The Centered Riding and lunge lesson I had with Caroline Phillips on her Andalusian stallion has made such a difference to the way I ride Bella and we've both come on in leaps and bounds since.
The most important changes I've made to my riding are that I've really worked on her suggestion to sit more on the back pockets of my trousers and "trust gravity to keep your bum in the saddle". I try so hard to sit lightly that I've now realized I was hardly sitting at all, which meant my weight was too far forward, weighing her forehand down too much. Since I've started sitting down a bit more her front end has come right up underneath me, and her back with it.
She also told me to take my lower leg back slightly when asking for transitions and use it with an imperceptible squeeze, thinking of lifting her stomach up underneath me. She told me to just ask once then wait, expecting the correct response, giving her time to organize herself and respond smoothly. This worked brilliantly from the very first time and Bella is now giving me consistently round, engaged transitions. I now realize that they were a bit hurried and abrupt before.
The third invaluable think I learned was to concentrate on the 'up' movement of the canter, thinking of really trying to draw her back up under me. With my Dales, who are not bred to canter and all seem to find it quite difficult, I've always been so concerned with trying to keep them in canter that I now realize I've been pushing them forward and not helping at all. The difference to Bella's canter already, in a few sessions, is remarkable. She's completely followed my suggestion to bring her back up under me and suddenly she's round and balanced and happy in canter. Her canter feels light footed and soft and sustainable, and that she might one day be able to manage some advanced movements in it. I can't tell you how excited I am about this and what a huge breakthrough it is. Canter was the one pace I thought would always hold us back and suddenly it feels nearly as promising as her trot does!
The last memorable thing I took from the lesson was about rein contact. I like to ride on a long rein and when I've been told in the past to "support the horse with short reins" this has seemed totally wrong to me - the idea of supporting half a ton of horse by a piece of metal in it's mouth!
Caroline told me that although the horse should learn to carry itself on a long rein, when you're training it helps to horse to use the reins to indicate to the horse that you want it to shorten it's frame - that the rein length just sets the frame for the horse to carry itself within, a consistent length for the horse to organize itself within.
I've started shortening the reins with Bella once she's warmed up and she's understood completely and stayed light as a feather on the end of them while shortening her frame to match, which again as helped her to really engage and bring her hind legs further under her and lighten her front end.
Suddenly everything we do feels so much lighter and softer and suddenly she feels like a mature dressage horse. It's wonderful and I think Bella has heaved a sigh of relief - that I'm finally showing signs of getting good enough to do her justice, and of getting out of her way and letting her do her job properly!!!
Photos to follow asap!!!