So, after obsessively critiquing both myself and Willow on our latest video, here's what I'm happy about: Willow is forward, relaxed, rhythmic, and mostly straight, and her gaits are pure except when I mess them up. What I'm unhappy about is her frame: still too much like training level. We could probably sneak through first level and maybe even get our scores, although I betcha more than one judge would tell me she's too strung out for first level.
As I've mentioned on more than one occasion, Willow has a very long neck. As long as I continue to let her carry it in a training level frame, she's never going to be able to shift her weight back. My conundrum has been shortening the reins without feeling like I'm riding her front to back. Whenever I've tried to really shorten the reins, Willow channels all her tension into her poll and throatlatch area, and everything falls apart. In my dressage career I've mostly ridden horses who were very light to the bridle, so this has been a new challenge for me.
Leslie, the assistant trainer at the barn, jumped in and saved me this week. She, too, rides a big horse and knows what it's like to break up tension in such a large beast. She advised me to put Willow on a 20-meter trot circle, shorten the reins, and do the following in rising trot: 1) Keep my outside hand very low with a strong connection, 2) Bring my inside hand up and out (not back) and keep a definite, playful, vibrate-y connection, 3) With my inside leg at the girth, continually ask for bend, almost to the point of leg yield, but not quite, and keep her moving very forward on the circle.
I have to say, it was almost like magic. I've used an opening inside rein before, but something about the up and out really got Willow to unlock her poll. Suddenly the shorter reins didn't feel so short, and Willow was up in front with a pretty, arched neck, and an even bend through the spine.
We did the same exercise in canter with a similar result. AND, boom, canter-walk was easy. Next we tried it in walk, and after Leslie pointed out my tendency to get too strong with my leg and seat aids on a shorter rein in walk, we had success there, too. (Must remember: quiet, following seat in walk, even with shorter reins!)
I should mention that even though we had success that first night, there was some unhappiness and resistance from Willow at all three gaits until she realized I wasn't going to drop the connection. Once she got that, she changed her way of going, and voila!
Leslie recommended this exercise for the next two weeks. She said to keep Willow on circles and serpentines and limit my straight lines until this habit of resistance in the poll starts to go away. Today my ride was so much fun. I worked on lots of transitions and could feel Willow not dropping onto her forehand. It was floaty goodness.
In other news, yesterday I went to my small town's annual wiener dog races. Never in my life have I seen so many dachshunds. They must have been coming in from 50 miles in every direction. There seems to be a law of wiener dog races: in each heat, there were five dogs, and every time, two would come flying out and actually race (the sprinters) and the other three would wander out, sniff noses, and visit the audience (the minglers).
A dachshund running flat out is never not funny.