Could it be that ...
A foundation was laid that is now supporting new information? Even though I've ridden my entire life, it wasn't until the summer of 2009 that I started taking "formal" riding lessons. Up until then, I was still competing in endurance races on Montoya and Speedy, so the dressage lessons were really just to help my balance improve. I bought a dressage saddle in the spring and took Speedy G for a weekly lesson with a nearby all-around trainer. Out of necessity, the instruction focused on English tack, especially the saddle. After riding in my comfy, squishy endurance saddles, the dressage saddle was quite a switch. I spent several weeks on a lesson horse in the round pen since I was really afraid of tipping over and falling off! It was quite a humiliating experience for someone who regularly rode 50 or more miles in a day to have to ride in a round pen. And how do you just fall off? Fortunately I didn't, but it took quite some time before I felt ready to ride Speedy in the dressage saddle.
The next summer, 2010, I found a local "coach" who agreed to work with me twice a week. During that summer, I started to learn about my body position: lower the leg, relax the leg, sit back, bend the elbows, and turn the thumbs up. I also learned to post to the correct diagonal (mostly). I learned a lot of terms: contact, half-halt, inside/outside aids, free walk, medium walk, change the bend, counter-bend, square halt, and others. I learned the terms, but I wasn't able to make my body, or Speedy's, do them.
Could it be that ... I have a new horse? I bought Sydney this summer, 2011. As soon as I started riding him, Speedy got soft. Or was Speedy soft all along and I only noticed it when I rode a horse who wasn't? I thought Speedy was stiff. Whoa, Nelly! Was I ever wrong. Speedy is the complete opposite of stiff. He's an over-cooked piece of linguini! Until I rode Sydney, I didn't realize how little it takes for Speedy to bend. I think all along we had been struggling because I was over-bending him, especially to the inside. I couldn't figure out why he wouldn't stay out. Once I rode Sydney, I realized my mistake(s). And then when I couldn't bend Sydney, I realized why. I wasn't actually asking him to bend!
Switching back and forth between horses has really forced me to be honest with my body. Something I might be lazy about on one horse can spell disaster on the other horse.
Could it be that ... I have a new trainer? In just five or six lessons with JL, I feel that everything I have learned over the last two years is simply falling into place. Every time I get on one of my boys, I hear an audible click in my head and I literally say, o-o-o-o-h, that's what that means!
I filmed Saturday's schooling ride on Speedy. I liked some of it, and disliked some of it. When I rode him on Sunday, I worked on the parts I disliked, and brought in some of the new things that I've been working on with JL. And just like that, our ride improved. Instead of letting him have that really soft contact which allows him to fall behind my leg, I pushed him forward into the contact. How? When his nose popped up and he braced his neck, I brought my elbows straight back, held the contact steady, and squeezed him forward with my legs. As soon as his neck softened, he got a release, and I gently pulsed the rein to ask him to soften just a little more. When I felt him try to suck back, I squeezed him forward and widened my hands to keep the contact at the corners of mouth. I could see him thinking, AHA! That's what she wants.
Before I knew it, he was (mostly) in front of my leg and reaching for the contact. We walked, and he stretched deeply. Success!
I also rode Sydney and did much the same thing. The difference with Sydney is that he's very soft at the walk, but not so soft when we trot. When he braced and popped his nose out, I pulled back with my elbows, squeezed him forward with my legs, held steady until I felt him soften, and then gently pulsed the rein on the side on which he was heavy. Since he is much stiffer than Speedy, I had to rock the reins a bit more to remind him not to be heavy, but within minutes he was soft and balanced.
After working both directions, I asked for a walk and was pleased to see Sydney offer a nice deep stretch. And again, success!
One definition for dressage is, "the art of riding and training a horse in a manner that develops obedience, flexibility, and balance." I think the definition should include, be prepared for this to take many years. Be patient, work hard, and you'll get it!