I am new to dressage and riding a green, unpredictable pony. He is not young but has somewhat of an abusive past so it can be hard to get him relaxed and on the bit. He moves beautifully when he is relaxed though, but I struggle with this a lot. Whenever I am riding him I feel like I am constantly battling for him not to run and to keep his head own. I have only been riding him for a couple months and have come a long way with him (slowly). I just wish it were easier to get him more relaxed and on the bit. Is there any advice you can offer me? Should I just keep working at it and one day it'll click?
Things take time. Work on a steady rythmn and relaxation will follow. Be predictable in your aids and your expectations and that will help with his anxiety. He should know what to expect and when it is coming. Don't surprise him with your aids.
Longeing with side reins for a few minutes before you get on may help him to relax and show him the way. It may also help to follow the same general routine in your schooling session from warm up to cool down. This may give him more of a sense of security if he knows what is going to happen next.
"Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain" ~Friedrich Schiller
I agree follow the same pattern for a bit when you get on. Sometimes that helps a horse to relax because they learn what's coming and the can trust you. I wouldn't worry about to much contact. I'd just ride for now. Start with a loose rein walk if you can get him moving from your seat and some leg. Go into a trot I'd pick up a little contact for more control if he wants to run off to much but I'd just let him trot out some to help him relax a bit then ask for him to come back to you a bit. Ground work is great and will help him in trusting you more. How does he do in the canter? At first I'd make the work boring, uneventful, unless he is the type that needs the challenge every step. My one guy, if i make it to boring he decides to find things to spook at but my other one doesn't mind. It takes a while if he came from an abusive past for them to trust us again. My husbands horse was spurred a lot and was beat on. It took a year for him to even let us walk out to the pasture with a lead rope to catch him. It took almost 4 years for him to understand that my husbands leg was not evil and that he could actually lay it on his side while riding. It takes time and how much time really depends on the horse. Good luck.
Horses aren't our whole life, but makes our life whole
You don't mention your ability to slow him down without using the reins, your ability to ride accurate school figures, etc. these are the sort of things necessary to have in place as part of establishing rhythm and relaxation.
Too often people are initially way too concerned with head position, not that we want llamas, and camels, but we do want a light contact first off.
Some riders change their horse, they change their saddle, they change their teacher; they never change themselves.
Remember the horse does all the work, we just sit there and look pretty.
Four loop serpentines are great for rushy ponies, figure eights on 20 meter circle, trot the long side of the arena then halt before the short side.
I heard a clinician recently say his horse must earn the right to go straight. If your pony starts to rush in a circle he must go.
thank you thank you thank you. All of this advice has been very helpful and I have even written the responses down lol. I played with him the other day and found that he was much more relaxed *after* we cantered. Yes! He canters: in fact he has a lovely canter. I actually have a better time controlling him at the canter and it's funny because he hasn't been cantered much- I am only the second person who has ridden him since his adoption. I use my seat to control his pace unless he starts trying to take off (usually when we're trotting)- in which case I correct him with my hands. He is using a very mild bit but he does listen quite well to my aids which is what I love about him. It's getting him consistent that I struggle with but perhaps I do just need to be more patient.
Transitions can help with the rushing. They can be done between the gaits (walk-halt-walk-trot) or even within the gaits (push the trot a little forward then asking him to come back). The transitions help to keep the horse light and responsive to your aids as well as help to teach him to balance himself a little better. It is important that he remains happy to go forward as well as come back.
I also definitely agree with the other posters that figures will help as well. In fact the transition work can be done on those figures which will make both exercises even more effective.
Remember that dressage is at its core is making the horse as athletic as it can be through an organized and structured training system and you seem to have already grasped the most essential fact which is that things take time.
Give him stuff to do. Try ground poles - all in a row to get him to slow down and put his head down and look at them. Put random ones around the arena and walk/trot/canter over them. He'll have to look at them and measure his own pace without you telling him to put his head down and slow down. Mix it up when he's comfy and ride them at angles. Do serpentines through some. Pretend like you're riding a hunter course over ground poles. All this stuff can help him keep his attention on you and the work. He'll get to thinking things change in the arena and he has to look down to figure out what's going on. Helps him be a willing partner in your ride and keeps it fresh and interesting for him while he gets stronger and learns more.