Anyway, now that I am back, so is Tucker. He came back to work feeling a little stiff and weak behind. I noticed that at the walk, he was really twisting his hind feet as he placed them on the ground, and looked stiff through his stifle and lower back. Once on his back, he just felt tight underneath me, like he was walking with his hind legs way out behind him, which I noticed went away by the end of the ride. So, we have been doing lots of long and low trotting, making him push forward instead of just plunk along, trying to get his back looser and hind end stronger (wish I could do hill work, but unfortunately not this time of year). He doesn't seem to mind the work at all and has been better with each ride, so I think the stiffness was due to time off, particularly in the cold weather and with less turnout that he'd usually have in the summer, and so far doesn't seem to be anything that concerns me.
Last week I got an early Christmas present, a visit with Nicku, who did me the honor of riding my lovely beast while she was here. She did a fabulous job with him and it was awesome for me to get to see my horse go, which is a very rare occasion for me since I'm always on board. Once Tucker got over his disappointment that this would not be just a pony ride, and Nicku figured out that Tucker's "go" button is more like a hair trigger (especially for someone with super strong dressage legs!), they made a really great pair. She also made a couple of observations that have really helped me in my last few rides. Another reason I love having someone else sit on my horse -- there is always something to learn from a fresh perspective, and I love when amateurs can help fellow amateurs.
First, Nicku noticed that Tucker doesn't want to take the outside rein. I think I have been working so hard on keeping my hands steady and keeping an even contact on both reins that I've gone too far and started letting him rely on the inside rein too much, to the exclusion of the outside rein. Which of course encourages him to lean in, and gives him the opportunity to bulge through his outside shoulder, two tricks that he finds very useful to avoid working too hard depending on what's being asked of him. So we have been working on that. I still want him to be balanced on both reins, but I don't want him to avoid/resist contact on the outside rein, which he's doing now.
Second, Nicku echoed Eric's advice, which is to do transitions within the gaits. We've been working on this... Tucker generally finds this completely stupid ("You said trot and I am trotting. What do you want now? Make up your mind lady. Sheesh."). The extensions are easier for him, mostly because of the way he is built and because he naturally has an 18-foot canter stride. But he can be a bit lazy, so the first couple are always sort of... pathetic. So we are working on getting him to be a bit more... responsive. I am trying to hear Eric's voice in my head yelling at me to GALLOP. I actually had some great hand gallops down the long sides of the arena on Saturday, so things are improving.
The collections are another story. His answer to the collected trot is to walk, and the collected canter to trot. I'm getting better about catching him with my leg before he actually breaks, but it's a fine line and he tends to get frustrated and confused easily (or at least feigns confusion well enough to disrupt the exercise). For now, since he is still building up his strength, I am only asking for a few collected strides at a time, but eventually I want him to be able (and willing) to hold a collected trot or canter for as long as I ask, and then go forward again when I ask, etc. Preferably, without making any executive decisions to change gaits entirely (which is both counter-productive and humiliating, since it makes me feel like a little girl who can't make her pony go).
I doubt he will ever enjoy this work, but I am hoping that in time he will tolerate it. I may go back to collecting and extending between poles on the ground, since he at least believes there is a point to this exercise, as it relates somewhat to jumping. If all else fails, I'm not above bribing him with stud muffins and canada mints, a fact of which he is well aware.