I mostly worked on getting him to relax and soften. The usual "release as reward". I quickly realized that it worked best to give him a fairly strong correction/half-halt and release as opposed to a softer correction more frequently. He is used to being held fairly tightly most of the ride, from what I've seen.
Our warm-up and trot work was very good. He was relaxed and most of the time soft and on the bit. He would occasionally be reactive, fast and high-headed but since I was able to be consistent and calm he would settle fairly quickly. Until the canter work.
He was fast and not all that well under control at the canter. He wasn't super crazy but I had a hard time balancing the aids. It is difficult to simultaneously not hold too tight, keep him from running all out AND prevent him from breaking. It might sound strange that he would break, but he is so used to being "held up" by the mouth that when you try to have 2lbs versus 10+lbs of pressure, his balance is off and he subsequently breaks gait.
There are a lot of issues going on here, for sure. But what I am most interested in right now is whether verbal praise is enough. The idea is that every time he relaxes and softens, I want to reward him. This horse did give me several opportunities during our hour of schooling, which is great. The release is the main reward, but I think it would help to have an additional reinforcement. Do you agree?
Giving treats at this time would be impossible, at least for me. I would not be able to keep the action I want and then give a treat. I would have to stop or walk him first and then I think I would be rewarding the stop/transition, not the soft, on the bit, forward motion. Also, since I ride with 3-4 other people, stopping for treat rewards would be disruptive, I think. This whole issue is compounded by the fact that I will only ride this horse once or twice a week (unless I lease him for the fall/winter...) and I am not his only rider. He is not ridden by inexperienced riders, but there is still variation in approach, no doubt.
Do you think verbal praise is enough of a reward, in combination with the release? Any thoughts on how to approach this situation? He has already shown me that he is responsive to the way he is ridden in the moment. For example, I wondered how he would react to not being held in death-grip because I knew I would not be doing that. He quickly adjusted to my level of contact and improved greatly in his trot work. I am not being arrogant here, it comes from my instructor's feedback. It also just makes sense that helping the horse carry himself will be better in the long run.
I want to go from this
to thisor this
I definitely want some improvement in our canter work if I don't want to resort to holding tight. I just don't think that is a long-term solution, though it might look better in the short term. We did have awesome moments at the canter where I had exactly what I wanted. I want the best way to communicate to him that he has it right, as soon as he's doing it!