At the clinic in June, Mark Rashid set me two challenges - he said it was time for me to do these things. The first challenge was to ride all my horses the same - he noted at the clinic that I wasn't doing this. The second challenge was to develop my own style of working with horses, not just imitate my masters. These are hard things to get your mind around - I didn't ask Mark for clarification since part of the exercise is for me to figure these things out on my own and he made it clear that it was my job to do so.
I've been thinking a lot about these things, and have some preliminary ideas of what I need to do. I expect as I move forward in my horsemanship journey that these things will change and come into better focus, as has been true of many other steps along the way.
First, the concept of riding all your horses the same - this sounds wrong, doesn't it, since all horses are different in terms of their physical abilities and prior training/mistraining. But Mark said a couple of things at the clinic when talking to me about this idea that have clarified what I need to be doing. First, he said that he (and also Heather), regardless of the horse they're riding or the stage of the horse's training, have the same "look and feel", and the horses often end up displaying the same softness, energy and focus on the work. Mark also said that it's our job to offer the horse the idea - the feel - and that the horse will make the connection - humans are good at ideas and horses are good at connections.
So here's where I am in my understanding of this challenge. To ride all my horses the same means a couple of things - that I need to offer all my horses the same feel, from me, that they can connect with. The consistency has to come from me. I also need to let go of any "stories" I have about each horse and how they will act and behave, and expect them to rise and meet my consistent offer, each in their own way. So - and I think this was what I was doing at the clinic that Mark noticed and commented on - I need to not label/prejudge my horses, often based on old behaviors that we're long past - Dawn as the nervous, skittish, reactive prima donna, who I have to coddle; Pie as the stolid, somewhat dull and slow ranch horse, who I have to push and urge on; or Red as the high-strung, fussy, dominant gelding, who I have to give a strong ride to so he won't push me around. Having my three so different (and wonderful) horses to ride and work with is so helpful in working on Mark's challenges. My three horses can only be the horses I want them to be if I offer them a consistent soft place to be with me, and expect all of them to be sensitive, responsive and soft, each with their own way of moving and mind. This has to come from me, first, before they will be able to respond and connect, and it has to be consistent from me.
However you ride your horse is how your horse will be - if you ride them from the inside all the same, and offer them the same feel, they will rise to the challenge and ride the same, within the limits of their experience and physical abilities. It won't make them the same - they will each have their unique personalities, natural way of moving and preferences, but they will each be able to meet you half way and meet your feel/softness with their own feel/softness.
It's very hard to describe this in words, but maybe an example from today will help. Oddly enough, Pie is the horse I find it hardest to connect with. Dawn and Red are both so super sensitive and responsive to even the slightest thought, and oh so willing (although I still need to let go of stories I have about them), that offering them a thought and having them connect with it is not that hard. Pie, on the other hand, can be somewhat reserved and even stand-offish, and had to let go of his "stuckness" to be able to move freely forward. But I've still been riding him like he's insensitive and dull, which isn't true at all - in fact it isn't true of horses generally - those that are dull have been trained to be so and the sensitive, responsive horse is still in there if you can find it. I think Pie perhaps was insulted by my approach to him . . .
Today we tried something a bit different, to develop our mutual feel and softness. I've been riding Pie entirely too much from the front end, from front to back, and he has a long neck and body, so we've ended up with a lack of straightness, softness or engagement. He and I have both been frustrated. So, today, I wanted to work with him on activating the hind legs - particularly the inside hind - something I've done a lot of with both Dawn and Red and found fairly easy with them. I wanted to leave the head and neck alone, using the reins only as a boundary rather than an aid (if this makes any sense - more about this in a later post). We worked first in the halter in hand and then in the bridle in hand and then under saddle and things went very well.
We started by doing an exercise involving him turning in a tight circle, crossing over properly with the hind legs - inside hind crossing in front of outside hind - and with a very live, soft feel on the rope/rein. Then we moved on to some in-hand work around the arena corners and some cones, with him using the inside hind to step over and to the outside - very little rein and my working to activate the inside hind - it's hard to describe what I actually did since it really was about the feel. We even moved on to some lateral work continuing the bend around the corner as if it were a circle and then taking several steps down the long side, maintaining the bend and the stepping over with the inside hind leg. Pie and I have never done this sort of work before, but it went very well. He seemed to grasp right away what I was asking, and rose to my offer with lovely softness.
We moved on to under saddle work, with my trying to ride the inside hind leg rather than the head. Once again, he was soft, responsive and just plain great - I could see him saying to himself "it's about time she figured this out"! We did short and long trot and lots of corner/bending work. He's just as sensitive and responsive as Dawn and Red - I just have to ride him that way.
I hope some of this makes sense - I'm still figuring it out myself, and, I must say, it's pretty exciting! (Read my reply to fernvalley's comment below - it may help to clarify what I'm trying to say.)