Have you noticed that the more you concentrate on trying to relax, the less relaxed you become? It makes "practicing" being relaxed and "working on" relaxation kind of difficult. But, be that as it may, that's what we worked on last night.
I had a really nice lesson on Sunday at Whitmere's new facility and one of the things that stuck out to me in our flat work is that his downward transitions are getting better and better, but he still braces a bit through his head and neck even though he's now stepping through with his hind end. So last night, I wanted to work on the trot-walk and walk-trot transitions and see if I could get him to stay relaxed through them and not get stiff or brace anywhere as he does them.
I put the hackamore on, which I'm still using about once or twice a week. I like using the hackamore for our long and low rides because he's less inclined to lean on it like he would with the bit, so that he's stretching down but maintaining his own balance. We started off getting a relaxed swinging walk, bending in both directions while continuing to stretch down, and kept working on this until I felt his back lift and his hind end start moving forward more freely. I love that in the hackamore he will lick his lips or chew when he relaxes. I can feel him loosening up as he does that. Then I very patiently started asking him for a transition up to the trot, and each time he started feeling like he was going to stiffen or raise his head, I asked him to come back to a more relaxed walk and get him stretching down again. I could feel the wheels turning in his head, trying to figure out what I was asking for. Whenever he stretched down and relaxed or took a deep breath, I praised him verbally or patted his neck. After a few attempts, he picked up his trot while maintaining his low head carriage and relaxed posture and I praised him for that too.
We went through the same process at the trot, asking him to stretch down while bending in each direction, then asking him to straighten down the long sides, even doing very shallow leg yields off the rail, all while reaching down and staying relaxed through his back. At first the trot was kind of slow, but I wanted him to relax first, and then go forward. Once he got warmed up, he naturally started carrying a better tempo, and then I just had to encourage him to keep going forward as we circled or changed direction or went through a serpentine. When I was happy with the trot, I gradually started asking him for a transition down to the walk using only my seat and leg. While he didn't pick up on this right away, he eventually realized I was asking for something different and again I felt the wheels turning and he came back down to the walk.
I put him on a big circle going right and we just worked on walk-trot and trot-walk transitions. All I really wanted in the first few transitions was for him to stay relaxed and keep stretching down. This meant that I had to stay very soft with my hands (barely any contact with the hackamore) and use only my seat and leg for both upward and downward transitions. He got the hang of this really quickly and started paying much sharper attention. I had to really work on turning my shoulders to follow him (my left shoulder is always back) and keeping my right elbow at my side and my right arm relaxed. The hardest part for him was downward transitions facing the barn, because he would tend to lose focus and his head would come up slightly as he looked out the door, and then his balance would shift and he'd end up on his forehand. To combat this I opened my inside rein, used a little more inside leg, and just asked him to bring his nose slightly to the inside as he reached down into the transition. This seemed to be just enough of a reminder to stay focused. Once I had him focused and relaxed, I added more pressure from both legs and a deeper seat to really ask him to come under with his hind end while maintaining that soft carriage through his neck and back. This worked brilliantly, and we got two or three transitions at the end that felt really strong and relaxed and balanced -- exactly what I was after.
Then we went into our right lead canter and I asked him to keep stretching down and worked on sitting down softly, following with my hips, closing my leg around him, and turning my shoulders to follow his ears as we turned or circled. I found that I could steer him perfectly without involving my reins at all, now that he was fully listening to the cues from my seat and legs. We had a really nice rolling canter where he was happy to go forward in a very relaxed way, reaching down but not getting strung out or unbalanced because I was maintaining the connection with my seat and leg. Really good stuff.
I let him walk for a bit to catch his breath and clear his head (I could tell he was concentrating pretty hard and I didn't want to frustrate him), and then once he felt ready I put him on a circle on the left and resumed the walk-trot and trot-walk transitions in this direction. Possibly because we had just cantered and he was anticipating a canter transition, I had to work on getting him to slowly step up into the trot and not lunge forward into too big of a trot. Once we fixed this (by repetition) and he realized that wasn't what I was asking for, I went back to asking him to reach down and step into a nice relaxed trot, and then keep reaching down and step under from behind in the downward transition without tensing anywhere. In this direction, I had to work harder at staying relaxed through my left hip and shoulder. He seemed to have figured out the game by now, and it took about five minutes less in this direction for him to give me the kind of transitions I was looking for. Quick learner!
We went up to our left lead canter then, and I worked on getting the same quality of canter that I had going right. For some reason I have a harder time sitting in this direction, so I had to really concentrate on following with my hips and not resisting the motion. He also doesn't like to hold his left bend, so I had to open my left rein to ask him to bend left and stretch down, because I wanted to feel him soften as much as he did tracking right. The key here though was opening my left rein without giving him something to lean on, so I had to make sure I wasn't holding or pulling back. I was happy to see though that once I did a big circle through the middle of the ring a few times with my left rein open and my left leg closed, the third time through I didn't need much left rein at all, and he stayed bending left off just my left leg aids. Once he did that, I was happy to quit for the night so we did just a few more minutes of stetching down at the trot and then we were done.
All in all, a really good ride. I became more aware of the places where I tend to stiffen up, and felt him respond when I relaxed, and I think he got the hang of staying soft and coming forward through his upward and downward transitions. I am starting to really love our long and low work. It is helping build up his top line and it really is challenging for him, even if all I'm asking him to do is relax and stretch. I love when I say "Yes, Tucker, good!" and I feel him give me a little more of what I'm asking. Such a great dialogue.