|Snowy pony...He wasn't sure if he wanted to come in with me today! :)|
Today was a flat school for Soon. I wanted to give him a nice, light-minded ride after yesterday's more taxing jump school, and get him to stretch and really loosen up (not that he was tight yesterday, this is just a nice follow up). He was wonderful. We focused on a lot of bending exercises at the walk to warm up, get him moving off my outside leg, leg yields, etc. He goes right into stretch work these days. The first trot used to be about just getting him forward, but now I can ask him from my leg to stretch down across his topline and stretch into the contact. This is a great warm up, and helps engage his back.
His canter work was really lovely today. He's been consistently getting his right lead canter transitions from the first or second attempt. He's very solid on those now, which is a huge amount of progress from a couple months ago. He is soft, light in the canter, naturally very round and incredibly well balanced on his own. During this afternoon's ride he felt wonderfully connected in the canter, going from slower, more compact canter on a 20 meter circle to a slightly lengthened canter down the long side of the arena, back to another 20 meter circle. Canters in both directions were just a dream. Seriously, this horse is so balanced, and light, and naturally round in the canter it makes me smile just writing about it! I'm always giddy when I ride him. He makes dressage so easy and fun, and if I ever get back into showing, he'll be a great adult equitation horse (in addition to all the horse trials and dressage shows and miscellaneous stuff I'd like to do with him).
We ended once again by coming down out of the left lead canter into a working trot on the shorter rein. His outline is getting much more consistent when I have the shorter rein and thus require his poll to be higher. I don't drill him much in the shorter outline because he doesn't really have the muscling yet to sustain it for a full school, so I ask for a couple minutes at a time at all three gaits. I then asked him to stretch, and he can get so low and deep in his trot stretch that I feel like I have no horse in front of me. Again, light, balanced, soft, forward, and responsive. I look at his progress and where he stands in his training, and it's amazing given where he started in Aug. He rides like such a seasoned sport horse at times it blows my mind. I admire him for his work ethic, athleticism, and heart.
I found this (OUSTANDING!!) video on YouTube and had to post it to help illustrate the stretching and engagement of the horse's back that I keep describing with Soon.
I'm a huge believer in classical dressage, and though I'm not a capital-"D" Dressage rider, I use its principles when I'm schooling horses on the flat, as I believe a solid foundation in dressage sets the horse up to be successful in a variety of disciplines. The lifting of the back and the connection between the hind end and the front end is so key, and very well illustrated and described in the video. I do this work with Soon every ride. It makes such a difference - the horse's back coming up is more comfortable to ride, the stretching is a great building block to riding in a shorter/more elevated frame, etc. Great, great stuff.
I also agree that it takes a long time (year) to put a good topline on a horse, and collection takes longer. It's not about the horse's face being pulled onto the vertical. It's not about the head/neck at all - it's a whole body position (hence why I say "outline" instead of "frame," as I often think of frame as a forced head/neck position). It's about true engagement starting from the hind legs, over across the top of the back (back elevated), freeing the shoulder and down through the neck to the mouth. True contact and connection starts from back to front, and I'm very proud to say that Soon does this like an expert, and this work is paying off in spades with him (seriously, read every flatwork post I've made and see, and try not to stab yourself in the eye with my gushiness). He requires zero hand - if I want him to stretch and go on the bit, I put my leg on and keep my hand soft. :)