into work, and he's anticipating moving off.  I need him to wait for my ask, and need to direct his attention back to me and be sure we've got softness there, and standing still in response to my ask, before I get on.  He can stand still with softness for mounting even when he's full of energy - he doesn't need to fret or worry. I have to be very consistent with him in terms of my direction and asks, but with softness too - not an easy thing to do!

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