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!
On Falling Short
2 hours ago