I mentioned in passing the idea of inviting Theo up into a higher frame. I feel like this concept needs a bit more explanation because it's been a game changer. And, realistically, shouldn't have required a visiting clinician to point it out but all riders have their flaws.
When it comes to getting a horse on the bit or working on a contact, my training has been to shorten the reins and the horse should shorten up because that means it's time to work. If the horse doesn't shorten up, they're not paying attention and you should correct them with the hand. This has resulted in Theo typically jutting his nose out and bracing when I shorten my reins. He's kind of an oppositional jerk that way. Unfortunately, I will respond to that by getting in his face and away we go with one of our bickering sessions. We're both very stubborn creatures.
During my clinic with Ashley Navarro in May, I was introduced to the idea of inviting my horse up into the higher frame. She was rather scandalized to see me just shorten my reins up without giving Theo a hint beforehand that work was coming. The idea was that I should let him know with my seat and legs that things were afoot and that he should rebalance. To rebalance, he'll need to pick his head up and engage his topline. When he picks his head up, I need to shorten up the reins so my hands don't end up in my crotch as the distance between my hands and his mouth shortens. I shorten an inch, then ask for more with my seat and leg. Shorten my reins again. And again. Lo and behold, with a couple of iterations, I was able to invite my horse up without him feeling claustrophobic or stressed. He can lick and chew while in that frame that we're aiming for at Third. It was his decision to pick his head up, after all. His rider only asked him to tuck his nose a bit, nothing to worry about. What's a little flexion between friends?
I was delighted to find out that he could lift himself without that ugly hinge spot in his neck and doing some over dramatic nonsense. Not for long, he has a lot of topline to develop, but it's possible. After the clinic, I worked with Trainer A to practice bringing my horse up into a contact using my seat and legs. It's slow going. Any project that involves teaching Theo to listen to my seat and legs requires me to tighten up my riding so I'm not making a lot of noise that he has to ignore. It also requires Theo to listen to situations where he used to ignore.
As a direct off shoot of this concept, I've been working on making my legs quieter but also making them my default. Confusing, right? I need to work off of my seat and leg far more than my hands even when I'm mucking around with his head, but at the same time, my legs need to be very quiet because Theo is a rather sluggish horse. So cues need to come from my leg and seat, but then my leg and seat need to come back off. If Theo is getting heavy on my left hand, I need to make him step off of my left leg, then get that leg back off.
This has taken a long, long time to beat into my thick skull. If he's heavy in my hand, I automatically want to correct him with my hand. Everyone knows that feeling. Trainer, trainer, he won't stop dragging on me! I'm having to pull so hard just to keep going straight! While your trainer is slowly shaking their head, watching you try to play tug o' war with a thousand pound animal. Then they say stop pulling and you yell back that you can't stop. At this point you're not even sure why you have to keep pulling, but by golly you are not going to let go of that rein before he does!
Trainer A has resorted to throwing things at me to get me to go to my left leg when he starts to drag my left arm. We went around and around on a 20m circle, working on leg yielding my stubborn pony every time he started to brace and drag. He's trying to throw that left shoulder out. However, pony is not a fool and started to travel straight after a few dozen reps. If I pull, he has something to fight. If I poke him in the ribs? He moves his ribs over to make me stop poking him. Presto change-o, that makes him get off his left shoulder and travel square. Once he's settled into traveling square, pony has got some moves on him. Half pass at the trot no longer bothers him and he prefers it to the leg yield for some reason. He will contentedly do a 10m half turn and then half pass back to the rail in both directions in the trot. I'm sure that understanding why he is better at half pass than leg yield would be a grand revelation into his biomechanics but for right now, it's all a mystery to me.
As I slowly trudge forward into the world of mid-level dressage, I'm trying to hang on to Theo's personality. He has the mind for dressage, but his personality isn't exactly easy. I don't want blind obedience and he certainly isn't offering it. I don't want him to become tense or angry or resistant to the work. Part of the problem I had with moving him to a connection was my reluctance to force the matter. If Theo isn't chewing and licking while we work, I'm not happy. My early attempts at a higher frame resulted in a dropped back, locked jaw, and tense neck. That's not okay. Now I'm learning to make the higher frame something that he offers and I can reward.
I have to do this a couple hundred more times until he automatically comes to me when I ask with my seat. Then he'll do the same when the aliens have landed, taken over the arena, and set up flower covered bases from which they will enslave the world starting with the equines.
If Theo were a human, he would be an alien conspiracy believer.