The lack of a truly elastic connection is the reason we can't get the stretchy trot.
I had another Game Changing lesson on Wednesday, and it included water skiing. No, silly, not real water skiing. Metaphorical water skiing. As in are you water skiing? Is he pulling you along? Let me explain.
For some time now, Speedy has fooled me into thinking that we had a good connection. I could feel him evenly in both hands and his neck was staying round with his face mostly on the vertical, although often times dropping behind the vertical. But. On most of my recent score sheets, the judges have remarked that we need more activity behind. So, a few lessons ago, JL had me ask for more activity from Speedy's hind end. A problem was revealed. Speedy doesn't like to engage his hind end. It's hard work. We spent a full lesson playing Race Horse - I put my leg on and you better move it, buster!
Speedy got the point. I squeeze, and he knows that he better react or he's only going to have to work harder. Now however, he has tried to find a new way to avoid working and that is by doing this hippity-hoppity thing with his front end as he tries to evade going forward by cantering or jacking his head up into the air. So, during our lesson, Speedy learned how to let me water ski.
Have you water skied? If so, you know that if you tilt too far forward, you're going to fall. If you go too far back, you're going to fall. If you let there be slack in the line, you're going to fall. So how do we stay up on water skis? We keep tension on the line by leaning back, bending our elbows, and allow the boat to pull us along. This is also how to maintain a steady and elastic connection while riding.
I finally understood the concept during walk to trot transitions. In a moment of inspiration, JL instructed me to let Speedy pull me up into the trot. Not with his front end, but rather I was to think of that sensation of being pulled up out of the water while skiing. I instantly leaned back, squeezed with my legs and held steady on the reins. I didn't let Speedy pop his nose up as he made the transition. Instead, I kept my hands still and steady and kept revving him up from behind until he had enough in his engine to push forward while "towing" me up out of the water. AHA!
From that point on, all JL had to ask was are you skiing? And just like the girl in the photo, I kept the line taut and let Speedy "pull" me along. This is not the same kind of pulling that you feel with a horse on the forehand. If the reins sagged, the connection wasn't elastic. All I had to do was lean back and add leg to reestablish the connection. And it was a glorious feeling. Speedy was carrying us around the arena. I had the wonderful feeling of a gentle tug in my hands, and he was zooming along, wonderfully balanced.
We did figure eights and halts all with a lovely connection. We did walk to trot to walk transitions which really helped me feel how to maintain the connection. And we did a stretchy trot. If you keep the idea of skiing in your mind as you let the rein out, you'll feel right away if you have a connection or not. If he doesn't reach for the connection, it's just like letting there be slack in a water skiing rope: you're going to fall.
I can't wait to practice this more on my own. It may take us a while to get it while riding on our own, but now that I know the feeling that we're trying for, it's going to be a whole lot easier.
Who needs a boat when you have a dressage horse?