I showed up at 10:50 and was saddled and walking toward the dressage court by 11:15. Knowing that I didn't have to ride through Sydney's whatever alone, took a huge burden off my shoulders. I had never ridden with Lois, but I knew that I could trust her to talk me through whatever shenanigans he offered.
I walked Sydney up to the mounting block with Lois standing close by; she looked ready to grab my rodeo horse if needed. Instead, I stepped on the edge of the mounting block causing it to topple over and land under Sydney's feet. I landed on my feet, none the worse for wear, while Sydney stood in the sunlight blinking and swatting at flies.
At that instant, I think Lois was able to get an accurate read of the situation before I even tried to remount. She helped me right the mounting block as she gave an interesting, hmm. I walked off to enter at A on my brown and black giraffe.
As soon as I was back at C where Lois was waiting, she directed me to put Sydney in a 10 meter circle and to stay on that circle while we chat. For the first 10 minutes of the lesson, I was riding a giraffe painted to look like an OTTB, but as Lois and I talked, Sydney's neck returned to its normal shape and he set about getting to work. My original question was answered. Being in a new place was not the cause of his anxiety.
I won't bore you with a play by play of the lesson. It was a great lesson, but you've all had one of those: more inside bend, release the inside rein, more weight on your inside seat bone, don't grip your legs at the canter, and so on. By the way, at the end of the lesson, she rode him for a good 15 minutes which was was really fun to watch! Here is what Lois was able to observe:
1. Sydney is not a spooky, nervous horse. Lois was pleasantly surprised by how easily he let her just hop on and school him; he never told her no. There was a lot of construction noise happening at her house as she is remodeling, but he never acted bothered by the sawing or banging. Instead, he was very interested in what was happening all around him, which is very different from being afraid.
Lesson to Learn: Don't ride him as though he is afraid; he's not.
2. Sydney's tense behavior is coming from me. Aw, nuts. It always comes down to the rider, doesn't it? While I might think I've been relaxed at the show, I haven't been. After watching me ride and after riding him herself, she felt confident in telling me that even though I don't think I am anxious at the show, I am. She assured me that everyone has some anxiety at a show. I just need to develop some tools to work him even while I am feeling tense.
Lesson to Learn: Acknowledge that I am tense and nervous, but use my tools to work through it.
3. Sydney's ears are my barometer for measuring whether or not I have his attention. I've talked about his Eeyore ears before; those are listening ears. Ears pricked forward mean that I need to change something. This gave me a serious aha moment. Doing something might mean making a 10-meter circle, flexing his neck, changing direction, anything until I get an ear flick or ears that are soft.
Lesson to Learn: Watch Sydney's ears; they are my listening barometer.
4. You can't train a straight horse. If Sydney is ram rod straight, he isn't listening. He can only hear me when he has some bend. The 10-meter circle will now be my best friend at home, and especially in the warm-up. I am going to ride it like it is my favorite thing in the world to do. In fact, I am going to ride it until Sydney begs me to let him do something else.
Lesson to Learn: the 10-meter circle creates a lot of bend and moves his inside hind leg underneath him, which means Sydney will be able to hear me.
5. I pull back on the rein too much and don't have a receiving hand when Sydney is resistant. We worked on this a lot. I also have trouble with releasing the inside rein. Since I feel like he is going to bolt in the warm-up, I keep a firm hold on the rein. Lois said this sends the message to Sydney that I don't trust him which tells him that he has reason to bolt.
I need to release the inside rein and trust that he isn't going to bolt. I need to give him the feeling that he could run off into the next county if he wanted to. I can do this by riding a lot of 10-meter circles with a giving inside rein. It was hard to do, but with some practice, I saw exactly what she meant. Instead of constantly wagging his head, I need to show him where I want his head, and then I need to release the rein to let him keep it there. If he tips his nose back out, I repeat over and over.
Lesson to Learn: Don't pull back or hold the rein. Give him a release without throwing the rein away.
6. Flexing the poll and having the horse step deeply underneath himself releases some type of endorphins. Lois explained that the more I can get him to step underneath and sideways, the more relaxed he will become. The same is true of flexing his poll. While making 10-meter circles, I need to use a good amount of inside leg to really push him sideways. I also need to keep asking him to flex his neck and poll by riding with a counter bend to a regular bend and back to a counter bend. Moving his body in this way will relax him even at the walk.
Lesson to Learn: When he is not listening to my aids, I need to help him release endorphins by flexing and bending him nose to tail.
7. Sydney's neck is lovely. Lois was quite pleased with his muscling, and maybe even a little surprised. Even though I am not working with a dressage trainer, she was quite impressed with how his top line is developing and commented several times that we are doing a great job with him. She joked several times that I would be welcome to just leave him there with her.
She said that once I get him listening and working in the show ring, the judges are going to really like him and give him great scores. She liked how smart he was, and even though he isn't really built specifically for dressage, he is a very cute horse. And finally, she let me know several times during the lesson that I was doing a great job.
Lesson to Learn: I am a solid rider doing exactly the right things. I am doing my homework, I am getting excellent instruction when and where I can, and I have a very nice horse.
There was more to the lesson, but those seven points were the most relevant take-aways for me. We are scheduling another lesson for Labor Day weekend. There is one more part to this tale, of course. I rode on Wednesday morning, but not in the arena. I was able to utilize every one of Lois's tips to great success. I'll write that up as soon as I can.
As for the second part of my question, is Sydney just tense at shows, the answer is that Sydney is tense because it's an exciting place to be, and I'm tense. Now that I have some new tools in my belt, I feel confident that we can work through this.