Maybe you've had a ride like this - those magical rides when the horse seems to be an extension of your own body, where you think a movement and it happens underneath you. Mine tonight happened with Red, in the "arena" where we ride. I was just out to do a little walk and trot, and prove that Red could still canter on the left lead (we went foxhunting Friday and I noticed he pulled the right lead almost exclusively). Nothing too exciting, just a nice evening hack. This was really my first serious ride since Saga got hurt, so I was looking for a little pick-me-up.
Red's got a ton of training, and is a great all-around horse, but he's a tricky fellow to ride. He's gaited, and shifting gears into walk/trot/canter (instead of walk/foxwalk/foxtrot/trot/canter) can be a challenge. He was trained to gait by steady rein pressure (with a 7 inch shanked gaited horse bit, ick) and by sitting on your seat pockets, so you cannot ride him with much contact at all, and you can't be heavy in your seat. He's also sort of like riding a noodle - the slightest half-halt on one rein or the other will have his neck practically bent in half if your timing is off. Downward transitions must be ridden ever-so-delicately, otherwise you'll find yourself eating his ears as he sits down, screeches to a halt, and throws up his head. He's good with laterals at the walk, but at the trot your timing must be perfect, or his legs seem to get tangled up and he shifts into gaiting. I've learned how to work around these things over the years, by playing around with nearly everything in my "toolchest" of tricks. I've never worked with a dressage trainer who has ridden a gaited horse, so everything I've figured out has been by trial and error (mostly a whole lot of error). I've always felt like I'm speaking English and he's speaking Russian or Chinese or some other incomprehensible (to me) language, so there's been a lot of clashing of heads and frustration over the years, but we have mostly come to an understanding. Of course, I'm not perfect, and neither is he, but we've been working together long enough that we get each other and are willing to let some things slide.
We warmed up with a little trotwork, and my contact was horribly unsteady, reins flopping at points. His neck and jaw were locked solid to the left (an old trick, precursor to some truly naughty behavior) and he was a complete noodle to the right. We took a break, and I decided to work on some stuff at the walk to see if we could get our act together. We started with a little shoulder in, and then worked toward walk squares (with 45 degree turns-on-the-haunches at every corner). I focused on using my body to slow him down, riding with my abs/core and not my hands. He responded by lightning his shoulders and shifting his weight back, becoming more and more responsive. We did a few rein-backs, then some 8 meter voltes into a haunches-in. This is a hard movement for him, so even a few steps of trying are a huge win. He started off doing more of a shoulder-out than a true haunches in, but eventually I got my aids and my weight situated, and he was brilliant. We then moved to 5 meter haunches-in circles, something that are a breeze with Oberon but I've never tried with Red before. And you know what? He really tried for me. Sure, they weren't perfect, but there were steps where I could really feel his shoulders swing over and his back come up. What a feeling!
We moved back up to trot and magically, we were steady in the bridle and no longer running around. We did several brilliant shoulder-ins each direction - smooth and round and steady. Of course we lost all connection as soon as I forgot about my inside leg, but I'd ride quietly until he got his balance back and then we tried again. He was so right there for me, I decided to ask for a little lengthen trot. He'd take a few big steps, break to a stride of canter, then come back for a few more big steps. Not great, but I've really never asked him before, so his effort was really nice. We finally got around to left lead canter, which was at times was flat and disjointed - but again, I rode quietly and supported him and let him find his own balance. We had a nice downward transition and took a walk break, then did a little more walk lateral work. We finished with a lovely hop up and down a stone embankment, which he did calmly and quietly.
I used to have these kinds of rides all the time on Cash, where I'd think "hey, we could do a 10 meter circle at B" and suddenly, he'd be doing it. The smallest shift of weight, a hip forward, a leg back, and he'd be flowing into some new movement. I got to share all his power, all of the amazing things he could do with his body, and he allowed me command all that was his. Maybe that's what riding an upper-level schoolmaster is like - I've never ridden one, but I can imagine. It's when, at some point along the way, the rides stop being work, and start being an amazing partnership.
I want that again.