Lately I've really been struggling with keeping Ben forward and engaged in his flatwork. If I give him a long rein and let him go how he wants he marches forward and tracks up quite nicely. As soon as I ask him to collect a little bit and come onto the bit he immediately lets his hind end trail behind him and loses any ounce of impulsion he may have had.
Typically this would be slightly annoying and I'd just keep kicking on without much of a response but it didn't worry me much because he is always much more gung-ho at shows. Until we went to Frazier this past weekend and he did the exact same thing in the dressage ring that is.
When I first got Ben I didn't ride him with a whip, crop, or spurs. He really was (and still is on his own accord) a naturally forward going horse. But as the dressage workload increased the whip got added as support for my leg and the spurs got added as a bending/lateral aid and slowly but surely I ended up with a horse who is at best quite dead to my leg and at worst pretty damn resentful of it.
He has been remarkably frustrating to ride the past few weeks for this reason and I knew something had to be done about it before I started to dread doing a flat school on my own horse.
For starters we had to fix the issue where his response to my leg aid was to stop, balk, kick out, swish his tail., etc instead of going forward. Next was to work on getting him to understand that he goes the pace I tell him and he maintains it until I say otherwise.
I decided to ditch the spurs for now as I think that just makes him resentful and I prefer he move forward off just my calf without the spurs. I had also been riding with a crop lately instead of a dressage whip as I can use it every once in a while and get a more effective response than just constantly annoying him by tapping him with the whip nearly every stride, but I decided to go back to the whip and work on getting him sensitized to that once again.
Yesterday we got to work on tackling this issue head on. I kept my reins loose the whole ride and didn't worry about his frame at all; all I cared about was his response to my leg aids. We started at the halt. When I gave the lightest of squeezes and he either balked or gave me no response at all he got kicked sharply forward into a brisk trot for a lap around the ring. We repeated this in both directions all over the ring for about 15 minutes until I could give a whisper of a squeeze with my calves and he would step briskly forward immediately.
We then repeated this for the trot. Starting at the walk, I would give a light leg aid. If he didn't step right up into a forward trot he got kicked forward into a canter for a lap. He picked up on this one much more quickly and only gave me a hard time about the first couple of transitions. He quickly learned that he had only two options: do exactly what I asked or end up doing more work than I had asked for.
Towards the end of our ride he was going forward off the lightest squeezes of my leg and I felt as if he was awaiting my command instead of going off of his own agenda. We also worked on pace maintenance. I'm tired of kicking him on every stride with little to no response. I should not be working harder than he is just to trot in a consistent rhythm on a 20 meter circle.
I would trot him forward and not give him any additional go forward aids. The second he tried to slow down he got kicked into the canter. Again, he was either allowed to do what I asked or do more than I asked. There was no other option.
All of this went over quite well and by then end he was doing some excellent walk/canter/walk transition on a long rein off of my leg alone. The plan for today's ride is to repeat this process for the first half and then attempt some real dressage work on big figures and straight lines to encourage the forward thinking. That will be the true test. This will obviously take some time and I'm willing to take that time to fill in the holes in our foundation, especially because I'm positive his lack of respect to my leg aids translates to xc when he spooks at something and stops dead in the middle of a field.
I also have a lesson for the first time in months tomorrow morning so I will run this by my trainer as well. I have no doubt that this issue is my fault. I always accepted him being lazy because he used to be such a sensitive hot head. I was always fighting with him to relax and slow down so whenever he offered to slack off a bit I gladly welcomed it. Unfortunately it has now grown into him thinking he can get away with giving little effort when something gets hard. I felt a lot better about our ride yesterday and I'm hoping today's ride goes just as well.
I own a very talented horse but sometimes its hard to get him to display that talent. They always say your horse is a mirror of you and that is quite true with Ben and I. We're both stubborn and we both *know* that our way is the best way. Normally we get along quite well but when we butt heads it can get hairy. I have learned over the years of owning him that sometimes I need to take a deep breath, take off the pressure, and return to the basics.