Whenever I ride one of my horses, we do a good long bit of walking first. I'm looking for relaxation and forward, both, and usually start with a loose rein or very light contact, asking the horse to stretch down. We may do some large circles or big loop serpentines as we walk.
But I also try to do/feel certain things myself as we walk around, as how the horse is going to go will come from me, and how I'm going. It's the combination of entering/blending/directing, leading to feel and connection, that I'm looking for in myself.
I start with my own relaxation and forward. Relaxation, for me, starts with neutral posture - for me keeping my eyes and chin up (no looking at the horse's head) and shoulders open (but not forced back - that would be a brace) makes a big difference. I try to maintain this posture throughout our work - no leaning forwards or back. Next is relaxation in my body, allowing my seat and back to move with (never drive) the horse, and letting my legs drape softly (never push or drive). I do a body scan to check for any points of tension, and breathe into them and then breathe out and let them go. Breathing - it's so fundamental. As we walk around, I breathe in relaxed rhythm with the horse's footfalls, and try to breathe "into" the horse.
Once we're at that point, I'm starting to be "in" the horse, and blending and feel can begin to happen. If it's working, I can start using my energy, and the feel of the reins and my seat and thought to direct the horse, feeling the hind legs - we start doing some more challenging figure work at the walk, such as small circles with a nice bend, forward and tracking up with hinds following fronts, and I ask for a bit more softness. I start asking the horse to bring the energy up - a more vigorous, long-strided walk - and down - a shorter stride - using the feel of the rhythm and my breathing.
Only then do we move on to more work at trot and canter. I find if I take the time to center myself, mentally and physically, I'm much more "with" and "in" the horse, and feel is possible. Now this is the ideal - sometimes I just don't get there in myself, or get distracted and off-course, and that shows up in how the horse works. But since I'm trying to make these things a regular practice, and try to keep coming back to them, particularly if we're struggling with something, I find they really do work.
Must go ride . . .