Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Softness

This is a concept I chew over constantly, like a dog with a particularly tasty bone. It's a tough issue with any horse, but with McKinna especially.

Pandora was pretty straightforward - she really didn't evade intentionally, only out of lack of strength or understanding. (This is one thing, by the way, that her new owner loves. She actually called her 'push-button.') So, softness was easy: you ride correctly, continually asking her to come to you and soften and carry herself. When she does, you soften back and ride on happily with your steady contact. She maintains correct work as long as she can, then loses it and you come back to asking.

With McKinna, it's a little different. She is a compact little coiled spring of a horse, but she's a vroooooOOOM kind of sports car next to Pandora's nice, steady Honda Civic. Lots of power, but a lot more sensitive and takes a much more tactful ride. Now add a mind of her own to that feather-light steering and horsepower, and you get the picture...

As I've mentioned before, with McKinna it's a delicate balance between bullying and being gentle. If you are always following and softening with her, you won't get consistent work - she bobs around the contact, drops her outside shoulder, pops her head up every few strides, and takes faster instead of longer steps. You need some firmness to get her to take a connection and quit trying to evade. But if you bully too much, she coils that spring up super-tight, hollows out, and tucks her nose to get away from you.

The problem is, after you're firm and she gives to a nice elastic connection, you have to soften. When she pops above the bit, Devin has me anchor my outside rein and add calf to push her forward...but when she gives, I have to give too, without relinquishing connection. But all this can happen in just seconds. McKinna relaxes into the outside rein and I relax my elbows, but a half second later she's thinking about putting her head straight up and I have to correct it, as well as keep that outside shoulder from drifting out.

I struggle with the idea because I don't like being too firm with McKinna. This is a complex issue for me, stemming from a lot of different directions. Not least of these is that I just don't like the idea of forcing something with the bit. What I don't know about dressage could fill a lot of libraries, but I know that ideally you shouldn't be forcing anything, especially with your hands. McKinna also tends to feel very irritated and trapped when you get overbearing with your aids, which sends everything in a downward spiral. So I am reluctant to do this "fixing" of the outside rein, where I strongly resist her when she inverts. What if I'm forcing her into a frame? What if I'm building bad habits? What if she doesn't like the bit, and that's why she's resistant?

And the first few minutes Devin had me doing this, it felt like I had to anchor my hand every three seconds to keep her from sticking her head and neck up high. But I kept going, because I tend to believe that if you're riding with a trainer who knows you and as long as she isn't asking you to do anything unsafe, you should just shut up and do what she says. You're paying your trainers because they know more than you, right? Right.

So I shut up and I did what she said. After a few minutes, McKinna was steady in my outside rein, I only had to close my outside hand firmly a few times around the ring to keep her from popping up, and after establishing that firmness I was able to ride with very quiet, allowing hands. Apparently following Devin's instructions was the correct thing to do, though I am still wondering about the bit and as soon as the local tack shop gets it in stock I'm trying a Happy Mouth french link.

We are also approaching Real Canter territory faster and faster. I don't canter much at home at this point, because the arena's slightly smaller than a 20m circle and McKinna isn't quite ready to canter that small of a circle right off the bat - she gets anxious and rushes. But in lessons, we are starting to get a discernible 3-beat, rhythmic gait. I know it sounds silly, but this is so exciting. We are breaking through a really important issue here! I can get a soft connection and I can (sort of) influence her with a half-halt to get her to shift her weight back and slow down. The half-halt isn't totally there yet. Both of us are a little tentative about the newfound cantering ability, I think! She's less responsive than I would like, but she is learning to respond which is the important part.

I loved the jumping we did in the lesson last night. The fences set up were a very simple, low course that Devin moved up to about 2'3, maybe 2'6 at the absolute most. So we focused on being quiet, soft, and calm - all good things for McKinna to be while jumping! First we trotted a small cross-rail on a dead straight line and came to a quiet halt a few strides away, in order to establish the "this is no big deal" attitude. We finished with three fences on a large circle, focusing three strides ahead (so thinking about landing 'in your track,' not about the fence) and not changing anything about position since they were such low fences. It worked wonders, especially when I really thought about landing in my track. McKinna was soft, quiet, and she figured out the distances on her own while I just cruised along up there. Very cool. It was a nice confirmation that we're on the right track, no pun intended.

Anyone else run into these training issues? I think I tend to err on the side of being too soft and giving with my body and hands. Leslie is always telling me that I need to ride correctly with my body, not changing to follow the horse. They both always tell me not to give away the connection as soon as I get it.

Oh well - it is about the journey, after all, not the destination. This stuff is the fun part!

10 comments:

Heather said...

Yes, you basically just described my gelding. I had a tendency to over-give when he got soft or sought contact. I would fully open my hand and put my elbows forward. Thus, our 'good strides' were just that, a few strides here and there. It was very difficult for me to be 'firmer' when I started taking lessons. I had to ride with my hands closed and not give so much. I had to insist on contact and when he gave I was ONLY allowed to relax the muscles in my forearm. So, I had a hard time feeling like I was giving him a reward. But, a few weeks later... and my trainer was right. Yes, that is exactly what we pay them for :)

rachel! said...

Yes! I have a really young guy, and I'm trying to teach him about contact while trying to refine my own feel -- and it's a good thing I have good trainers or my guy would probably still be going around the arena doing his best giraffe impression.

During one lesson my trainer hopped on my guy because I just could not get him to soften and come down at the trot -- it was like riding a 2x4. She worked with him a while, got him going nicely, then had me hop back on. She had me take a really strong feel of the outside rein, much stronger than I would've, and really push him into it. What an *amazing* feeling to trot around the arena with him so round and springy!

I read another really interesting blog entry in this same vein the other day, which pointed out that if you want your horse to go on the bit, you have to give them a bit to be on. I'd never thought of it that way, but how true! Gotta see if I can find where I read that... Ah!
http://weareflyingsolo.blogspot.com/2010/05/canters-and-connections-simplified.html

TallDarkAndSpotty said...

Oh my yes! I am working on all these things with my green project mare. When I started working with the dressage trainer I was still riding her on a very light steering only sort of contact, you know first couple rides sort of thing.

That all changed in one lesson, and I felt the same way, that I was taking too much contact and forcing too much. This helped and confused me at the same time: on the training scale, you are only doing as much as they can handle, and (although it may start with some insisting) the goal is always to create a relaxed and elastic stride. So if she's happy and more relaxed at the end, it wasn't too much force!
We first started working on the rhythm, but to get that she had to accept the contact in order to balance... so I ended up basically moving my hands all over the place to create the steady "you can't evade this" contact. Feels like chasing their head! Then she got it. Now we've moved on to more suppleness and bend so that I don't have to chase her head! She has to put it where I want it. But she couldn't have gotten here without that first step.

We're just now starting to ask for her to stretch her neck down and really seek the contact. Its a building block sort of thing, and each time you add a block you may feel like your having to be really firm. That's training!

http://mytrainingproject.blogspot.com/

Deered said...

Mckinna sounds like a very smart horse - from the results of your lesson it sounds to me that she has worked out a weakness of yours (not wanting to ever force her into the bit) and is basically playing with you to get out of working properly. As someone else said thee does have to be some firmness if you want to have contact - or the horse has nothing to move into.
It's not like you're riding her into a firm hand all day everyday - just when she's being a snot.

Anonymous said...

I own this type of horse, too, and he is my all-time favorite. Sensitive but full of common sense, and a great teacher.

I also had to learn to soften while working over jumps, reschooling us both in the new, softer connection. (As opposed to establishing the softening reward from day one...) Spend some extra time at the slower gaits every ride, building your horse's confidence that the release will come every time. When you're moving at speed, you tend to do "whatever it takes" and have less consistency; both your releases and restricting aides tend to be stronger.

You might try experimenting with softening from your shoulders; it's a very subtle release, but they definitely notice the reward. You can maintain the rein contact but have still given a release.

Kristen said...

Do you work at all on using your ring fingers on the reins? Really make sure the thumb is firmly on top of the reins, relax your arms, and be very quick with the ring fingers to squeeze the outside and soften it. I'm just thinking that when you set your outside rein (and you're like me!) than you need to be careful that you aren't bracing your forearm and shoulders against her.

And obviously you know this, but make sure your leg really IS on. I always thought my leg was "on", but it takes quite a bit of leg when they are resisting! Leg, leg, leg.(Without just running them off their feet. Contain it with the outside rein. It's hard!).

I have the same issue of losing control of the outside. Maybe make sure you are sliding the outside leg back from the hip? Then the whole leg is back and on, not letting the outside of the body drift over. And then the inside leg has almost like pulsing, steady push at the girth to get the bend.

Meghan said...

I'm totally with you on the softness thing. I do NOT enjoy "getting after" a horse with my hands, even if the horse in question is refusing to stop/taking off. My mare has a nice soft mouth, but when she's distracted or not wanting to cooperate, she can get really concrete-like on one side. With her, I try to always keep a soft feel on her mouth and nip any little resistances in the bud before she really locks up. And if she's just NOT paying attention and needs a firm correction, I find it works best to use one strong pull, strong enough to get her to stop (or stop taking off on me) and then a release. It REALLY ticks her off if I start to cling to the reins and/or keep nagging at her to slow down with ineffective aids, so I've had to work out what works best for her.

I should note that what I'm doing with Sofie is MUCH more basic than your work with McKinna, simply because Sofie has a lot of residual mental baggage, and also some soundness issues that limit our work at this point to walk/trot basics. So you may be beyond what I just wrote. xD

Val said...

Just this weekend, my trainer told me that all horses want to seek the connection. It is the riders job to figure out what is blocking the horse. My guy will not maintain the connection if I get tight, especially in my shoulders or legs, or if I lose neutral pelvis. When these things are correct, he puts himself on the bit and it feels "easy". That is my barometer. Think of contact as something the horse makes with your entire position, not just the bit.

Want to try something fun?
*Ride your horse with both reins in one hand. Make the reins short enough that she can find you at the end of the rein. Can you encourage her to seek the contact without using the reins separately? Use your whole position. You can carry a whip in your free hand if this helps encourage forwardness. I think that you might be pleasantly surprised.

Have fun!

Albigears said...

Well, I've been told (very recently) that I am good at being soft and staying out of my horse's way and now I need to start actually RIDING him. It's been a fine line knowing how much to ask and knowing when his frustration level gets too high. Now that he's being asked to really use his body his head is all over the place trying to balance, and when I stroke him with my inside hand as a reward his head goes flying up in the air. So much to work on. I have to watch my frustration level as well! It helps that he tries so hard for me and really isn't a fighter.

manymisadventures said...

Judging by the fact that in more than half of these comments you guys are saying 'YES, MY HORSE TOO!' I think we can say that everyone is working on softness to some degree or another ;)

I am glad to know that we are all working towards it with our horses and trying to figure out what's best.

Thanks for all the insight and suggestions. It is a lot to think about - I hope you guys are learning from each other, too!

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