Free walk - tension
I have made a lot of progress is the last couple of months with settling down my new little wb's tension. He is no longer terribly cold backed to the point of bucking everytime I did the girth up to even the first hole, and bucking when I got on (no not sore, had him checked out and the saddle), and I am no longer having so much of an issue with his mouthiness. I have removed the flash strap from his bridle and he is a lot happier in the mouth, and I have started to feel a connection coming to my hand now. He is finally in front of the leg, I have established shoulder in and travers on him and he is far more relaxed in general. However, the tension is still there. I make a big effort not to baby him through everything, I allow him to make the mistake and then correct him and when the tension comes, I put him in shoulder in until he gives over the back and comes through again.
My problem now, is the free walk while test riding. Shoulder in has helped me hugely with his tension in medium walk, trot and shoulder fore in canter, but in free walk he loses it.
He will gently chew the reins through my hands coming around the corner from medium walk into free walk, and will come back up to meet the contact and connection from free walk to medium walk on the other side of the diagonal, but during the free walk itself he starts to panic, falls behind my leg, the back stiffens and he comes behind the bridle. If I put leg on, he panics and breaks.
I have been trying to ride my free walks by riding really forward towards my hands, but he continues to break. I have also tried opening my reins to give him a connection to come to, when he comes behind the bridle, and putting leg on, but he ducks back further and breaks.
He is certainly not behind the bridle in all his other work, it's been a tough habit to break but now he very rarely sucks back, only in the free walk. He was previously ridden with draw reins and/or side reins every ride, so it is not surprising that his evasion is to come behind the bridle now and taken a lot of patience to get him out of that habit.
I try to take him out through the forest and roads as much as I can, to get him out of an arena setting, and he will walk out fine into the bridle when out, but as soon as he gets into an arena the tension comes in.
Are there any suggestions for trying to get him to allow a contact in his free walk, and remain ahead of my aids?