JL had an epiphany while schooling one of her own youngsters, another super soft horse. Speedy is super light up front, but he's behind the bit. JL had me start the lesson by shortening my reins a full foot. Don't over-react, they were definitely too long when I entered the arena. She didn't want Speedy G to have a second of a long, flappy rein. She wanted him to be on the bit, now!
As soon as I shortened my reins, my super light pony got heavy. No problem. JL had me back him up, hard. Pat him, move forward. And again. Back him up hard, pat him, and move forward. A few repetitions later, Speedy G decided to lighten up. His next evasive maneuver was to drop his nose behind the vertical. With my shortened rein however, I felt it as soon as he dropped the bit. JL had me add leg, stretch my spine tall, open my chest, squeeze my shoulder blades, and widen my reins to maintain the contact. Speedy's nose shot forward in response.
We worked the circle. If Speedy's nose came up, I set my arms, and added leg until his nose came back. If he dropped the bit, I added leg and pulled back with my elbows all the while sitting tall and squeezing my shoulder blades. Little by little Speedy started to figure out that the only happy place was on the bit. In front of the bit got his sides squeezed until his head came back down to the bit. Dropping the bit meant more squeezing of his sides with the added pressure of my seat driving his butt forward up to the bit.
I want to say that I completely understood the lesson, but I didn't. I went home that evening pretty dejected. I want to get better. And I am working on it, but this dressage stuff is pretty difficult. As I went to bed, I pulled out my copy of Practical Dressage Manual by Bengt Ljungquist, first published in 1976. This book is written in the absolute simplest of terms. It's short, to the point, and doesn't use tricky lingo. I flipped to the chapters about the aids and riding horses with bad habits. Mr. Ljunquist says, "... you must use your seat and legs in the same way. Sit deeper and firmer (tighten your seat, brace your back) and feel that you grow taller. If you want to go forward or into a faster pace, relax your hands, If you want to slow down or ride a halt, set your hands. The outside leg pushes him forward and reminds him every time he tries to raise his head. Every time he resists, move him away from your inside leg and use the outside leg to bring him down."
I know this doesn't help anyone but me, but all of a sudden JL's words clicked. Asking for softness with my hands doesn't work because the reins don't have anything to to do with rounding the topline. What I need to do is use my seat and legs to push his butt up to the bit when he falls behind while holding my hands steady. When he races off in front of the bit, I need to slow down his front end by tightening my back and shoulders and send his hind end forward by squeezing. By shortening my reins, I am giving him a place to go to or come back to. With a long rein, there is no destination. That's why he just speeds up when I use leg. AHA! [and they just keep coming].
Now I understand what is meant by capturing the energy. The energy comes from behind, travels over the horse's back through his neck and is captured in the bit where it is sent back to the riders hands.
I was eager to try out my understanding. I saddled up on Sunday and after a warm up walk on a loose rein, I shortened my reins to the length I had worked at the day before. Oh joy! It all came together. Speedy G tried to get in front of the bit but met my set hands instead. When he tried to drop the bit, he felt my seat and legs driving him forward. Within just a few minutes he was working with a steady contact that I could honestly feel. Any shift forward or back was caught quickly until he just stayed right where I asked him to stay.
After working to the left, I released the rein and felt him seriously lengthen his neck and stretch. While at the free walk, I tried a little experiment. I quietly picked up the rein to remove most of the slack and gently added a squeeze to the girth with my lower leg. He immediately lifted his shoulders, arched his neck, and reached way down! GOOD BOY!!!! So now Speedy knows that my legs tells him to stretch forward and down.
I can't wait to try it again! Now if only I can figure out how to ride Sydney, King of the Heavies!