Is this not the truth? Jet and I have been working on polishing our lengthens and counter canter and as we have struggled to not just do them, but do them correctly, a couple of lightbulb moments have happened. Last post I talked about how energy was a component, but even with more energy something was still missing.
After getting frustrated and hitting the Dressage Naturally video collection I finally found my answer. You know how you can have your horse balanced, relaxed, with appropriate energy, and can do a nice Intro or Training Test but the move up to First looks like a First Test done in a Training frame/balance? You can get through most of the elements of the First Tests, maybe even get a 60%, but it still doesn't look or feel quite right? And forget about moving up to Second.
What then is missing? Your horse is relaxed, aligned, and forward. Why then, even with more and harder figures and transitions can't you quite get him in a First Level balance and frame? The answer my friends is engagement of the hind end. You can do figures, transitions and lateral work until the cows come home, but if you are lacking that engagement of the hind end, the gymnastic effect of all of the above is much, much less.
Now some schools of dressage training emphasize the half-halt with a combination of seat/leg/hand to get more engagement. Been there, done that, got the t -shirt. Ended up with a tense, pushed together horse that was behind the vertical and running through my aids a lot of the time. Dressage Naturally takes a different approach to hind leg engagement by having prerequisites that include relaxation, the ability to stretch at any time, and go/stop from the seat. After you are in this Sweet Spot, where everything basic is effortless, the next step is to work on smaller figures, harder transitions, and lateral work. None of this gets you very far though, without hind leg engagement.
Think of it like this. You are doing a 15m circle at the working trot and it is ok, but kind of flat. Then, feel the hind legs underneath you and try to get a little bounce under your seat. Then sit a little taller. Rinse and repeat. Feel your horse grow taller in the withers, with more bounce to his step, while getting a little shorter in his body. Occasionally ask your horse to move freely forward and stretch a little to check that he is not getting contracted or jammed up. Do all of this while working on everything under the sun, but especially things that need more engagement like smaller figures and lateral work. Feel the hind legs, sit a little taller, move forward freely occasionally and feel the beginnings of true collection without using your hands. It's like magic!