From Endurance to Dressage
Stuck on the Word "NO!"
Some weeks, like last week, Izzy is unbelievably fantastic. Other times, his level of resistance ranges from lil' turd to full on jackass. During my Saturday lesson with Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage, Izzy was pretty stuck on the word no. The thing that makes Izzy so challenging to work with is that his reason for the "no" is never the same.
A few weeks back, we started into the new grass hay which looked nearly identical to the old grass hay. Izzy's poop got pretty loose, so we carefully mixed the old with the new. For that week's lesson, Izzy complained the whole time which I attributed to a gassy tummy. This weekend, we had a morning freeze, so his water was frozen. I got the water running, but he refused a drink. Once the lesson was over, I again offered him water, but he turned his nose up at it. Instead, he stepped to the side and took a long pee that was a lovely light yellow. So while I thought his no can do attitude might be because he was thirsty, it turned out that he simply needed to pee.
What I have learned over the many, many years that I have owned this horse is that if he feels like it, he is fantastic to ride. If he doesn't feel like it, you're S.O.L., screwed, or up a creek without a paddle. This makes consistent progress a hard thing to achieve. During the lesson - which was made particularly difficult because I could only hear about one word out of ten, long story, I just kept going back to Sean's strategy of refusing to take Izzy's bait.
That one idea, not rising to Izzy's challenge, has proven to be the solution to many of Izzy's issues. For most horses, adding leg is the key, but not for Izzy. Sometimes, yes, adding a bit of leg does work if he's already on board. If he's brewing for a fight, adding leg just adds more fuel to his fire. Like us, horses have a fight or flight response to situations they don't want to be in. Izzy's hard spooks are his flight response kicking in, but when he can't get away, he is just as happy to fight about it.
During Saturday's lesson, Izzy just wasn't feeling up to it. Rather than spook, he just kept saying no by blowing off my aids or refusing to go forward. I jumped off and grabbed the lunge whip and rode with that for a minute. After dropping it and then coming up against the same problem a few minutes later, I snapped off a thin branch which also got Izzy's engine working. Since it was too thin to actually hit him with, I eventually dropped it as it had done its job of motivating Izzy to move his butt.
When Izzy refused my aid, Sean suggested I circle him. Sean jokingly said that he wanted Izzy to be the King of Circles by the time we were finished. Every time Izzy ignored my inside leg, particularly in the shoulder-in, Sean had me do a 10-meter circle. Eventually, after dragging along the lunge whip, waving a twiggy branch, and circling, Izzy let out a big, deep breath and started working for me.
The next day, I rode with spurs to reinforce the idea that my leg is an aid that he must listen to. That reminder of course was a conversation that Izzy did not want to have, so there were a few oh, crap! moments. I didn't fight with him. I simply told him that listening to the leg was a better idea than ignoring the leg. Izzy lets me know when the spur is too much of an aid, so I dropped my heel and rode from the calf. Izzy finally got to work.
Izzy makes me feel that I am stuck in a failure cycle - I try something new, then I fail. I try again, and that too fails. What I am slowly beginning to understand is that I am not failing, I am learning. Izzy has made me a much better rider than I was before. I always knew that earning a USDF Bronze Medal did not mean I was a good rider. I am incredibly proud of that accomplishment, but I have become a much better rider through my struggle to ride Izzy well.
They don't give medals for that, but I think the struggle is worth it.
Thank You, Mr. President
My new favorite breeches, Esprit Equestrian Wear, are on sale. And yes, I bought a pair. Yes, I have an addiction. Either that, or I am a hoarder. Better yet, I am a collector! So, far, I have a pair of hunter green PROs (which are no longer available), white PRO 2.0s, mahogany Classics, and black Classics. I also have a dark grey surcingle belt which happens to be on sale.
With the Presidents' Day sale, I was finally able to justify ordering a fifth pair. While the PROs are very cute, their lower rise gives me the feeling that I have to hoist up my pants now and then. The PRO 2.0s have fixed that problem, but for now, they only come in white and black. Since I already have a black pair of these tights, I went with the navy Classics which are my hands down favorite for fit and comfort, and the genius thigh pocket makes them a no brainer for me. Oh, and I threw in another surcingle belt - on sale!, this time in black.
If you're looking for a comfortable pair of tights/breeches, get these; you won't be disappointed, but hurry. Today is the last day of the sale.
The Classics in white/grey are still calling my name.
Change of Direction
The thing I most love about giving lessons on Speedy is that I get an opportunity to play around with the ideas that I am currently learning or ideas that I feel are pretty confirmed. On Monday, Brooke came out for another lesson on Speedy. For the past few weeks, I've had her stay on a 20-meter circle, but this week, I thought it was time to play around with straightness, something I am thinking about with Izzy.
The more I learn, the more I forget how hard everything was in the beginning. Making a round circle and doing a change of direction were things that I worked hard to be able to do well. I do them now without needing to think about the aids required to make them happen, but if you really stop and think about it, a change of direction at the trot takes a good half dozen aids. The rider has to steer, watch where she's going, shift her weight aids, change the bend, straighten the horse, change her posting diagonal, and maintain the tempo. Explaining all of this to someone else is no easy task.
To help Brooke figure out how to coordinate her aids, I had her ride more of an oval which included the C end of the arena to E/B. Speedy helped her figure out that as she came through the corner at C/H or C/M, she would ride him straight for a few strides, but then she needed to reestablish bend for the half circle at E/B. Once she had the rhythm of the oval, I coached her through a change of bend through a short diagonal H-B and M - E.
One of the things that makes Speedy such a great schoolmaster is that he pays attention to his rider's level of competence. He only goes as big as he feels is safe for his rider. While Brooke was working on her position in the 20-meter circles, Speedy put himself on autopilot and never deviated. Once he felt Brooke's confidence return, he started to challenge her a bit. I warned her that as she crossed the diagonal, Speedy would start to hustle as he knows where the medium trot should be done. With Speedy trying to change the tempo, Brooke had to really coordinate all of her aids in order to make the half circle at E/B and H-C-M.
I've been really impressed with Brooke's ability to keep Speedy round with a desire to go forward. Every time Speedy gets a new lady friend, I always feel a bit cheated. I jealously wish he had been as easy for me to learn on. But really, it's all good because what he and I learned together, he can now share with other dressage beginners.
Once Brooke looked like she was getting the hang of the change of direction across a diagonal, I had her go back to the 20-meter circle at C for some canter work. She's still struggling with weighting her inside seat bone and stepping into her inside leg, but after just a few short weeks, her balance has improved tremendously. I told her that soon we would do the same oval exercise that we had done in the trot, but we would do it at the canter instead.
She should be out tomorrow morning, so we'll see what other exercises I can throw at her.
On Sunday, the day after that really great lesson with Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage, I showed up at the ranch ready to get to it. Bust it out. Kick bootie. Or, in my case, get my bootie kicked.
I went through much of the same ride that we had done the day before, but I sped things up a little bit. The truth was that I really wanted to tackle the canter work as the flying change is our big hurdle right now. The day before, Izzy showed us that he knows exactly what we're asking for. As soon as I had asked for a leg yield in the canter, Izzy knew that I was going to ask for a flying change, so he started bouncing before I had a chance to ask. It was funny at the time.
To address the anticipation, my plan for Sunday was to canter, get him straight, but then NOT ask for the change. Even that turned out to be too much pressure for Izzy. He lost his shiitakes as soon as I straightened him in the left lead canter. He has almost lost me many, many times, but this time I knew I was a goner.
And yet, somehow, despite peering dangerously close to the ground over my left leg...
I managed to keep myself upright. Once we had mostly landed, I gave him a pretty good, "HEY!" jerk on the reins, and then we got back to work. He immediately did it again ...
While none of this behavior is condonable, it did give me a lot of information. Izzy is obviously very worried about the flying change. Even though he was clearly giving me a very hard NO, I realized that Sean has given me the tools to work through these problems. Rather than feel frustrated, I dug around in my mental toolbox until I came up with a way to help Izzy through his reluctance.
I put him back on a left lead with an exaggerated inside bend and then ever so slightly straightened him for a single stride. I went back and forth between an exaggerated inside bend to near straightness until I could eventually get some counter flexion on the left lead. By picking at the issue very slowly and deliberately, I was able to deescalate Izzy's anxiety. I also gave him lots of breaks between each effort, and then we did it the other direction.
I never felt frustrated. I was actually excited to finally get close to what feels like the root of this issue. Izzy doesn't think he can do a flying change, but it is really helpful for me to know where the anxiety is coming from. Now I know that it starts as soon as I straighten him. Up until a week ago, I didn't know that it was a lack of straightness that was jamming us up. It is a lot easier to tackle an issue when you know what's causing it.
It would seem that Izzy probably hasn't ever been truly straight in the left lead canter. And if there is one thing I know about this horse, it is this: moving his body in a new way is very uncomfortable for him. Whether that discomfort is physical or mental, it doesn't really matter as the solution is to keep working at it slowly.
To see those spooks in real time, check out the video below. How I stayed on is a real testament to Sean's quality of teaching. Holy cow!
All I can do is keep on keeping on ... and staying on!
M.A.R.E. - Week 5
After signing in last week at M.A.R.E., Trainer 1 (T1) met me right away with a sheepish grin. "I've got a project for you," she said, "but you're not going to like it." Not the first thing you usually want to hear when you're a volunteer, but I told her I was game for anything. I asked if it had to do with vomit or poop, and when she said no, I told her I was in. Even had it been vomit or poop, I would have still done it. I told her that Dirty Jobs are in my lane, and Mike Rowe preaches to the choir at my house.
T1 actually had two jobs for me. The first was to help with a lesson; my very first one. I assumed I would be her side-walker as I've yet to see a riding lesson. If you're just joining in on this series of posts, MA.R.E. is a local therapeutic riding center which means that most of the students are there for therapy of one kind or another. They're not there to improve their flying changes. T1 quickly explained that I was the horse handler. Now, that shouldn't have made me lift an eyebrow, but it did. With these kiddos, there is a huge responsibility to provide a very safe and helpful environment. The side-walker does her best to make sure the kiddos stay on, but the horse handler tacks up the horse and then keeps control.
I brought George in from the pasture and found his tack cart loaded with the appropriate tack. George needed a halter/bridle combo head stall, a lead rope, reins that get twisted and tied up in the throat latch, and a vaulting surcingle over a thick western pad. The first mistake (there were at least three or four) was putting the surcingle on backwards; there is actually a front and a back. There are dee rings on the surcingle which, when put on correctly, will be to the front. I am certain you could use it either way, but in real life, I think the handles are angled slightly forward when the surcingle is placed correctly.
The second mistake I made was placing the western pad like you would do when saddling. Once George was in the ring, the trainer undid the girth and pulled it well forward of the surcingle onto George's withers. I didn't quite understand the placement, but I think it had something to do with ensuring it didn't slip out from underneath the rider. Other than those two mistakes, I was able to get George into the ring for his warm up laps.
Before the riders get on, the horses are "warmed up" for approximately 10 minutes. It was explained that this gets them in the mindset of walking quietly as they do their job. Once George's rider arrived, T1 had me pull him up to the mounting block. Until the wheelchair ramp/platform is back in place, the students are using a traditional mounting block. George's rider, a young girl, refused to get on by climbing up the steps of the mounting block. In her eyes they were too steep, so she and George went back to the barn with Trainer 2 while I took over with Cricket the Haflinger.
The lesson was a very interesting one. The trainer had placed Beanie Babies on the rail at various places around the arena. She had laminated cards, each with a picture that matched one of the Beanie Babies: zebra, giraffe, hippopotamus, monkey, iguana, and so. As I led Cricket, the rider was to tell Cricket to whoa when she saw the animal on her card. Each time she found the right animal Beanie Baby, we walked back to the mounting block so she could toss the Beanie Baby into a plastic bin and retrieve a new card. This is where I made two more mistakes.
When the rider dropped the card at my feet, I instinctively reached down to pick it up and hand it to the trainer. Very politely, T1 pointed out that, in the future, I should leave it, and she would pick it up. Without needing to explain it to me, I realized that I was jeopardizing the safety of Cricket's rider by taking my attention away from the horse. I did not make that mistake again. The fourth mistake of the day, if you're keeping count, was that I halted Cricket before the rider asked for the whoa. T1 laughed and asked the rider if Karen (me) was going to do all of the work. After that very gentle reminder, I waited for the rider to tell Cricket when to go and when to whoa. Since the rider wasn't holding the reins, I had to be her reins and leg aids.
At the end of the lesson, the rider was helped off, and I led Cricket back to the barn where I untacked her and made yet another mistake, actually two! First, I put the bridle away without rinsing the bit which is unlike me as I rinse my horses' bits religiously. Then, when I went to rinse the bit, I left Cricket standing in the cross ties which is not done at this facility. Nothing like feeling incompetent. Hopefully I'll have a better feel for the flow this afternoon.
Once my part in the less was done, T1 let me get started on the remaining, not-so-pleasant job. In all honesty, I actually enjoyed myself. All of the stalls have outdoor runs attached with shared fences. Until last week, there was rod mesh hung on each fence to keep the horses from bickering or kicking one another. Unfortunately, one of the horses did something, and a weld broke. The mare ended up with a nasty wound to her hoof. As a result, T1 got someone out to cut out all of the rod mesh. During that process, tiny bits of metal rained down like so much glitter.
My job, the one she thought I'd dislike, was to dig out trenches a shovel's width wide on each side of the fence to remove any tiny slivers of metal. Fortunately, the ground was really soft because of the rain, but that also meant each shovelful was heavy. I cleared out a trench from three fence lines that were each about twelve feet long. I dumped each shovelful into a muck bucket cart and hauled it through the barn, into the pasture, and onto the mulch pile which is gated. Each trip meant opening and closing two different gates, twice. I made at least ten or more runs lugging that heavy cart to the mulch pile and then tipping it over. All the while, I smiled knowing how well I was going to sleep.
By the time I had cleared out the dirt from under each fence line, it was time to bring the horses in and feed. I was sweaty, dirty, and smelling pretty bad - that mud had more than water in it, but I was also smiling. As I left, I told T1 to keep the jobs coming. The dirtier, the better.
Maybe I need to give Mike Rowe a call. He loves a dirty job!
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%: