Something was just off.
The more I asked, the heavier he got. I couldn't get a lengthened stride at the trot and our leg yields, never our best movement, had disappeared completely. Things got so bad that I seriously considered throwing in the dressage towel in favor of hunter/jumper land.
When things aren't going well, I always know it's my fault. I started reading a few back issues of Dressage Today hoping for inspiration (I found some), and I even wrote about being the problem a week or two ago. JL really helped me fix a few things by adjusting my upper body, which ultimatley helped me figure out what the heck had happened.
In a nutshell, it finally occurred to me that I've been asking Speedy for a better connection, but I've been expecting collection.
The purpose of the Training Level tests is ...
To confirm that the horse demonstrates correct basics, is supple and moves freely forward in a clear rhythm with a steady tempo, accepting contact with the bit.
The purpose of the First Level tests is ...
To confirm that the horse demonstrates correct basics, and in addition to the requirements of Training Level, has developed the thrust to achieve improved balance and throughness and maintains a more consistent contact with the bit.
So what's the purpose of the Second Level tests?
To confirm that the horse demonstrates correct basics, and having achieved the thrust required in First Level, now accepts more weight on the hindquarters (collection); moves with an uphill tendency, especially in the medium gaits; and is reliably on the bit. A greater degree of straightness, bending, suppleness, throughness, balance and self-carriage is required than at First Level.
What's happening lately is that when I push on the gas pedal (more impulsion) Speedy GOES forward, but he is on his forehand. He accepts the contact, especially if I am only asking for steadiness in the bridle and rhythm, but we can't get a lengthened stride because his hind end isn't carrying more of the weight.
It was while practicing JL's imaginary whip behind the elbows exercise that I figured this out. With my elbows bent and my hands high and soft, the reins were a bit long. Speedy looked and felt great trotting and cantering around. In fact JL commented on how rhythmic, relaxed, and connected he looked (the bottom half of the training pyramid).
It was only when I wanted him to lift his withers for a trot lengthening or a 10-meter trot circle or a 15-meter canter circle that we reverted back to a hollow back and him flinging his head all over. What I realized is that I need to show him how to take the energy from the new impulsion and use it to sit deeper.
Since my next lesson with JL wasn't for a day or so, I stopped by to ask for some quick advice. She suggested I ask for the "lift" while working in the canter since that gait already has more suspension naturally, and I can feel it more easily.
The next day that I rode, I gave it a try, but Speedy was in a mood. He was bucking, kicking, rearing, pinning his ears ... you name it. It was at that moment that I remembered something Christian had said during my last ride with him a month ago. He chided me for worrying about where Speedy's head was. He pointed out that a horse who is learning to engage his hind end more deeply needs to have his head higher to keep his balance.
So from the canter, as JL suggested, I quit fighting with Speedy's head and simply focused on riding his rear end. I had him pick up a right lead canter and spiraled down to about a 12-meter circle. I didn't care where Speedy's head was as long as he was sitting deeply and working from his butt. I used the outside aids to turn in and to ride the canter as slowly as he could hold.
Holy heck. We got the best counter canter from that small circle that he has ever offered. He didn't magically round his neck, but his withers were up, and he was definitely carrying more weight on his hind end. And, the longer I rode that slow, canter circle, the more his head did start to come down on it's own.
I am once again excited about riding him. Now that I know what I am trying to get, I just need to learn how to ask him for it. And more importantly, I need to give him time to develop the strength to do it.