Today was one of those challenging spring days with the ice and snow melting off of the roof of the arena. It was windy and noisy, filled with loud crashes and bangs due to the ice sliding down the roof, melting in the sun. Naturally, this made for a difficult atmosphere for a horse like Louie who tends to react to such noises in a not so positive way (as he did two days ago when I rode him in similar conditions).
Well today we warmed up on the lunge with the side reins on, attached down to his girth rather than at his sides and I practiced a new way of getting him to step under himself with his hind legs. I gently flicked the lunge whip and tapped his hind leg/hindquarter with the whip while walking on the lunge line. When he sped up and broke into a trot, I brought him back to the walk and we tried again. After a few times, he figured it out and started stepping under himself more when I flicked the whip at him. We worked on this in the trot and it seemed to work well, instead of kicking out at the whip like he would sometimes do, he tucked his butt up under himself just a bit, and reached forward with the hind legs.
So after a long warm up (due to the crashing of ice all around us), we worked on this same principle from in the saddle, with an idea from a discussion with a friend earlier in the day. From a halt, I asked him to step forward with one hind leg by using one of my calves lightly (the same leg as his leg that was back), just behind the girth. This worked pretty well at the halt, I could bring his lagging leg up under him so that he would halt square, so I tried it at the walk and then the trot. It seemed to really work and get him to step up and use his hind legs more when I just nudged him lightly with the inside leg (and reinforced with laying the whip on his side once in a while as needed) and after a while I felt that same marching feeling as I did during my lesson last week. (When we tried this whole idea a few days ago by applying a lot of leg and stomach it was a miserable fail compared to when Julie was there to help coach us through it, so I'm glad I figured out a way to do it differently- at least so it seems).
The other thing I did differently today was I tried to not use my hands at all. In doing this I realized that I don't really need them for anything, they're almost more of a prop than anything else, just holding the reins to hold up the suspension bridge. Louie naturally relaxed his head down pretty well on his own and seemed a little more consistent/confident this way compared to when I am constantly on his case with my hands.
Throughout the ride, I tried to focus on having my horse in front of my leg- which means he is moving sufficiently forward with light aids and not being dragged along with heavy leg cues. The feeling of having him in front of the leg is incredible- it feels like it's supposed to! His gaits are more forward, free, and engaged. Also, when he is in front of the leg, any little spook or shy is much smaller than when he's inverted and behind my aids. When he sees something scary, all you need do is just concentrate on getting him to step under with the inside hind leg, and it's like the rest comes together on its own regardless of the situation (now I'm not saying he was perfect, but overall, it was much more pleasant than it could have been with the conditions the way they were)!
The other thing I tried, on the tip of a friend, was to weight the new inside stirrup before changing directions (when doing a figure-8 or other change of bend). It helped Louie to kind of know what was coming ahead of time and help him change his bend more easily.
I rode in my dressage saddle today (and two days ago) and today I really felt good in it, I felt like I was sitting up tall, had a nice open hip, and was using my aids more effectively and lightly.
When I rode Louie a few days ago over the weekend, I had so much trouble getting him to step under himself that I nearly gave up. So frustrating. . . So since I have to miss my lesson this week due to a conference for work, I asked Julie to ride Louie instead in place of my lesson. I'm going to also have her work him a couple of other times over the next two weeks since I won't be out to do much with him due to a very busy work schedule. At first I felt like I was giving up on myself as an amateur-trainer by asking her to ride/train him a few times, but I think having a professional put a few rides on him will help us get past this hurdle much quicker. And at the end of the day, after 4 rides by a professional, I'll still be the one who mostly trained him!