I noticed something real interesting on Liam yesterday. As I was riding him and attempting to keep him more engaged and working over his back with better consistency, I realized he had not one but two evasions he was using to avoid the work I was asking him to do. If someone was watching and mostly noticing whether or not his head was “in the right place”, only one evasion would have been apparent. And similarly, from in the saddle, only one evasion could be identified by the sudden sharp increase in rein pressure, which was quickly followed by his head coming up *just* enough that he could drop his back and fall on the forehand, effectively above the bit despite still being in the “frame” most people would consider “acceptable for dressage”. This is, and has always been, his number one favorite evasion. He yanks the reins, either pulling them from my hands or pulling my hands or even my entire body, just enough that he can poke his nose the teeniest bit, but it’s all he needs… as soon as he does this, his back drops and his hind end trails behind him. Once I’ve lost the connection from his back end to the bit (and thus, to my hands), no real quality work is possible… if I tried to do a transition, he would throw his head up as he did it; if I tried to leg yield, he would bulge through his outside shoulder; if I tried to lengthen his stride, his head would come up and with his hollow back he would charge ahead (happily I might add) in short, fast, choppy strides doing his best harness horse imitation. Most riders know all of these “if I tried…” scenarios, but might not have felt that teeny initial moment when the horse comes above the bit. If you are riding only the horse’s head, it will be tough to notice, unless you can feel the change in rein pressure (which can also come from other things which aren’t as bad as this evasion), but if you can feel the horse’s back drop, then there is no missing it when this happens.
So as I set about attempting to work (yet again…) on this favorite evasion of his, I noticed his next very clever move. He dropped behind my leg. So as he attempted to drop the connection by coming above the bit, I was re-connecting him by engaging a hind leg, like pushing him into a leg-yield or shoulder-fore position. This is where the clever part comes in. He would allow me to position his body, but the trot would lose it’s forward momentum, so instead of stepping under himself with his inside hind leg, he would take a small step with it, avoiding the engagement by slowing down. This is where yet again, if I was only riding what I could see in front of me I might be tempted to think he was correctly on the bit, but what he was actually giving me was what I call “fake collection”. The test here would be the same as above, and most notably, if I tried to send him forward, either to a bigger gait or an upward transition, either nothing at all would happen or something real ugly would happen. But I had felt his back drop, then I felt that when I half-halted he didn’t move forward from my leg and bring his back up, so I didn’t need to test it… I knew we were already in ugly territory.
I should add, the ride started badly when I brought him in right at dinner time, he was already wound up and getting excited about eating, then I went and changed his plans by riding instead, and to add insult to injury he was both muddy and shedding, so I HAD to actually brush him, which he hates more than anything, while he watched the grain being served. Poor horse, I know. Anyways, we went back and forth, and he tried the yank the reins, and I closed my legs, then he wanted to ignore my leg so I sent him strongly forward from my leg, then he tried to yank my reins. Back and forth, back and forth. We’d get fleeting moments of great work, then we’d be back to yanking the reins and getting behind my leg. Despite being mildly frustrating, it was educational. It was not the first time I had noticed him doing this play between the two evasions, but it wasn’t something I had noticed anytime recently. It made me wonder if he maybe does this more often but to a lesser extent so I don’t really notice it. It’s definitely something I will be paying more attention to in the future.
In the end of course we worked it out. I ended up fixing it in a rather surprising way though. I worked on halts. The weird thing about halts is that despite being a movement where the horse isn’t suppose to move, a good halt is ridden forward from behind, back legs into the bridle. So basically a good halt is like a really big half-halt, which was exactly what we needed. So I would ask him to halt his front end (with my seat, upper body, and hands), while asking him to finish the halt (or half-halt) by stepping forward into it with his back legs (with my lower leg asking just a fraction of a second after I stopped the front end, then releasing). His evasions were getting me on both ends, by coming above the bit as I stopped the front end, and by dropping behind my leg as I asked him to step under with his back legs, so I figured a halt was the easiest way to address both evasions without exhausting both of us. Once the halt was working, I figured the half-halt would be working too, and then we would be back in business. It took a little work, but it worked like a charm.
Once we had our discussion about halting, I did minimal work, finding quality transitions and lateral work near effortless, and I discovered a whole new collected canter that really made me happy! It ended up being a good productive ride after all. I’m not sure where the initial resistance came from, but I’m pretty sure it had to do with working at dinner time versus a physical or training issue, so I’m not too worried, but I will be keeping a close eye out for this particular combination of evasions from him in the near future.