From Endurance to Dressage
A Bounding Canter?
I know you know it is hot pretty much everywhere in the northern hemisphere, but our recent heat wave is relevant to this conversation. A week and a half ago, Izzy and I went to a show where he and I finally both did our parts. He behaved himself, and I actually rode instead of sitting there like a wooden figure.
The entire next week was brutally hot. The only day that was under a hundred degrees was Monday, but since he had worked so hard at the show the day before, I knew he needed Monday off. I rode on Tuesday. When I tacked up it was a not-so-scorching 97, but by the time I untacked, it was 100 ℉. Izzy was not a happy camper during what was supposed to be a very quick fifteen minutes of a few transitions and then be done. We ended up working for a half an hour in an effort to get him to relax a bit.
On Saturday morning, Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage, joined me on a Pivo Meet for my weekly lesson. Izzy was warming up great. Sean was quite pleased with how relaxed Izzy was, and I was feeling pretty proud of myself. And then we started the canter work.
Things have been progressing quite smoothly with Izzy over the past few months, so Sean is always looking for ways to help me push Izzy just a little bit out of his comfort zone. We'll never improve if we don't struggle a bit. The canter is one place where Izzy still braces rather than stretching forward to the contact.
Sean encouraged me to think about riding Izzy forward into the contact when I have him soft. Up until this point, our canter has lacked any energy. The reason for that is that Izzy's brain hasn't been able to cope with a bigger, more active stride. But, it's feeling like he might be ready to take that next step. So once I had him round and mostly soft, I asked for more energy and pushed my hands forward a bit. Instead of reaching for the contact, Izzy lost his balance and fell into a trot.
That would normally be okay; he's still trying to find his balance, but on Saturday, the hamsters fell off the little wheel. I can't be sure, but I think they may have pulled an Elvis and left the building completely. I spent the next thirty-five minutes riding small circles and doing mini leg yields. I tried all of the tools in my toolbox, but it became clear that not dying was the goal for the day. Izzy started doing that loud snort thing; Sean asked if I was okay. Riding a 16'3 hand bottle of rocket fuel is not always safe. And when your bottle of rocket fuel makes that sound at the same time, the bottle of rocket fuel is probably going to launch.
I assured Sean that I had it under control. So instead of an actual lesson, I asked Sean to carry on a conversation with me while I worked on deescalating the situation. I wanted someone there who could call 9-1-1 if Izzy did manage to toss me. By the end of the lesson, Izzy was much more relaxed, and the trot circles had become walk circles. The lesson was disappointing for both Sean and me, but we both recognized that Izzy just couldn't do what we were asking him to do.
I went home and thought about what might have led to the mini-meltdown. It has been excessively hot so Izzy hasn't had much work over the past few weeks. Excess energy might have been a factor. Even though it was only in the high 70s while I rode, it hasn't ever actually cooled down, so Izzy might have been grumpy from the monotony of the heat.
When I came out on Sunday morning, it occurred to me that it might not have been either of those things. Izzy wasn't being his super friendly self, so I began to wonder if he might have lost some of his confidence. I had asked a lot of him the previous Sunday and then hadn't done anything with him all week other than feed and and pet him. I determined that Sunday's ride was going to be about reconnecting on a "girl and her horse" level.
We stopped by every little grassy spot we could find to nibble before I tacked up. I played little games that he likes and took extra time getting ready. When we got up to the arena, he was a bit spooky, so I hand walked him until I saw the tension melt from his body. When I finally did get on, we walked some more until I felt his back begin to swing. When I finally asked him for a trot, I made sure to keep it very relaxed and let him stretch down as long as he wanted to. I also made sure to work in the parts of the arena where he is the most comfortable. I gave him lots of walk breaks and told him he was the best boy ever.
We didn't work long, maybe twenty-five minutes. Afterwards, I gave him a cool shower and left him turned out on the lawn while "J" rode Speedy. When I put him away with his bucket of lunch goodies, he had a much more relaxed look on his face. The next next morning, I did the same thing while reminding myself that with the weather so hot, it's not like I am able to get any "real" work done anyway, so why not simply focus on our connection.
On Monday, Izzy was amazing. I started out the same way by taking my time with everything I did and letting him snack on his way up to the arena. I set up my Pivo and gradually put him to work. When we got to the canter, I told him that I was going to ask for a bit more energy, but this time, I was very aware that he needed a lot of help managing his balance. To the right, I was rewarded with a bit more of an uphill canter than he normally gives me.
After yet another walk break, we picked up the left lead canter. I watched the video later that day expecting to see a fantastically bold extended canter because that is what his canter had felt like. Of course that's not what I saw, but he and I both knew he was offering me something very new. His canter had a wonderful feeling of bounding, and I could see his withers lift as his hind legs carried more weight. And rather than feeling off balance, I could tell that he felt great. Even when I told him we could come back down to a trot if he needed to, he very happily cantered around a few more times obviously enjoying the new sense of balance he had achieved.
So even though Saturday's lesson appeared to be a waste of Sean's time - not that Sean ever feels that way, it turned out that I got a very valuable nugget of an idea that I was able to polish over the next two days. It is going to continue being hot for the next two months, so on the afternoons that are too hot to ride, I will be playing with Izzy in order to maintain that personal connection that he so clearly needs.
After all, isn't that what being with our horses is really about? It's not the showing or the ribbons, but the way they make us feel. If we lose that, then what is the point?
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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%: