JL and I spent a few minutes chatting while I walked Sydney, suppling his neck. Chatting during a lesson is a rather new thing. Lately, my lessons are not so much about JL actively instructing but serving more as my eyes on the ground and coaching me while I apply what she's taught. I am sure we'll return to the more intense lessons soon enough, but for now, it's kind of fun to just be relaxed while working.
Once I felt that Sydney had softened up through his neck and poll, I asked for a trot. His ears were flopping to the side, always a good sign, and he seemed genuinely happy to be working. As I asked for the canter, he took a wonky step which led to the flattest, most awkward canter possible. I rode it for a few strides before I realized that this kind of flat, strung out canter is what causes Sydney to start to feel unsupported.
I brought him back to a walk and put him back together. I was right. He immediately resisted the contact and stiffened his neck. He knew the first canter had been "wrong" and was now worried. JL and I continued to chat while I went back to work softening Sydney through his neck and poll. When I asked for the canter the second time, he lifted nicely into the departure (rather than falling into it), and immediately looked much better.
It was a nice canter, but he was also a bit behind my leg, so I decided to play around a little bit. Instead of staying at the working end of the arena, I pushed him out around the trot poles and around several jumps. This really woke him up so that I had to be much more active with my outside hand. I pushed him into a bigger canter and then asked him to be a bit more collected. When I asked for the downward transition to trot, he offered a really nice, floaty trot rather than lurching into the new gait. I was really proud of our work.
We walked for a minute and then began our work to the right. I immediately took hold of the bucking strap and set to work suppling his neck to the right. Even after offering such nice work, he was already tense and stiff knowing that he was going to canter right. As long as I was vigilant about keeping that outside hand fixed, he got soft. He did fuss a few times, checking to see where it was, but once he realized my hand was going to be there to support him, he got a lot happier.
Just before I could really ask for the canter (I was preparing for it), Sydney volunteered. It wasn't a perfect departure as it was more stretched forward than up, but it wasn't a bolt out of the starting gate either, which is what we've been struggling with.
There were some tractor noises and barking dogs, so Sydney fussed with the outside rein and the rhythm for a bit, but as long as I had my outside hand firmly on the bucking strap, his worry about me letting go slowly slipped away. We picked up the right lead canter several times, and the departure got better each time.
I mentioned to JL that October has typically been the month where the afternoon anxieties rear their ugly head. That behavior hasn't shown up this year. For the first three years that I had him, autumn was a scary time because he always morphed from Dr. Jekyll into the infamous Mr. Hyde. By spring, the anxiety would begin to dissipate, and for the summer months he would be a mostly happy fellow.
I tried a lot of things to ease his fall/winter worry: I did daily turn out, 24 hour free choice hay, a daily calmer from SmartPak, lots of saddle time, lunging, no lunging, trail rides, and so on. Nothing really helped. I think the answer was for me to become a better rider, which has happened. Right now, he seems really happy with me. As long as I support him with that left rein, he gets more and more relaxed.
We're in a really good place right now!