Don't you love those "ah ha!" breakthrough rides? The ones where whatever issue has been eluding you is well on it's way to being solved in an exhilerating moment when angels sing and relief washes over you.
Relief, oh, sweet relief to realize that I'm NOT such a miserable rider that I can't help my horse figure out what I'm asking. It was getting to the point where I was starting to really struggle with whether or not we could fix this shoulder popping, neck snaking, hips swinging WAY out issue on circles, especially tracking right. Struggling with questions about whether I even belonged in the saddle any more if I couldn't figure out this simple problem.
So, I did what I usually do, I hit the books. "Dressage Questions Answered," by Charles de Kunffy is an invaluable tool to help figure out issues. I also read an article called "The Magic of the Outside Rein," that really helped shine some light on our issue. I know the "inside leg to outside rein" concept, and I've achieved what it's supposed to do a time or two on dressage schoolmasters, but I've never been able to get it to work like it's supposed to on a green horse. The article "The Magic of the Outside Rein," really broke it down into why it works and offered a bit more advice on how to use it in a way I'd never considered before. I used the method and like magic, Gabe responded! It was a relief, it was like finally finding the key that fit the lock after groping through hundreds of them.
The bit of advice that brought it home for me was to use the WHOLE rein, not just as connection to the bit. Oooh, new concept for me! So I did just that. I used the rein against his neck to not only "push" him over when I tapped with the inside leg, but to keep that shoulder from popping out and the neck from overbending in. If he started to pop the shoulder I aimed my outside hand towards my center and took a bit of a stronger hold on it and the shoulder popping ceased. Wonder of wonders, it DOES work! Yee haw! Is he perfectly bending around circles yet? No way, but we have unlocked that door and are well on our way.
The second thing we worked on was his sluggishness to respond to the leg. He's not lightning quick off a cue, which is something I've written about before. So yesterday, we worked on increasing the timing of his responsiveness with quick, repetitive walk/trot, trot/walk transitions on the circle (bending nicely too!) and I really expected him to trot with strong, forward energy as soon as I asked, not when he got around to feeling like doing so. The constant "on the ball" expectation that he was going to be asked to respond to do something else very shortly also had him rounding his back and coming forward with his hind. Very, very nice!
I had noticed that with Gabe I've adopted a "defensive seat" instead of a more following, relaxed light seat. I was constantly prepared for him to do something nutty and due to that, I was tense and always at the ready. A suggestion I picked up from the de Kunffy book was to ride by thinking about keeping my legs millimeters off his body to force me to relax and ride with my seat instead of a gripping leg.
Amazing how much he relaxes and swings his back when my tense body isn't inhibiting him.
Towards the end of our 45 minute ride he was responding so much quicker, was very relaxed (a couple of swinging, stretchy, chewy circles proved that) and a few times, at the end of our session, he would trot as soon as I thought about trotting and tensed my calf. Amazing how that works!
I can see plenty of more doors on this journey with Gabe, but I'm adding more keys to my dressage keychain that I'm sure will help me swing them open wide.