At one of the clinics I attended several years ago, Mark Rashid made a comment that has stuck with me, although I think I'm now only beginning to understand it.
Mark said: "Most people cue off a brace." Hmmm . . . now what could that mean? I think it possibly means a couple of things. It means that people cue the horse to do something while the horse is braced. It means the cue itself is a brace, or turns into one - no softness in that, resulting in a counterbrace by the horse.
What I've been working on lately, with all my horses, is having feel and softness first, and only then cuing - as feel becomes more consistent and continuous, the time gap between those collapses to nothing. We're not there yet, but's that's where we're trying to head.
One of the things I've been working on with all my horses is not cuing off a brace - this is my work, not theirs - they will respond in kind if I offer them feel and softness. I have to be willing to wait - this requires asking for softness first, and waiting for it to come through before cuing. This means that I won't always get a canter departure at a particular spot in the ring - it's more important that I get a canter departure with softness first, and then, as that becomes consistent and the feel is more continuous, I can begin to ask for and get the departures exactly at the points I want - it's not going to work in the reverse order for sure.
A couple of examples that may make this clearer.
Red: he has moments of distraction when he braces - his head goes where he's looking - the challenge for me is not to pull against the brace, but to softly redirect the energy, and in the process get his attention back. This is the same thing Mark had me do at the clinic when Red bolted - just softly redirect him into a big circle, often in the same direction he's already going - take the motion he's offering and shape it.
Pie: his bending and tracking up is becoming very consistent at walk and trot, but less so at canter although we're improving - I need to work at not blocking with my leg or body, just flowing with him. The same applies to canter departures - no pushing/rushing, and I need to wait until he's soft before asking for upwards and downwards transtions.
For all three horses, backing shows exactly where we are - softness has to be there first, moving feet second. What I want is to just begin to lift the reins, have softness happen right then with only the weight of the reins, and then have backing happen, softly and slowly, for exactly the number of steps I ask for, and with continued softness. All three horses are pretty much there consistently now, which is big progress for us.
Dawn: downwards transitions and upwards transitions, both, should only happen from relaxation. If I wait, and and don't block her or hold her with my hands, the relaxation comes through and we have beautiful transitions.
Although my horses and I have various "tasks" that we're working on in our rides, or goals we're working towards, most of what I'm doing with my horses now is trying to improve myself and my riding - improve the quality of what it is that I offer the horse so the horse can improve the quality of what they offer back to me. That quality I'm working on in me, and looking to get back from my horses, is softness, or feel - to me the two things are one and the same. All three horses are more than able to rise to the challenge.