I have been trying hard to be as disciplined as I can about asking as gently as I can for forward, and only reinforcing with a louder kick (and almost NEVER needing a whip or spur) if Dino ignores my request. I'm really striving to stay focused on not using my leg at volume 11 any time he drops the tempo, but instead whispering, "Please pick up the pace, sir."
And in two weeks, it's made an incredible change in both of us.
Dino is HAPPY to work. He's more willing to say "yes," he's more attentive, everything I ask feels easier for him, and resistance to going forward is getting less and less frequent. After YEARS of having to muscle him around in one way or another in the ring, all of a sudden I don't have to anymore. He is cheerful in his work, he is loose in his body, he is confident that he knows what the right answer is, and I am finding such joy in being able to communicate with him in such a subtle, dancing conversation. I still find myself nagging from time to time, but already the change is dramatic.
Don't get me wrong, we've made a LOT of progress over the years with many wonderful trainers who have given valuable insight. Read back to the very beginning of this blog, and you'll find a pony that I had to fight with daily. You'll read about how there were days that asking for a trot resulted in Dino planting his feet, slamming his ears back, swishing his tail, and bucking. Days that only several solid whacks with a jump bat would get him into the in gate at a show, and dressage tests in which I wasn't sure if he'd even pick up the canter. We've come so, so far since those days, and I've found ways to make Dino's job more enjoyable for both of us, and worked hard to find a training system that produced progress instead of resistance.
But until we rode with Ashley, I'd never understood that I needed to reframe the way I thought about how Dino and I work together. Over the years, trainers have told me that my pony "Doesn't respect the leg," that I need to "Make him go forward," "Keep your leg on," "Don't let him quit," or "Hit him, he's not listening!" And while all of those remarks, in the moment, made sense and were true in some ways, none of them changed the conversation between Dino and I. While our partnership has improved by leaps and bounds over the years, I was still missing the final, vital piece to the puzzle.
It wasn't until Ashley told me that I needed to show Dino how to avoid being kicked or hit that everything changed. I'd never completely shown him how to participate in his end of the partnership, or given him the opportunity to willingly take the responsibilities that are his. I'd never really been clear with him when it came to responding to softer aids, and was always quick to go right to whatever level of strength or aggression I needed to get the job done in the moment. But as I take the time to teach Dino to talk with me, to dance with me, he is stepping up and offering more than he ever has. Finally, I feel like we've found a way to leave our baggage behind for good.