I feel like I have been slowly fine tuning what is going on with my hands... and I think in Saturday's lesson we finally stumbled upon the answer.
In preparation for my lesson on Saturday, when I rode Tucker on Friday night I turned my hands upside down to a driving rein. Have you ever done this? Instead of holding your reins normally, where the rein enters between your ring and pinky finger and exits through the top of your fist, beneath your thumb, you turn your hand so that the rein is entering your hand between your thumb and forefinger and exiting through your palm (picture the way someone holds the reins while they are driving a carriage). It is a great way to prevent yourself from bracing in the wrist/elbow, and generally helps me a lot when I am trying to break a habit somehow related to my hands. As an added bonus, it also keeps you from tipping over your hands with your upper body, because it changes your posture.
What I found, in doing this, was that I was holding a much steadier contact on both reins, and my horse was much happier to accept the contact on both sides as a result. Okay... so now we know I need steadier contact with both sides of his mouth, and we've already learned that I need to "open the door" on the right side so that I don't brace my right hand down and stick my right elbow out. With me so far?
Before my lesson I asked Alicia to watch my dressage test and tell me what the heck I am doing with my left hand. (Side note: This is the sign of a truly dedicated trainer. "Hey, can you go online in your spare time and read my blog and then watch the video of me competing in another discipline and then help me fix whatever I am doing?" And she did. That's a good trainer.) Before we got started with my lesson, Alicia and I discussed my hands in general. We agreed that I'm not "playing with the bit" since usually when someone does that, they are wiggling their fingers and generally sliding the bit back and forth in the horse's mouth to get the horse to break at the poll, which I'm not doing. And we agreed that I've stopped the habit of breaking at the wrist (which I used to do), and now have a straight line hand-to-elbow, for the most part. Alicia then said she thinks my left hand and right elbow are directly related. (Which left me with a giant question mark floating just above my Charles Owen.)
So Alicia watched me flat for a minute and asked "what does it feel like you are doing?" and I said "it feels like I am just following with my left hand and feeling the right." So we started tinkering with this. Basically, I am holding the right side of his mouth (with my elbow braced) and then trying to compensate by being soft on the left, because I want the contact to be following, so I end up giving too much on the left and not enough on the right. (Ohhhh, so that's what she meant by they're related. Question mark fading.)
So... to fix this Alicia tried a variety of images, "be more still in your left elbow," and "hold the left more," and then finally told me to "make sure both arms are doing the same thing, and bring your hands closer together." Ah-ha! That worked. And almost immediately, Tucker started trotting more forward and reaching down into the bridle. (You could practically hear him sighing in relief. Or rolling his eyes. One of the two.)
So when turning right, I need think about "opening the door" on the right side, but my elbows need to be doing the same thing, so that the contact is the same on both sides. Then I just have to lift my right shoulder open and back, and keep my right leg on, so Tucker keeps bending through his mid-section. When turning left, I just have to make sure not to twist too much in my torso. I've actually noticed I ride with my left foot slightly ahead of my right foot, which I think all stems from the upper body twisting. When I bend my left knee more, my upper body straightens out too. (Basically, my horse is being piloted by a pretzel, or possibly a bendy straw. It is amazing he ever manages to go anywhere in a straight line.)
When I put all these pieces together, it seems to be all falling into place (!), possibly for the first time in my riding career. Alicia jumped Tucker around a little 3' course after I flatted and jumped some smaller jumps on Saturday (and he was fabulous, didn't miss a beat, you'd never know he hasn't jumped 3' since February), so I didn't want to do too much yesterday. I just went out in the big outdoor ring at my farm for a short hack, and practiced "both elbows the same - hands together - open the door on the right - right shoulder up and back - don't twist left." Tucker flatted beautifully, and seemed very appreciative of my newly discovered position. We even got two perfectly clean, back to front, relaxed, uphill lead changes, which left me basically floored. All I did was concentrate on what my hands were doing and he had no trouble getting them. Talk about a breakthrough. Now let's hope we can do that in the show ring on Saturday.
Fingers crossed (wait, no -- I mean -- hands together, elbows the same)....