While this season has been an utter failure in terms of any kind of jumping-related competition (save one kickass jumper show and one awesome stadium round), it's been a time of huge improvements for Dino and I in dressage and in our partnership on the whole. Sucking at jumping has forced me to step back and re-work the basics, and as usual when one goes back to basics, it's been a good thing.
Especially over the last month or so, Dino and I have really gotten in a good groove. We're taking lessons almost weekly, and it's really helping in a lot of ways. Over fences, we're only having refusals when I make a huge mistake (like actively turning my pony away from the jump, or taking my leg off and pulling) and Dino has been SUPER honest when I make any small attempt to Jump The Thing, even when I'm a little nervous. I'm still freaking out about stupid stuff about once every lesson, but the important thing here is that I'm able to recognize it, recover from it, and fix it immediately instead of having it send the rest of the ride down the tubes.
On the flat, amazing things have been brewing.
I've been taking regular lessons on Dino with eventing trainers for almost two years now, and for a long, long time the flatwork part of those lessons was very, very basic.
As in, Kick the Pony. Does the pony go forward? No? Try again. See if the pony will go if you hold a normal amount of contact. No? Kick the pony some more. Make the pony hold his own head up off the ground. Did the pony canter today? Good job! Time to jump! Let's hope he doesn't literally walk through most of that gymnastic!
We spent a long time getting Dino to accept that he can still go forward while I maintain a connection with the bit, and that yes, he does have to hold his own body up and I cannot literally carry his head around. We spent a lot of lessons managing his temper tantrums, and I sat a lot of bucks when we went back to work after a short walk break.
We've made slow but steady progress, and since July, Dino has been improving by leaps and bounds. We've made the transition from working around his quirks to him working like a proper dressage pony. The work I used to be satisfied with (Dino going behind the vertical, because it was an improvement from him dragging us along on the forehand) is no longer good enough, and we're at the point where I can ask him with correct aids to hold himself up, lift his back, stretch over his topline, use his hind end, and seek the bit, and he does it. He's behaving like a trained dressage horse, and responding to the correct aids.
I can no longer kick and flail around and hope for the best, because my pony is now listening to the things I say with my body. I can't take the contact and hold it for dear life, because Dino's nose will keep coming in and his body will become tense and tight. I can't forget to use my leg, because the connection will be broken and the energy will trickle away. I can't sit heavy and out of balance in the back seat, because Dino's back will hollow and I'll kill the impulsion. I can't scream at him with all my aids turned up to 11, because he'll react accordingly. I need to talk to him like a reasonable adult and keep my aids at a 4. I can't contort my upper body and lean this way and that, or try to muscle my pony around, because he's listening, and he'll just get crooked and be unable to do what I'm asking, which is all he's trying to do in the first place.
This is really, really hard.
Dino becoming properly trained at the ripe old age of 18 has required me to have a whole new level of focus in my riding. I've taught him a new way of doing things, and now I have to do things in a new way, too, instead of using our own made-up language. I notice it most in my rein aids, now that Dino is actively seeking the contact about 75% of the time. When he's solidly connected, the barest flutter of a finger has an effect on him. I cannot be taking huge half halts and then taking my sweet time to release him. I can't be moving my hands all over the place trying to achieve bend - all that does is make my pony retracted and crooked. I can't really make big moves at all, since every little thing now has an effect. I, essentially, have to ride well. And it's hard.
So, thanks Dino, for finally behaving like a trained horse and making me learn how to do things the right way, instead of whatever strange way it took to get you to do things. And a huge thanks to my trainers, who stuck by me and believed in me even when half my lesson was spent spanking a cranky pony who stood in the middle of the indoor and refused to move. I kinda-sorta know what I'm doing now, because of you!