The Long Road Back
In addition to getting Dino feeling comfortable with drugs (thanks, medical science!), there's a training aspect to getting him fighting fit again. Somewhere along the line, his response to me picking up the contact went from "move forward into the connection and lift my back" to "suck my chin into my chest, slow down my hind legs, drop my back, and get crooked." In order to do the dressage, we need to fix that.
Thankfully, the drugs have made it more comfortable for Dino to do the right thing, but we still need to re-program that incorrect response. During a ride a few weeks ago, I realized that the issue is (obviously) not a front-end problem, but a hind end/forward/straightness problem. The terrible behind-the-bit feeling was just a result of things going wrong from his neck to his hind feet.
So, what have I been doing to re-engineer this response?
I've been playing with a few different things, and trying to figure out when the best time is to use each technique. Austen came in clutch again with the suggestion of a technique she's been using on Bast - when there's tension in the poll (and consequent sucking behind the bit/anxious chomping), ask the horse to over-bend to the inside until you feel the tension let go, then a BIG release with the inside rein. This really helped Dino soften through his whole body and learn that the bit was an ok place for him to be again, and once he grasped the concept, I could use it as a sort of lateral half-halt to re-calibrate him when I felt him coming behind the bit and getting tight in the neck.
Another thing that's helped has been just sending him aggressively forward when I feel him start to get tight and anxious. When I can feel his whole body just sort of crunch up and his hind legs slow way down and the contact disappear, it's often because he's feeling stuck or trapped in a movement, and sending him forward and off/above the bit can sometimes help break that cycle of claustrophobia.
And lastly, I've been working a ton in the walk in transitions between free and medium walk. This, again, helps Dino not feel so trapped between my hand and leg, and lets him know that there IS a big release available to him if he meets me in the connection. I ask for a few good steps of connected, round medium walk, and then release him into a free walk, which he LOVES.
This work hasn't been the silver bullet to our problems, but it has helped. I've definitely made mistakes in trying to get us back to great again, and there have been many days that I've pushed way too hard, ridden too long, and asked too much and made my pony sore and anxious about the work. Those days then set us back even more, and I feel discouraged and worried about his soundness all over again. But, when I use these methods in the right way, Dino feels so much more relaxed, confident, strong, and correct, and it's just going to take some self-control and diligent practice on my end to keep the improvement coming.