From Endurance to Dressage
That's a Lizzo reference for all you cool kids.
In case you haven't heard me say this before: riding Izzy is hard. It's also frustrating, demoralizing, and occasionally, rewarding. He wasn't his best self this weekend for Saturday's lesson with Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage. I think he had a legitimate reason, but the problem with having a reason every single time you get ridden is that your rider stops taking your reasons seriously.
We have tons of lush, green grass everywhere except in the horses' paddocks and pastures. I know, it's a California thing to have grass where the horses aren't. This is winter grass. As soon as it warms up, it turns to foxtails and dies off. Izzy has been getting bites of it here and there for the past few weeks, but I am super careful to control how much he gets as it is very rich.
While I was tacking up on Saturday morning, he pooped some really foul and stinky stuff. It also came with a wet squirt or two which is not normal. I pulled out my stethoscope, but his gut sounds were normal. Besides getting some of that lush new grass, we have started in on our new grass hay which he really likes. It looks the same as our previous load, but I am wondering if it is just bit richer than the old stuff. Either way, it was clear that he wasn't feeling quite himself.
When Izzy is uncomfortable, he's a real ass. And it doesn't have to be my leg is broken uncomfortable. If the sun is in his eyes, he feels that is all the cause he needs to check out. Knowing that, I have to be judicious in how I handle his I don't really wanna days. As we warmed up, I explained all of this to Sean who agreed we would work Izzy until he gave us tangible evidence that supported his claim to be broken.
Izzy turned out to be fine enough, but his version of pouting is to say no to every little request. He gave one or two really dirty spooks, but I simply insisted that we would continue working. Of course, the thing that bothered me most was how boring the lesson was for Sean. As soon as I had that thought, I immediately stopped in my metaphorical tracks. What the hell, Sweaney? He works for YOU! And suddenly, I saw some of the reason for why I had been so unhappy with my riding in November and December. Once again I had let myself believe that it was my job to perform for my trainer.
If I don't show major progress from one week to the next, I always feel as though I've let my trainer down. I feel like such a failure to be working on the same issue week after week. In his own riding, Sean is driven to succeed. He has big goals, and he pushes himself hard. I, too have goals - maybe not as big, but I also push myself too hard. Sometimes, I think that mixing a driven personality with an even more driven personality is a recipe for disaster.
It finally occurred to me that Sean works for me. And you know what I mean; he doesn't actually work for me, but I pay him to help me ride my horse better. When you think about it like that, what does it matter if the progress is slow? If that's where I am in my riding, then that's where he will support me. I don't stop working with my fifth graders just because they have a low reading level. No, I meet them where they are by providing scaffolded lessons to support them as they learn. Why should I worry if Sean is bored with the lesson I am having? I am certainly not bored. While we both care about my progress, I think I have been a lot more worried about the slowness of my progress than he has.
When I told him what I was thinking, I could hear the exasperation in his voice when he said the lesson was not boring. He was interested in the choices I was making as I worked Izzy through his little episode, and rather than feeling bored, he was engaged as he evaluated my riding and thought about what he could do to help me.
As I look ahead at the rest of 2023, I have decided to do some schooling shows to see if I can make this fun again. I don't want to care about how we look. I want to take all of the pressure of succeeding off the table and just ride for the fun of it. I'm looking at a schooling show in February and another one in March.
I think Lizzo is right; it's about damn time!
One sign that always lets me know that I am back to normal is when the need to tidy up takes over. Cleaning my physical world also sorts out my mental junk. It's a great system as I get a two-for-one for my effort: my physical world looks better, and I get a clear head.
Over the weekend, I had two very good rides on Izzy, so when my schedule fell apart on Monday afternoon, I didn't feel bad about not riding. I could have squeezed in a ride, but I didn't feel the need. Instead, I looked around at my side of the tack room and realized I couldn't do one more thing until it was sorted out.
For several months I've been looking at the jumble of tipped over, cracked, or near empty bottles occupying space in my life. I've also been ignoring the old broken reins, unused halters, left over show numbers, and bit and pieces of actual trash. Once I started throwing things out, I couldn't stop.
For every old and dried out thing I tossed, I felt my shoulders lift and my mental load lighten. Within just a few minutes of purging, I was motived and inspired. I cleaned both everyday bridles and gave my old saddle a good wipe down and a coat of conditioner. Speedy's ladies probably won't notice, but it made me feel better. When I finally stopped to take a breath, I realized the sun was going down, and I still needed to give both boys their buckets. With my physical space cleaned and organized, my heart was joyful.
A life without joy is pretty dreary. Find your joy!
It's no secret that I struggled with finding my joy through the late fall and early winter as 2022 came to a close. I was just so discouraged by what seemed like zero progress with the big brown horse. I talked to Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage, and asked if he would mind if I took a few weeks off from our weekly lessons. I wasn't having fun, and I was very quickly losing any desire to ride at all. I spent the month of December riding only when I felt like it, which turned out to be at least three days a week. I did a small bit of traveling, hung out with friends, and tried some different things with my horses.
Having come out on the other side of that month of misery, I can honestly say that taking a month off was the right decision. I am happier and excited about what this year holds. During that month or so I also started volunteering and connected with old friends. If you're feeling blue, it's okay to take time off or try something new. I feel so much better for that break, and I am positive Izzy feels better for it, too.
Besides feeling refreshed, stepping away from weekly lessons for a month or so also gave me some better perspective. As I contemplated starting up with my weekly lessons again, I realized that I was a bit apprehensive. I worried that I'd immediately feel discouraged again and lose all of my new found joy and happiness. I took some time to think about life in general and realized that progress has been made. A lot of progress.
Last year at this time, most of the lessons focused on keeping Izzy in my dressage court, and I am not exaggerating. My dressage court is made up of labeled water jugs, PVC pipe, and round fence poles. Outside of the court is a pipe perimeter fence. Keeping enough control to stay within the court was frequently my goal for the lesson. Not only was I focused on staying in the court, staying on was equally important to me.
When I remembered how wild and wooly our rides were even just last year, I realized that we have made tons and tons of progress. Izzy almost never bolts any more, and if he does, it's a small scoot. We never crash through the rails either. In fact he's mostly pretty workmanlike these days. When Sean logged on for our Pivo lesson on Saturday, I explained some of this too him - all of which he agreed with, and then said that my next goal was to get consistency in the contact. Rather than bolting or spooking now, he snaps his head up or cranes his neck around to listen to whatever has caught his attention. It's frustrating, but nothing like bolting sideways at Mach 10.
To fix the off balance/distracted moments, Sean agreed that now is the time to start adding leg to compress Izzy to regain that balance. That will only work though if he hasn't fallen too far onto the forehand like he was for so long. Even just a year or two ago, people would tell me just add leg. Let him move out. Stop restricting him. Now, he's in a place where adding leg does engage his hind end. Before, it simply drove him further and further downhill as he spiraled out of control. Being able to feel the difference between knowing when adding leg will engage the hind end, lift his belly, and lower his head or send him crashing out of control is a huge step in the right direction.
When I can just squeeze to get the hind legs to engage, I do. When I feel that he is pushing too hard against me for me to add leg, I wrap him around my inside leg by doing the smallest circle I can. Sometimes that's a 15-meter circle, and other times it's a 10-meter circle. And when that won't work, I can also halt hard and fast. Halt. Right. Now. I add leg, and if he still wants to plow through my aids, I repeat the halt. It only takes a handful of times before he starts to carry himself again. Having three strategies that will affect his way of going is more progress than I realized.
For our first lesson since November, I wanted to keep things simple. We did some trot work to warm up and then did a few leg yields across the diagonal. My arena has been so wet that I had only just been able to leg yield the day before. We followed that up with some canter and a couple of attempts at the flying changes. They're nowhere near confirmed, but Sean felt like we are on a good path. I lost a little time over the past month, but up until the weather turned so wet and muddy, I was getting the changes more often than not.
Sean did show me a new exercise though that I've already been able to add to my rides. Izzy still doesn't have a medium trot. Sean showed me how to use the shoulder in to work on building the medium trot while still maintaining control. In the shoulder in, he encouraged me to push Izzy more forward, but since I already have him slightly bent, he can't hollow as easily in the bend. This is working really well. Sean also gave me a few variations. While doing shoulder in, he also suggested I leave the rail at a diagonal for a few strides but then go right back to shoulder-in on the quarterline or centerline. This will give me a way to get a stride or two of medium trot while still maintaining control.
It's nice to look forward to riding my horse again.
Last Wednesday, I was back at M.A.R.E. for week two. For my second visit as a volunteer, I felt much more confident. I knew where to park - at least I thought I did, and I knew that my job was still in limbo. As it turned out, I kept myself busy.
For each day of the week, the volunteer coordinator sends out a reminder email to all that day's volunteers letting them know of anything important for the day. The first week, I didn't get the email - not too surprising as it was to be my first visit, and I probably wasn't on the group email yet. That email was about parking. The pasture parking was super soft and muddy so volunteers were told to park along a different driveway. Not knowing, I parked in the mud. I was pretty sure I was going to need four wheel drive to get out. Thankfully, I didn't have a problem.
The second week, I did get the email, and again, it said to look for the sign directing visitors to a different parking area because the pasture parking was muddy. I drove slowly, but I didn't see the sign, so again, I parked in the mud, but so had everyone else. Apparently things had dried up between sending the email and the arrival of volunteers. My reason for volunteering is to give back without making life more complicated, so I am just rolling with it. If they say turn left, I am turning left. I love not being in charge.
The arena is still under construction, so the kids aren't having riding lessons quite yet. Since M.A.R.E. is a member of P.A.T.H. (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship), they follow as many of P.A.T.H.'s safety guidelines as possible. One of those requirements is perimeter fencing around the ring. Right now, the roof is built and seems finished. I do know that gutters will be installed soon, but that isn't a safety feature. When I was there on Wednesday, the tractor was working the footing. I don't know if moe sand will be brought in, but it is looking closer to being rideable.
Since I am only at M.A.R.E. once a week, the progress moves pretty quickly. Last week there was a huge ditch alongside one side that had been dug out to create a drain. This week, the ditch was filled in although I was told no one should walk on it for the next several weeks as it needs to dry out. The other thing that had been completed was the poles for the perimeter fence. As wet and rainy as it has been here, I am surprised they were able to accomplish so much in just one week. I'll be at M.A.R.E. again tonight, so I am eager to see how much more progress has been made on the arena.
Without an arena to ride in, M.A.R.E.'s two instructors have had to get creative with their lessons. Last week, one of the instructors hid grooming tools around the barn for her rider to find. The little girl was given laminated cards of the different tools, each showing the picture of the tool she was to find. Once she found all of the items shown on the cards, the instructor helped her use each tool on Haven and discuss its purpose. It's not as much fun as riding, but the instructors are still working on skills that the kiddos need. From what I've observed, the lessons have been centered on social skills, communication, and following directions.
Wednesday's Barn Captain is a really kind woman who has been patient with all of my questions. Since I couldn't really help during the non-riding lessons, she and I pruned some small rose bushes; she pointed, and I clipped. I have no skill when it comes to gardening. Later, she let me know that she had to leave early but felt confident in my ability to bring a horse in to the cross ties and help with the feeding. While that sounds patronizing, it was actually quite complimentary. It was only my second day, so to be left on my own was quite flattering.
Besides doing some gardening, we brought all of the turned out horses back into the barn. I almost know each horse by sight. Reina and Knightly are easy because they are the two giants; Knightly is 18'3. Haven is a fine boned chestnut pony, and Cricket is the Halflinger. George is a former dressage horse, and Morrey is the mini. There are four others, one of whom I blanketed, but I don't have his name memorized yet. By today, I think I'll have them all.
While the instructor gave her lessons, I looked around for something else to do. M.A.R.E. has a lot of volunteers so there isn' much left undone, but there is always something to sweep. I swept out the feed room and then moved on to the tack room. I noticed a box filled with a jumble of grooming equipment along with some mini tubs, so I put all of the rubber curry combs in one tub, the metal combs in another, the hairbrushes in their own space, and then lined up all of the bristles brushes. The full-time trainer laughed, but I think the effort was appreciated.
The full-time trainer recently reorganized the entire tack room. It looks great, but it's obvious there are a few tasks left to tackle. I asked if I could do all of the pads for her when I go back today. She looked surprised that I wanted to do that kind of work, but I rubbed my hands together in glee. Organizing is one of my super powers. I'm going to get there early today so that I have enough time to sort out all of the pads and still have time for whatever tasks might be assigned.
I was worried the time commitment would be too much. I am not worried any more.
My life is finally settling back into a comfortable routine after December's "reset." Our daylight hours are increasing, I am volunteering at M.A.R.E., I am back to having weekly lessons, and just as fun and fulfilling, I am giving lessons on Speedy again. I know Speedy's ladies have felt like they get the better end of that bargain - lessons for free, but the truth is, I get way more out of the experience than they do.
Brooke was out to ride on Saturday morning. She's had quite a lot of trail riding experience, and she's had her own horse before, so she's not a true beginner. She is a bit rusty though, and she has definitely never approached riding quite like this. After seeing how well she sat Speedy's shenanigans the previous Monday, I figured she was ready for some canter work.
I don't have a lesson playbook or a prescribed order in what I teach. Frankly, I teach whatever I have been thinking about the most recently. At the CDS Judges Symposium that I attended a week or so back, I heard one statement that really gobsmacked me. The judge was describing the test movements as the rider rode them. The test included a canter down center line with a halt at X. The judge said that the halt will only work if the horse's hind legs are stepping under deep enough.
The idea of collection into the halt isn't new, of course. But for some reason, the way the judge said it, just made a lot of little pieces of my dressage understanding snap into place. So as Brooke was warming Speedy up in the walk, I really watched his hind end closely. I explained the idea to her about the hind end needing to be active in order to achieve smooth transitions up or down. When she had his hind end better engaged, he was able to better lift off into the trot.
When the trot departures were smooth, I had her focus on the transition from trot to walk to trot. The transitions were smoothest when she kept Speedy actively coming through from behind. What amazed me was how clearly I could see all that I have learned over the past decade. Riding the horse from back to front is not just something "smart" to say. It really is the way to create a more balanced horse.
Once Brooked had worked on the transitions from trot to walk and back again, I talked her through the aids for canter. While Brooked has had lots of saddle time, it hasn't been on dressage horses. I explained that when riding Speedy, she wouldn't need to kick or cluck or pull on the reins (unless he was being naughty). To get a smooth and balanced canter, all she needed to do was put her body in the right position and then think, "canter!" For Speedy, the rider needs to look with eyes and shoulders in the direction of the desired lead, keep the inside leg at the girth, sweep the outside leg back, and lift the inside seat bone.
I encouraged Brooke to ask Speedy for a balanced trot. A bad walk to trot transition will not set him up for a good trot to canter transition. Once their walk-to-trot was nice, she thought about the canter for a bit. I don't think she quite believed it would be that easy. As she approached the corner C-M tracking left, I coached her through the ads, and as I knew he would, Speedy picked up a lovely canter. Unfortunately, he also fell in on the circle and spiraled in instead of cantering out on the 20-meter circle.
Once Brook brought him back to the walk, I explained how important it was to sit on the inside seat bone. I could see her struggling with her balance as she let her weight fall to the outside. All that does is push the horse's ribcage in which means he can't stay bent to the inside. The second time she picked up the canter, I rattled off the aids:
For me, being able to "play" with someone else's body in order to affect the changes I want to see in the horse is enormously fun. It is is also deeply gratifying to see the horse that I trained myself be such an awesome schoolmaster. Speedy almost never puts a foot out of place, and he never gets irritated no matter how unbalanced a rider may be. He also won't do it correctly unless the rider's aids are pretty close to right. The better the aids, the better he performs. Brooke is a quick learner. I only hope she doesn't learn too fast, or I will run out of material to teach.Maybe I can talk Speedy into being naughty for a few weeks. That way, she won't learn so fast.
About the Writer and Rider
I am a lifelong rider.
I began endurance riding in 1996 where I ultimately completed five, one-day 100 mile races, the 200-mile Death Valley Encounter, and numerous other 50, 65, and 75 mile races. I began showing dressage in 2010.
Welcome to my dressage journey.
About Speedy G
Speedy went from endurance horse to dressage horse. After helping me earn a USDF Bronze medal in the summer of 2020, he is now semi-retired. Speedy is a 2004, 15'1 hand, purebred Arabian gelding. His Arabian Horse Registry name is G Ima Starr FA.
Izzy was started as a four-year old and then spent the next 18 months in pasture growing up. I bought him as a six-year old, and together, we are showing at the lower levels. He is a 2008, 16'3 hand warmblood gelding. His Rheinland Pfalz-saar International (RPSI) name is Imperioso.
National Rider Awards
State Rider Awards
State Horse Awards
CDS Sapphire Rider Award
Third Level: 63.514%
Third Level: 62.105%
2023 Show Season
(r) Ride-a-Test Clinic
2023 Show Schedule
2023 Completed …
2023 Qualifying Scores
Regional Adult Amateur Competition (RAAC)
Qualifying Training Level
3 Scores/2 Judges/60%: