Thank you so much for the supportive comments on our last post. It was surprisingly hard to write about but I'm glad I did.
As I mentioned, we haven't had a meltdown since that one (knocking in several wooden things right now). I've been experimenting with a few different approaches to prevent and diffuse tension and get better quality flatwork in general.
#1. Get off his back. Literally.
Especially when tracking right and doing our first canter, Hemie prefers me in a light 3-point seat rather than deep seat. When he gets tense, his back stiffens, and if I'm sitting deep that can result in me bouncing heavily. Not good for either of us. A light 3-point seat which I then slowly relax into a full seat has been helpful in maintaining relaxation in our right lead canter.
#2. Pick my battles with regard to the left rein.
At this point in our training, is it really so bad if I have him more connected to the inside rein rather than the outside rein as we are passing by an object I think he'll faux-spook at? As long as he's connected - whether to both reins evenly or to the inside rein - I can then ask again for left rein connection with better timing.
#3. Rhythm is more important than speed.
When Hemie gets tense, he tends to speed up and sometimes get uneven. I used to immediately slow him down, but my new tactic is to focus on rhythm first and then focus on speed. This helps tremendously with keeping forward momentum and not letting Hemie get behind the leg. I'm out there posting like a walrus, but it works. Turns out the fast, sewing-machine trot can be converted into free-shoulder, swinging trot without too much hullabaloo.
#4. Focus on relaxing MY body when HE starts to feel tense.
This has been absolutely critical to de-escalating tension. When I start to feel resistance or stiffness, I have to melt my body and exhale deeply. It works surprisingly fast and well.
Overall I think these are really working. We're getting more consistent connection, steady rhythm, and better moments of stretching and back-lifting. Plus no meltdowns, and minimal tension. We've been getting compliments from several other riders at the barn as well as our trainer, and overall I think Hemie has been happy in our work.
On a completely unrelated note, our barn has become overrun with plastic bags. They're living along the hacking trails, waiting to freak out unsuspecting horses passing by. Luckily Hemie doesn't spook at them (unless he's really in the mood, looking for any excuse).