Successfully run through the test is defined as completing all movements in a somewhat recognizable form, in order, and only make the trainer gasp in horror three times.
At least Theo thinks I'm funny
The funny thing about this move up is the way it's throwing our previous issues into very sharp relief. Let's use Theo's left shoulder as an example. Go all the way back to my second or third entry about him and there's comments about that shoulder. It's the side he pops out when he evades. It's the way he lurches when he decides he's going to quit a lesson. When we started out, it was all about not letting him successfully pop off of the rail and out that left shoulder.
I did get that shoulder under control and I thought that was victory. We can circle left without falling in and crashing, yay! But then we started doing Training level and we needed to be able to do a prescribed circle to the left and have him, you know, bend that way. Huh.
I got very good at managing that shoulder, keeping it from escaping and often making it look like we were straight or even flexing in the correct direction. But I was always managing that shoulder, staying one step ahead and preventing the problem from becoming visible. Worked great right up until this winter. Then I realized that managing the problem is not the same as fixing the problem. If I want Theo to truly take his weight back and carry himself, I need him to actually travel straight. I can't have him hanging on my left rein because omg bending left is so hard, he clearly needs me to hold him every step. Any dressage types will tell you, that's not self carriage. That is the opposite of self carriage.
In my most recent lesson, we decided to attack this problem head on. I've been doing a lot of laterals to build suppleness, stability, and confidence. This time we went at it with the very specific idea of breaking through the resistance in his neck that prevents him from flexing left comfortably. Yes, we've had vet/chiro/masseuse take a look and it's a case of his right poll being tight. Everyone agrees that there's nothing wrong with him, he's just naturally stiff when bending to the left. Basically, he needs yoga now instead of his former anger management classes.
First exercise we did are called boot stretches. Theo reaches around and touches my boot. Carrot stretches go back to his hip and are part of our regular warm up. Boot stretches are harder due to the angles and the fact she had us do them while he was still walking. Gently to the right to get the idea, then to the left. Not all at once, it's a dynamic type of a stretch. Stretch, release, stretch a bit more, release, continue until you get as close as you think you're going to get in any given day. Trot out with a big, long stretch, then go back to the walk and do the other side.
Once he was marching and stretching both sides, we decided to do something technical. Going down the quarter line, we stepped into shoulder in and then promptly straightened while watching the inside hind and making sure it didn't change it's line. Stepping into shoulder in is old news, doing it while watching his inside hind and keeping that dead straight without a wall? Very tricky. And once we started straightening him off the wall, I noticed the way he basically fell on his shoulder for the shoulder in. It took a couple of reps for me to figure out how to step him in and out of shoulder in without losing balance and for him to figure out shoulder in isn't a movement that always goes all the way down the wall. Once he realized we were going to move in and out of it, he kept himself up. It makes a huge difference in the way he travels and, dare I say it, encourages him to actually travel in a collected trot to keep his weight off his shoulder so he can move his shoulder back and forth.
I highly, highly recommend that exercise. It's simple enough to do on your own so long as you have a mirror. Glue your eyes on that inside hind and keep it going straight as you go to three tracks and back to two. Only do about four - six steps in shoulder in, then straighten out. Do it again if you have space. It really only works on the quarter line, no cheating and using the wall. You'll see exactly how much control you have over your horse's shoulders. Your horse will step in and out of shoulder in without laying on their shoulder.
After repeating the boot stretches at the trot, Theo reached for a cookie and a big pop came out of his neck. He shook it out and trotted with his neck stretched way out and his shoulders actually traveling on the same line as his hips. There was much licking and chewing, so I'm guessing he appreciated the end result of his extended yoga session, even if he found the actual process somewhat confusing and frustrating.
So we've entered a new phase of our training: actually fixing the damn problem instead of managing it and masking it. Because, spoiler alert, you can't do a nice 10m canter circle if your horse can't bend left.
I know, I was shocked, too.