You know that feeling when you try really hard for a project in school and it's time to present? That's what it felt like when I picked up my reins. Okay, Theo, here we go. Don't choke and please, please, please don't let us get another F. I've had my fill of F's in the last two months.
Spooking at a chipmunk that ran under a trailer, he's such a dork
I guess I didn't need to worry. Mary was, for lack of another word, delighted with our progress. She said he didn't look like the same horse and once we were really rocking, said he looked like a real dressage horse now. I swear I could have cried. It's really been a bad couple of months for us. Mary's not crazy with the compliments so that felt amazing.
When I updated her on what Theo and I have been doing, I said I was uncomfortable with the draw rein and didn't want to use it. Her response? Okay, how about a lunging exercise for the days when he's trying to tear your right arm off? She doesn't appear to have a strong opinion either way. Use it, don't use it, whatever works best for you and your horse. So that's some weight off of my shoulders. I won't be using a draw rein any more and she won't be asking me to use it. I asked about my noseband and she likes it where it is. It's a hole higher up his face and a hole tighter, no flash. He can still eat treats and I easily get two fingers under it, it's just tighter than my usual completely decorative fitting. So I guess I don't need to stress over any nefarious plan to crank his nose shut. She also likes his new loose ring bit, a 12mm stainless steel (that I might have doctored with some Bit Butter, my latest addition to the tack box).
After checking our work with that flex right, we moved on to our next step in fixing the contact issue. When I put pressure on the reins, Theo's first reflex is to go up and against the hands. With Theo flexing nicely, I asked him to go low. Lower. Even lower. All the way down. Don't give away the contact, show him how to follow the contact all the way down to the ground. Now ask him to go forward. Don't let him fling his head up, show him that he can do this without throwing his head. I swear, I felt like I was riding a headless horse when Theo really got into it. Huge sigh and stretch. Cantering like that is freaking unnerving. Where's the rest of my horse???!!!!
Theo training hard at being low
My homework for the next two weeks is to keep working on his flex and softness, but now to show him that contact doesn't mean throw your head up and brace. It means soften and follow. Down is to become his new home. Theo really likes stretching down already, so Mary is pretty sure he's going to take to this like a duck to water. He just has to learn to stretch on a contact. Stretch doesn't mean jam your nose out and take the bit away from me. An honest stretch, not his jerky, half ass attempt he likes to give me. As Mary pointed out, there's a reason the stretchy circle is at Training level. It's a fundamental part of the basics and he needs to be honest about it. He needs to realize what a lovely place down is, to stretch down to the contact and swing over his back.
She wants to see him following the contact down and working like that while keeping his forward with an alive, chewing contact and a flex in both directions. Which all makes sense to me and I'm entirely comfortable with this. After seeing his aptitude for stretching down (which got us a 'fantastic!'), Mary said she doubted I'd even need to use the lunging exercise. After he figures out how to really stretch and release, all those little aches and cramps in his poll are going to start to go away. Even now, just with the flexing and movement through the poll with some chewing, he's happier to have his poll handled.
So I had a good lesson. We showed a lot of progress and Mary is very pleased. We're on the same page as far as what I am willing to use with my horse. It turns out that the next thing we need to work on is something Theo and I have done before and he enjoys, so this should be a good couple of weeks. It will still be hard, he's got muscle to build and he doesn't like upward transitions while low, but he really does love to stretch. I think she was pleasantly surprised to see that we do have the stretch trained, just not perfected. Woohoo, not missing all of my fundamentals!
And next lesson? She said we can start to play with the First/Second level frame and some shoulder in, see what he can handle without bracing. If he braces and locks up, we'll stretch him down, release, and try again. So that's why down needs to be locked in. I'm excited! She's talking about us learning to be a real First level pair! I feel like I'm actually back on track!