Fair warning, any mid-level or higher dressage rider is going to face palm or head desk a lot while reading this, so you should deploy any necessary cushioning before proceeding. Carry on.
Way back when I first learned to ride, I showed in the equitation ring. This meant I spent a lot of time doing no stirrup work and making sure that my leg was completely stable and still no matter what. I could post, jump, do the hokey pokey up there and my legs wouldn't move an inch. Heels down, calf on, completely still. I was proud of that. Sweat, blood, and tears went into that ability. Jumping length stirrup position with zero movement. I pursued that for probably twenty years.
And then I decided I wanted to dressage.
As Theo and I start to dabble with actually dressage-ing (even the rule books show that Third level is when you actually start to do dressage), some of my little issues have become big issues. Like my leg doing interesting things like this:
I call this the 'omg please lengthen everyone is staring at us I need to stick my spur in the fattest part of your belly and squeeze you like a jammed up tube of toothpaste' position. This is what happens when your horse is perpetually behind your leg and you rely on a spur to get him to actually move his booty. The good news is that I generally don't do this any more, this usually shows up only when I'm stressed. Like at horse shows. You know, when it actually counts.
At home, Trainer A has become laser focused on fixing my leg. Why? Because when my calf is always on, I can't use it for anything actually useful. I can't tell my horse to power up with my calf if he never feels it come off. I thought I was taking my leg off, but no. It's always, always on. My calves are always right up against his side, unmoving. Lesson after lesson, ride after ride, I'm retraining my legs so that they can actually be turned off. This has involved some very dramatic exercises where I look ridiculous, such as cantering with my legs off the saddle.
My horse is a damn saint. I was limping afterward due to my hips getting one heck of a work out. I also did this with my bareback pad. Want to talk about a balance exercise.
The saint in question
At trot and canter, I've been practicing keeping the gait without having my leg touch his side at all. Overkill, yes, but nothing else could make me realize that I had my leg on all the time. And since my calf was always on, I'd resort to my spur to get a reaction. To do that, I'd suck my leg up, pop my butt up out of the saddle, and generally make a mess of things. Theo and I had to be reprogrammed so that calf pressure varied and that variance was enough of a cue to get a response.
I'm starting to feel the benefits. I've dropped my stirrups another hole and now wear a slightly longer spur because my heels make it past the curve of his belly. I need that longer spur in order to reach him without getting out of place.
We've also had a huge upswing in misfires. I ask for a little more walk, I end up in trot. I shift my weight, we're going lateral. Right now he's getting pats for offering the behavior when I screw it up so he's happy to keep playing this game. I just have to dial in my body control to match his new sensitivity. I'm also having to rebuild my sitting trot as he gets a bigger trot transition. He almost popped me off today. Trainer A giggled. It wasn't a high quality transition, but I can't argue with the enthusiasm in the response.
Today I cantered him on a 10m circle with no fear of breaking, no work to keep the gait, and with a loop on my inside rein. Not just one circle, we stayed on the 10m circle and worked there in the canter with my new fluffy calves and long legs. With my legs out of the way, I was able to really plug in and ride the canter. This freed up my legs to do things like manage that circle instead of just keeping him cantering. This left my inside hand with nothing to do but sit there and look decorative. Score!
It was one of those rides where you go 'oh, THAT's what you meant!'. I thought I was just sitting in the canter. I wasn't. I thought I was sitting deep in my saddle. I wasn't. I thought my horse was starting to carry himself. He wasn't. When I realized I was holding on to a 10m circle in the canter and it felt like we had plenty of room, that I wasn't kicking, pulling, or otherwise doing dramatics, I realized that this is what I am supposed to be doing all the time. It's a bit of a chicken and the egg thing. Theo had to learn to hold the canter without my help, but I had to do dramatics with my body to teach that because he already had his confirmed bad habits. Only now can I start to work on quieting my body because he's figured out he's supposed to keep going until told otherwise. Once I stop the pushing and kicking, I can actually sit down and move with him.
Duh. Yeah, I know, duh. There's whole books devoted to the topic. But that isn't the same as going 'oooooooh, that!'. And now that I know what he can do and what I should feel, we can start working on it.