This theme was suggested by Marnie Kemmetmueller to help the "at home and alone" dressage rider deal with retraining a horse for dressage. This is a bit of a hard subject due to the fact that horses can come from many different kinds of training backgrounds which represent a wide variety of problems in getting a horse to accept and learn the basics of dressage. I will say that I mostly have experience with retraining Arabian horses. This is easier for me personally, since I know how Arabian horses are trained for the Arabian main show ring. I think I also get their mentality, and how they react to different situations, pressures, and stresses. So keep that in mind.
#1 - Working with Resistance
DISCLAIMER: I am not a trainer. These are things that I've learned from lessons, books that I've read, and personal experience.
I'm going to start with the most basic thing I can think of, and the most common problem I've seen. And it's a tough one. Assuming you have a horse that is broke, can “Start, Stop, and Steer”, the next thing you need to do is establish proper contact. If you don't have contact you can't accomplish anything else, like straightness, connection, submission, or lightness.
Most contact problems start with resistance on the part of the horse. The rider takes the reins, and asks the horse to "get on the bit" or "round the neck". The horse sticks it's face in the air, straightens it's neck, refuses to go forward. The rider either gives up, or gets into a knock-down-drag-out with the horse. Neither of these is productive. So before you can get contact, you have to work WITH the horse to eliminate resistance. Not FIGHT with the horse. There is a difference.
You must always remember - DO NOT GET ANGRY. This helps nothing. Keep your cool. You think this is hard for you? It's also hard for your horse.
Step one - at the walk, establish contact with the bit. If the horse stops, ask him to keep moving forward with your legs and seat. When giving any aid, start at a low level, but if you get no response, increase the intensity of your aid. If you have to bump, or even kick with your leg, do so, but give the horse the benefit of the doubt at first. The goal is to push the horse forward and into your hand, and get them to round the neck and eventually give to the pressure of your hand. To do this you may have to very firmly hold the reins and kick with your legs at the same time. This is uncomfortable for the horse, and once he figures out that the pressure will get better when he puts his head down, he will do so and give in to the pressure.
And for heaven's sake, everyone, please, STOP SEESAWING the reins! This is the worst habit people have and does nothing to help with establishing contact and encouraging the horse to go to the bit. Why would the horse want to seek bit contact if you're constantly sawing on his mouth with that very bit? Just stop it. No jerking either. Have some control over yourself and QUIT it! Just hold your contact, however firm, evenly in both reins, with one steady pull.
If you find that one steady pull does not work, then take contact with both reins, and hold the outside rein firmly. Then take the inside rein and pull the head to the inside. It doesn't have to be a lot, just enough to move the neck and head so that you can see the inside eye of the horse. It can be a lot, but it doesn't have to be. The important thing here is to hold the outside rein steady and firmly. If you give with the outside rein, then the horse won't be put in a situation where he is being asked to yield the neck and loosen the tension. Doing this will create enough pressure that the horse will, at some point, release the neck and lower the head to decrease the pressure in his mouth.
As soon as you feel the horse give, you MUST give back. Let your hands come forward so that you can feel the reins become less tight. You don't want to completely throw your reins away, but you want to release your tight hold. That is the reward for the horse being submissive to your request. If you never release and give this reward, the horse has no reason to give in to your request, and you'll start having a fight on your hands. Plus you'll confuse your horse, because he won't understand what you want.
As soon as the horse gives to the pressure, and you give back, praise him! Lots! I find that the initial resistance is always the biggest, and hardest to get through. Once that initial one is over, you'll have "residual resistance" where the horse will get straight and tight in the neck. This is not the horse just being a jerk. Remember that this is hard for him. He's using muscles that are weak and are not used to working in that way. Take breaks, and give him some slack when he makes a mistake. Just correct it, and move on. No big deal. Most horses really aren't trying to be twits. They're just trying not to work so hard, but most will work hard for you if you ask the right way.
Try to avoid giving so much that your reins get very loose. Initially you can demonstrate a big give to show the horse that's what you want. but soon you'll need to give a release without completely giving away your contact. The goal here is to eliminate resistance so that proper contact can be formed. Giving too much can create other issues, so keep that in mind. Also, remember that your goal is to push the horse TO your hand, so don't forget to keep up with the leg and seat pressure or your horse will probably stop or begin to move backwards.
Once you're able to deal with this resistance at the walk, do the same thing at the trot and canter. If you're working on resistance at the trot, and you're pushing your horse into your hand, and instead of giving to the hand pressure he canters, it doesn't matter! He's going forward to the hand, which is one of the things you were asking for. Remember what your goal is for that moment, and do one thing at a time. Everything else doesn't matter.
The main thing is, to correctly develop the muscles needed for connection and self carriage, you must ask for contact and eliminate neck tension and resistance AT ALL TIMES. You should be able to bend the neck in both directions and have it be soft and supple. If you don't have access to the neck from it being tight and in the air, you don't have access to the back. If you don't have access to the back you don't have access to the back end.. and so on.
I find this is the hardest thing for people to do, as they feel they are constantly breaking through this resistance. If you keep at it, and make it a habit of fixing it every single time, all the time, your horse will eventually get strong enough to carry himself in that manner for longer periods of time. Be patient. It takes time, and hard work. The rewards are great, though.
Do you think some video of this would help? If so I'll try to get some and post it.
Shoot me a comment (or slam me, if you feel the need) or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have questions or something you wish to say privately.