From Endurance to Dressage
Lessons with my trainer are a very interesting thing. I ride with her every week which I think is fairly common. I realize that budget, proximity, weather, and work/family schedules probably have a lot to do with how frequently you get to ride with your trainer. My limited experience tells me that weekly is more than some get, but less than others get.
So what do I mean by interesting? I mean that sometimes the lesson is literally a Game Changer. Other times, I walk away thinking, that was cool, but I am not sure how to get that on my own. Those days are great in their own right because I get to feel a better ride than I might otherwise feel on my own. It's the Game Changers that I live for.
In the last couple of months, there have been a number of Game Changers or epiphanal rides. [And that's really a word - I looked it up. It means the state or quality of being like an epiphany.] The first real AHA! came when JL finally taught me how to get a walk that was on the bit. I squeezed Speedy forward, but I didn't let his nose pop up. I asked him to step forward and reach over his back. Oh, it was hard, and there was lots of ROCK THE REIN!!!!, but he and I both got it. It was an epiphany. He and I both felt it. Game Changer ...
Once we learned that, I was able to duplicate the feeling at the trot. That doesn't mean we're perfect, but he and I both know that he can lift himself into the trot nicely, and he no longer needs to claw his way there with his front legs. We're slowly putting the concept to use in the canter. I am still missing something, but we're almost there.
The next Game Changer came with JL's Crack the Nut visual. I know that just came this past weekend, but holy heck has that opened up my eyes! That simple concept is reconfiguring my upper body. We've worked on my seat and legs for quite a long time and hadn't really started on my upper body ... OH MY GOD! I just had ANOTHER epiphany. Man, JL is SMART! She told me last summer that first she would get my leg and seat right and then we'd start moving up my body. Holy crap! That's what she just did, and I only just this very instant realized it. I swear, I am about to cry. What an incredible compliment. That must mean my seat and leg have approached the realm of acceptable. Sniff.
I am truly sitting here with a stunned look on my face.
Okay ... getting over the shock of that particular epiphany, what I was about to say was that during the Crack the Nut explanation, JL added a second part to the visual that I couldn't absorb at that exact moment, but while riding on Thursday afternoon, BAM! I got it. She laughingly said, Stick 'em out! I'm sure the ladies out there, and probably the gents as well, know what she was referring to. I know it's not very classy, but ... she meant boobs. There, I said it! As a junior high girl who was hideously embarrassed to have boobs, the thought of sticking 'em out is a bit embarrassing. That's what hoochie mamas do, not college educated teachers! But there it is. Thursday's ride found me sticking 'em out and loving it.
Cracking a Nut refers to the back side, but sticking 'em out is what happens up front. A word of caution: if you are a rider who tends to arch her back, these two visuals might not work for you. As a rider with rounded shoulders, this is probably right up your alley.
Thursday afternoon was Speedy's turn for some work. I cracked a nut. I stuck 'em out and we had the best ride together that we've ever had. Don't get me wrong. He did a few naughty things like bolting when he heard the chicken in the grass, leaning on my rein, falling in, and kicking out a bit on the right lead canter, but I knew how to school him through every single naughty. And when I did, he just got better and better.
And that's how it's done!
If it's your tire, it's a terrible thing. If it's your team, it's a terrible thing. If it's your pony's left bend, it's a terrible thing. I hate to be a whiner. If anyone has a right to whine right now, it's Kelly over at Ride, Groom, Feed. She has a reason to whine. Her equine pal, Leo, just left a lovely purple mark across her knee. So I am not really whining, just deep sighing.
Oh, Sydney! Why, oh why, won't you bend? I don't think this is a new thing. I think this is me getting better and better at feeling his body moving where it should and where it shouldn't. I can now feel the running steps, the bulge in his non-circular circle, and the hollowness as I lose the contact on one side or the other. His latest thing is to blow through the corner as we pass the gate. And when I say blow through, I mean a complete blowout to the other side of the arena.
It's been very frustrating, but each day over the last week, I've gotten better at keeping him on the circle. The first three dozen times around, I have to almost do a complete counter bend with FIRM leg to get past that ONE spot. Each time around he gets less pushy until he can almost do it with no outside bend. And if I am really consistent, like last night, he can even do it with the correct bend, eventually.
As I work through that corner, I am CRACKING THE NUT, squeezing with my legs, and holding that outside rein firm. You. Will. Not. Blow. Through. This. Turn. Whew - we made it. The nano second that he relaxes at all, I slide my hands forward and give him the release. He stretches deeply as he begins the circle again. All is well during the first quarter. As we approach the top of the circle, I turn to look at the path I want to follow. I start to ask with the outside leg and rein ... turn, TURN, TURN.
At the beginning of the ride, we don't make it. Part-way through the ride, we make the turn, but there's a lot of ugly. The ride is nearly done when he makes the turn with even a hint of stretch. Tomorrow is a another chance to make the turn. No more whining. Feel better quickly, Kelly!
I am really big on safety. My safety, and then the safety of my horses, pretty much dictate how I do things. If you saw my whip work video the other day, you might not quite understand my version of safety. I mean, really - who waves a whip over their horse’s head and claims they’re into safety? I know it seems weird, but my idea of safety means teaching my horses to react in a dependable way no matter what situation I put them in.
This post is about safety at the barn. I do many things around the barn to ensure that my boys are safe. Unlocked gates is a particular phobia of mine, so I make sure that every gate I use has a chain latch. I use a fairly heavy grade chain and a quick snap clip. Click photo for larger view.
If you look closely, you’ll also see that the chain is attached to the fence with a zip-tie and that the zip tie holds the chain in such a way that the quick snap is positioned outside of the horse area. The quick snap is also zip-tied to the chain. There is a reason for all of this. Here’s the story.
Speedy G will eat anything. He might eat it only once, and he might spit it out, but he will literally try to eat anything. I was hand walking him once while I collected small rocks for a classroom project. When he heard the rocks begin to rattle around in the bucket, he lunged for the contents before I could stop him. I actually heard him crunching on the rocks before he realized that what he was eating was inedible. I have since learned that if it is not attached, he will try and eat it.
Several years ago, I showed up at the barn and discovered that my gate chain and quick snap were missing. I am methodical about checking the gate before I leave so I was 99% sure that I had latched it closed the previous day. I searched all around Speedy’s stall for the missing chain and snap. They’re actually quite heavy so I knew they hadn’t blown away. When I couldn’t find the chain in the dirt, I started gently raking his stall. It was not there. I looked outside of his stall. I looked in the neighboring stall. Nothing. I finally asked the barn’s caretaker if he had seen it. Not only had he noticed that it was missing, but he had also raked the stall looking for it. It was simply gone.
The barn I was boarding at was a friendly place with fewer than 30 horses, and many of the boarders owned two or more horses. We were a small group and most everyone knew everyone else. Things were seldom borrowed. I started to worry.
Knowing Speedy G’s proclivity for eating weird and inedible things, I began to suspect that he might actually have eaten the thing like a spaghetti noodle. In fact, the more I searched for it, the more certain I became that that was what had happened. It actually seemed more likely that he had eaten it than someone had taken it. Why would someone take a twelve inch chain and quick snap?
I don’t panic. I am calm in an emergency and very methodical in my actions. I looked at Speedy and narrowed my vision so that it rested right on his belly. I knew that if I stared hard enough, I would see the outline of a chain resting at the bottom of his belly much like how a baby’s foot will leave an outline on a pregnant woman’s belly. I even placed my ear, and then a stethoscope, to his belly. Was that a clinking sound I heard?
Whoa, whoa, whoa! Back that freight train up there, sister. Horses don’t eat chains, right? This is just silly. But it wasn’t. I was genuinely certain that Speedy had started to play with the unlatched chain. He had somehow managed to get most of it in his mouth. With a little help from gravity, the chain must have started to slide down his throat, and right at this moment there was a chain making it’s way through his digestive system.
Kids swallow coins all the time. Drug mules swallow packets of cocaine. How much harm could a twelve inch length of chain do? I couldn’t stand it any longer. I dialed Bakersfield Vet Hospital’s emergency number. When the dispatcher asked what was the nature of the emergency, I sheepishly told her that my horse might have eaten a ... chain. Oh my God. Did I just tell the dispatcher that my horse ate a CHAIN? To her credit, she didn’t laugh.
Several minutes later, Dr. Comeau called me back. Hey, Karen. What’s up? And he did laugh! I knew this was going to be one of those things that vets all tell their colleagues about. Can you believe the idiotic calls we get? Really? A chain? Boy, was she stupid. I couldn’t help it, though. I knew Speedy G well enough to know that it was distinctly possible that he had actually eaten the damn thing.
I politely and articulately explained the thing to Dr. Comeau. What should I do? He laughed, but he did take me seriously. He doubted that Speedy had eaten it, but he admitted that it was a possibility, although very unlikely. He suggested I place a big magnet under his belly. WHAT?!?!? To this day, I am not sure whether or not he was kidding. His final recommendation was to simply wait. If he had eaten it, it should pass in a day or so. Call him back if I noticed it in his road apples. Thank you very much, and goodbye.
Holy crap. What could I do but wait? And so I waited. Several days later, the chain reappeared in Speedy G’s stall, but not in a poop pile.
Several stalls down from Speedy G lived a pinto horse with a freakishly weird owner. She would show up, ride, groom, and maybe turn the boy out. It might be several weeks, or more before she’d show up again. One afternoon as I was finishing up a ride on Montoya, I caught her cleaning her bridle in my water trough. Ew! I politely asked her to STOP DOING THAT as it was an excellent way to spread germs and besides that, it was just plain gross. One summer she decided that it would keep her horse cooler if she kept him covered with a nylon sheet 24 hours a day. Idiot! Each morning I would remove the sheet, which would be crusted with salt, and hang it beside her stall. When she kept putting it back on, I finally washed the damn sheet, folded it neatly, and stored it in her tack room. The next day the sheet was back on her horse. It’s regularly over a 100 degrees here in the summer with lows in the 80s. Poor horse.
The day the chain went missing, Weird Lady had been at the barn. The next time Weird Lady was at the barn? The chain reappeared. I never asked her, but I know she took it for some weird and creepy purpose. Mystery solved.
Conclusion? All my chains are now zip-tied to the rail, and the quick snaps are zip-tied to the chain. No one takes the chains, and I don’t have to worry about Speedy G eating them!
Jaime came on Monday. Here are some simple before and after pictures. If you were following Speedy's "crack," you'll notice it was finally cut off today. To see the beginning of the "crack," click here.
Some of you have probably wondered if I am still riding on Wednesday evenings with JL. Rest assured, I am still riding with her. In fact, I have had a weekly lesson with her every single week for seven months without a single miss. It’s now become a contest to see which of us can ”out-healthy” the other. Technically, she probably already won. We moved my last lesson to Monday since it was a holiday. I woke up sick that morning and had to cancel, but it rained most of the day so my lesson would have been cancelled any way. We ended up doing the lesson on Wednesday as previously planned. So there you have it. Seven months of weekly lessons without a single miss!
I’ve mentioned this at least a million times, but JL is not a dressage trainer. I don’t say that to disparage her training at all. In fact, quite the opposite is true. I am amazed at what must be a very deep understanding of classical riding. The things we work on, rhythm (energy and tempo), relaxation (with elasticity and suppleness), and connection (acceptance of the bit through acceptance of the aids) are straight from the dressage pyramid. I’ve shown her a picture of the pyramid, but it’s not like it’s a poster hanging in her barn. It’s just what she thinks every horses needs in order to be a suitable riding horse. Early on she shared with me that once I get to the point where I need to work on movements that require maximum collection (increased engagement, lightness of the forehand, self-carriage), I might need to find another trainer. How did she know that collection was at the very top of the pyramid? Fortunately, impulsion (increased energy and thrust) and straightness (improved alignment and balance) are before collection so maybe I’ll be able to stay with her longer than she thinks!
I share all of this because after hearing about my scores and the judge’s comments from last week’s show, JL watched me warm up and quickly formulated her next step in helping me with some of the judge’s feedback.
Okay, now let’s see the canter. Already? Usually we work on softening the trot for most of the lesson. Nope. Since I ditched my personal elephant, Fear, (do you remember him?) we are now officially moving onto the canter which means we are now working on all three gates, both directions. I felt like I had moved up a level. On what scale I am not sure, but it still felt like a promotion!
So we cantered. Sydney was quite strung out and popped his right shoulder out so much that I had trouble making the turn. In fact, we missed the turn altogether. (We train at one end of JL’s jumping arena.) Okay, bring him back to a walk. For the remainder of the lesson we worked on two very useful strategies. At the canter, of course!
The first one JL called crack a nut. It was something a physical therapist recently told one of JL’s other students to do, and she thought it was a visual that might work with me. Imagine a nut between your shoulder blades. Now squeeze. That’s how JL wants me to ride. Cracking a nut does several things. First, it puts my elbows at my sides and forces me to keep them bent. Try straightening your elbows while cracking a nut. Second, it opens up my chest and gives me full range of my shoulders. Squeeze your shoulder blades and roll your shoulder backwards. Easy, huh? Third, it turns my hands so that my thumbs are up. AHA! When Sydney stiffens, I almost always turn my hands down and “break” my wrists. Riding as though I was cracking a nut eliminated the broken wrists since I was able to engage my shoulder blades.
The second thing we worked on came straight from the crack a nut strategy. Sydney was popping his outside shoulder because he wasn’t bending. He was running straight through my outside rein and leg. Move his neck! came JL’s command. It took me a number of tries, but I finally figured it out. As I asked for the canter, I immediately started rocking both reins so that he couldn’t lock his neck and shoulders. The reason I could rock both reins and unlock his incredibly stiff and heavy neck was because I was cracking a nut and had full range of my shoulders and had a straight line from bit to elbow - no broken wrists. Success!
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 Second Level. 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%
2021 Show Season
(r) Ride-a-Test Clinic
(Q) Must Qualify
2021 Pending …
8/7-8 SCEC (***)
10/30-31 SCEC (***)
2021 Completed …
10/24-25 SCEC (***)
11/7-11/8 SB (***)
4/10-11 SCEC (***)
5/16-17 El Sueño (***)
6/26-27 SCEC (***)
7/17-18 El Sueño (***)
2021 Qualifying Scores
Regional Adult Amateur Competition (RAAC)
2nd Level Qualifying
3 Scores/2 Judges/60%:
Score 1: 60.610% Bhathal
2nd Level Qualifying
5 Scores/4 Judges/61%:
Stuff I Read