First Level introduces a couple new and exciting elements: Lateral work (leg-yields) and stride lengthening (trot and canter). Both require the horse to be working more off their hind-end than in Training Level, and they really shine a light on where you are with balance and rhythm. The circles also get smaller at this level–15 meter canter circles and 10 meter trot circles–also challenging your balance and rhythm. Effective half-halts become crucial, as well as riding deeper into the corners of the ring, using that time for balancing and setting up for the next movement.
Although he's not a spooky horse, Clay gets tense fairly easily. Tension in his back and neck results in restriction in the swing-through of his stride, making lengthening his stride near impossible. I don't want my own nervous energy or frustration to be the cause of his tension, so I'm challenging myself to remain laid-back and positive about these new elements we're incorporating into our rides–treating them like fun games. This mind-set helps us both to relax. It's not consistent yet, but I have gotten some stellar lengthening at the trot out of him on good days.
I can tell he likes to move out and "trot fancy"! He flares his tail and perks up. I have to be careful to not practice this movement every ride, because he gets to every corner and starts to anticipates a lengthening across the diagonal, getting excited and then pitching a tiny fit when I tell him, "No, not this time." Sorry, Charlie!
Trot lengthening is one thing...Canter lengthening is another! Clay's canter has come a LONG way, but he still tends to fall out of balance and get too quick down the long-rail. It's a work in progress, and I don't anticipate a great score on that part of the test. More motivation to ride the other parts as well as we possibly can!
Thankfully, lateral movement comes easily to him, so that part of First Level should be a relative breeze compared to the lengthening, as long as (again) we stay relaxed and rhythmical.
We'll be "trying out" a couple First Level tests at the NWDA Schooling Show next weekend. Hoping for a relaxed test and some helpful notes from the judge so we can see where we need to really focus our work before the first Recognized show later in the month.