I blogged here about Sydney's stiffness and JL's strategy for asking him to let go. For those that missed it, her strategy is to rock, or slide, the rein which has the effect of swinging his head and neck from side to side. I rode Speedy G on Thursday and then took a horse break by getting a pedicure on Friday afternoon which meant that I didn't get to try this strategy on my own until Saturday.
I thought long and hard about how I should approach the ride. The first thing I decided to do was to open my 20 meter by 20 meter riding square so that it was actually a rectangle. I have arranged my cavaletti poles (Home Depot garden rails) on the ground in a square to create a visual frame to improve my geometry, namely the circle. All of us are very bored by the circle. By all of us, I of course mean Sydney, Speedy G, and myself. A square is an excellent place in which to practice the geometry of a circle, but it doesn't leave much room for changes of direction, and it never allows for straightness.
I dragged the poles from the top of the square to the two long sides effectively lengthening my "dressage court" to approximately 30 meters in length. It might actually be a bit longer, but it's still short, even for a short court. I now have a riding area that has two long sides and one short side. The other short side is open, but it's easy to visualize where the rails should be. I could see the benefits to this configuration immediately. I can still work a 20 meter circle at the closed end, but now I can begin practicing the canter work required for the Training Level 1 Test when I ride Speedy G. The benefits for Sydney are that I can do lots of changes of direction, 2-loop serpentines, and can work on a few strides of straightness.
I warned you that this might be boring.
As I started warming up, I kept JL's comments in mind. Sydney won't compress his body right out of the gate. He needs some time to warm up which means I start with a fairly long rein. As we walk, I massage his sides with my legs, which he knows is my way of saying reach from behind and lengthen your neck. It works pretty well. When his nose pops up, I set my should blades and gently massage with my legs until he reaches forward from his withers. Little by little I start taking up rein.
I use cotton web reins with stops. From the bit end, he prefers me to hold the third stop from the end. This is the longest I'll let him go while doing a working gate like medium walk or working trot. To be most effective however, I have to get him to round his neck enough to allow me to hold the second-to-the-last stop. That's a full six inches, at least. As we warmed up, I kept those two marks in mind.
As soon as we started trotting, I felt him brace and set his neck. I left the rein at the longer stop, but I gently started the slide and rock movement with my torso and arms. It is most effective if my elbows are bent and close to my side. This forces me to engage my core and helps me keep a straighter line from elbow to bit. And when I say I rock the rein, I really mean it. It's enough of a rock that it moves Sydney's head from side to side.
I know I was just whining about our lack of team work and how Sydney doesn't yet trust me, so I am sure you're quite tired of the bi-polar, top-of-the-world to wallowing in self-pity thing. But really, this was one of the best rides he and I have shared without the help of our trainer. I just kept on rocking and sliding while doing changes of directions. I also added counter-bending, over-bending, and now-go-straight to the ride. All the while I kept my eye on those rein stops until I finally had that second-to-the-last stop in my hand. Compression accomplished!
Once we achieved a steady rhythm with some softness, I gave him a big good boy! pat and let him walk. JL has stressed how important this is for a worried horse like Sydney. He needs to know that he got the answer right. Everything I do, I am learning, has to be relaxed without any anger, frustration, or blame. He worries under saddle and just wants to do the right thing. Since he doesn't really trust me yet, I am working hard to show him that I can be trusted. I am not going to hang on his mouth, I am not going to ride him hard, I am not going to ask for more than he can do. I will be soft ... when he is.
That is the reason for the rocking of the rein. Sydney is heavy. JL thinks that he was ridden this way as a hunter/jumper and that is all he knows. If I set my hands and push him up to the bit with my seat, he becomes very anxious and can't see the right answer. He sets his neck and jaw, hollows his back, and gets very choppy with his hind end. This has created a serious learning curve for me because Speedy behaves in a very different way. If I don't get a little tough with him, he'll buck me off and happily trot away with his tail flipped over his back with a big neener-neener-neener. Speedy is also very light up front. I do not get to use my hands to ask for any softness, at all. Everything has to come from my seat because as soon as he feels my hands asking for softness, he comes behind the bit and the connection is lost.
Sydney and I made some real progress on this ride. There was no bolting to the side. There was no squealing. There was some resistance, but I softened my request and accepted what he offered at the walk several times before telling him yes, you can do this at the trot (counter-bending). We will continue to work this way. Eventually, I am certain, I'll get on, I'll massage his sides at the walk, he'll reach and stretch, and then I'll ask for the trot and he'll push off from behind while maintaining that stretch over his top line.
I promise to share when it happens!