From Endurance to Dressage
I am always "trying something new" with the big brown horse. It's not really that I am trying new things; it's probably more accurate to say that we're moving on to something different. This usually happens when we're delving more deeply into something.
The last time I took a lesson with Chemaine Hurtado, owner and trainer at Symphony Dressage Stables, she said something interesting. She said that while focusing more on the movements themselves, I might have been ignoring the basics. Not literally ignoring them, and not on purpose, but maybe sacrificing them in an effort to get the movement. She didn't say it exactly like that of course, but it did sound true of my recent riding.
I started to think about what "the basics" would mean for Izzy. The first thing I did was ditch my spurs. I reasoned that more activity or more drive from behind wasn't what he really needed. Instead, I decided to focus most of my efforts on getting softness through his poll, jaw, and neck. When those are locked up tight, it doesn't matter how much leg I apply, nothing good is the result.
I also decided to slow things way down. There is no sense in driving him forward when his back is tight and his neck's under muscles are bulging. That doesn't mean I've been ignoring his hind end though. As I ask for a half halt, I am also tap, tap, tap, tapping with my calves to say keep coming from behind.
Over the past month, our rides now look like this: when Izzy spooks or when his head pops up to stare at something I can't see, I just flex his neck and keep adding leg. I keep his poll and neck bent to the inside until he finally lets the tension go and asks me to let him go straight. Sometimes it takes longer than others. Sometimes we go from one ten-meter circle to another, but it almost always achieves softness.
The beauty of this approach has been that once he is willing to be soft, he also wants to lengthen his stride. Throughout our entire ride, I think softness first, movement second. No matter what I am asking for, whether it's a leg yield or a half pass, I can always flex him to the inside or do a 10-meter circle or just think about shoulder fore until he softens.
I am still trying to get a flying change, but since he is so resistant, I've gone back to just asking for changes of bend in a canter on the circle. As I change the bend while cantering, I am also asking his body to shift over just that little bit like I would in preparation for the change. If he gives it to me, we go straight, trot, and then do a change of lead through the trot. If he resists, I just flex him back to a true bend and start over.
Izzy is so different from Speedy who has always been like riding a bowl of steaming hot noodles. Getting all of the noodles to go in the same direction took a tremendous amount of patience. Izzy's more like a cold block of clay. You just can't do much to it until it has been warmed up and worked back forth. As the potter continues to shape the clay, where once stood a red brick, now stands an elegant vase or pitcher. Of course, there are still those days when the potter presses a little too firmly and the whole thing collapses. We still have those days, too.
Over the weekend, Izzy gave me wonderful rides that felt much more like a partnership. When he spooked or his head shot up, I just refocused him by flexing him to the inside until he let the moment pass. Suddenly we were again dancing. By not driving him forward, I was able to convince him that he wanted to lengthen his stride on his own.
Isn't that the best way to convince someone - let him think it was his idea all along?
Izzy is once again on Prednisolone for his reaction to gnats and other biting insects. We finished last year on a positive note; all of the corticosteroids helped control his reaction to the bites. Wanting to get a head start on the season, I started with the Prednisolone two weeks ago (with my vet's approval).
Last year, we only did two shows while Izzy was on the drug, so I didn't do a lot of research. Based on USEF's Drugs and Medications guidelines, the detectable time is seven days, so I followed that protocol for both shows. Since we're doing more than two shows this year, I decided to find out exactly what the rule is for administering Predisolone. I emailed US Equestrian over the weekend, and by Monday morning I had a response.
If you've ever needed to consult the USEF Guidelines for Drugs and Medications pamphlet, you'll know that it's pretty comprehensive, but not necessarily easy to find what you're looking for. Just because a drug is prohibited doesn't mean you can't use it. The biggest issue is when you can use it. For that, you need to determine how long the drug is detectable. For some drugs, that might mean merely hours, but for others, it may mean days, weeks, or even months.
There are other drugs like Pergolide/Prascend, that are prohibited, but riders can apply for a Therapeutic Use Exemption which permits the rider to administer the drug as prescribed. Speedy was the beneficiary of a TUE. Equally confusing are the Medication Report Forms. For some drugs and medications, riders can still give certain banned substances up to 24 hours before a show as long as they fill out an MRF.
To my surprise - we all know I don't think too much of US Equestrian, I received a reply to my email from an actual person. Not only was there a reply, but it was actually useful. Sarah, who I assume is a member of the Equine Drugs and Medication Program, clarified the rule for me by quoting the actual language from page 16 under the Guidelines for the Therapeutic Use of Dexamethasone and Other Corticosteroids. Alternative Number 3 spells it out pretty clearly, and the good news is that I can continue giving the Prednisolone up to 24 hours prior to competing as long as I complete an MRP. Izzy's skin will appreciate that.
What makes US Equestrian's Drugs and Medications rules so confusing is that there are prohibited substances that can still be given as long as:
To further gunk up the works, there is an entirely separate page dedicated to FEI prohibited substances. Things like, wait for it ... Pergolide. That's right, Pergolide is fine for Fourth Level horses but not for Prix St. Georges. I don't tend to give drugs or medications with any frequency, at least not until this past year or so, so navigating the minutiae of the guidelines has been time consuming.
Speedy's Prascend was the first drug I've ever needed to give daily. Now with Izzy's ulcery tummy and sensitive skin, it looks like the USEF Guidelines for Drugs and Medications pamphlet will be moved to the front of my pile of show materials.
It's just one more thing ...
I don't remember my first ride. I don't remember the first time I ever saw a horse. They've just always been a part of who I am; there was never a beginning. I didn't get my own horse until I was around 13, but that first decade wasn't wasted. I rode my grandma's horses and the neighbor's. They had four grandkids, and I fell right in the middle age-wise. I don't remember how many horses they had, but I think it was always around 4.
After Sunshine, my first horse, there were a few others until I finally left home at seventeen for a yearlong study abroad. After that year, I went off to college where I earned my degree and teaching credential. I started teaching in the fall of 1994, and the following spring, I bought Sassy, my first Arabian and first endurance horse.
Before joining the endurance world, it never occurred to me to study a horse's excrement. Horses ate and drank which meant they peed and pooped. For all of my horse owning life up to that point, none of those systems had ever malfunctioned. I never had a horse colic although I had seen others colic, and none of mine ever experienced tying-up. Dark urine or even red urine can be an indicator of that particular issue.
Once I started conditioning my first endurance horse, I became aware of a lot of really scary things that can happen to horses, especially endurance horses. Horses being worked at speed for twenty-five, fifty, or even a hundred miles in a single day are absolute machines, but like any hard working machine, they require very specialized care.
As in any sport or hobby there are always those who won't do right by their animals or equipment, but they don't tend to be very successful either. I was fortunate enough to have been introduced to the sport by people who cared a great deal for their horses. Finishing a race was also secondary to the horse's health and well-being. That always came first.
My endurance mentors knew a lot about how to keep a horse fit and healthy for not just a race or two, but for years and years. MC, my riding partner of nearly two decades, has tens of thousands of miles on just a handful of horses. The American Endurance Ride Conference's motto is To Finish is to Win. While many riders compete for points - the faster you ride, the more points you earn, many others compete for lifetime achievement awards.
The friends I rode with were far more interested in accumulating lifetime awards which come after accumulating certain mileages. Montoya DSA, my best horse, earned two, 1,000 mile medallions. Over the sixteen years that I competed, I earned chevrons for completing 250, 500, 750, 1,000, 2,000, and 3,000 miles at distances of fifty miles or more including five, one-day hundred milers. I was small potatoes. I am not sure if she's still alive or not, but Trilby Pederson, the reining distance champion when I was still competing, had earned over 60,000 miles before retiring from the sport in 2004. MC has more than 21,000 miles as of last season.
But this is about poop, not endurance horses. Besides great adventures in amazing places, endurance riding gave me an education that would be really hard to buy. That sport helped me develop a very critical eye when it comes to horse health. I learned to evaluate my horse's over-all condition with just a quick visual scan. I never miss anything. Within seconds I can see when something is amiss. When I approach either of my horses, I do a thorough visual exam that includes attitude, eyes, respiration, legs, movement, and the surface of their bodies. I also scan their environment looking for things that are out of place or somehow wrong. If a single thing interrupts my visual scan, I dive in for a closer look.
When Speedy abscessed nearly two weeks ago - he's still not quite sound, I spotted it when he took a single step my way. The latest thing I've been checking for each day is the number of ploppy poop piles that Izzy has on any given day. Finally, after two and a half months on GastroElm, his poop piles are gloriously round and solid. Not just some of the piles, but ALL of them.
I think horse folks are the only people on the planet who get so excited about poop. In my circle of friends, especially when I am with my endurance pals, all conversation stops the instant one of our horses looks like he might pee or poop. When the stream starts or the apples hit the dirt, a collective sigh is released when we see pale yellow or well-formed moist balls of green or brown. It's weird, but it's what happens when you know too much. Anything but pale yellow urine or shiny manure means potential trouble.
So you can understand my anxiety these past five months. Beginning in late October, Izzy's ulcer(s) started to create poop piles that ranged in formation from complete cow pies to ropey, stringy glops of that can't be good. On Thanksgiving Day he even looked on the verge of colic. In late December, I started him on UlcerGard which didn't do much. In early January, I gave GastoElm a try, and within two days his poop started to get round again, and the sensitivity to grooming began to fade away.
While the GastroElm helped, he still had days where some of his poop piles weren't very well formed, but those days started to occur less and less often. This weekend, I realized that every single pile of poop looked the same. None of the piles were ploppy puddles. Even the poops during and after our ride required a big grunt to pass, and when they hit the ground, they gave a satisfying thunk instead of the more worrisome splat.
During our most recent vet visit, I presented a package of GastroElm to Dr. Tolley for inspection. He read the ingredients and showed me the same ingredients in his prescription strength powder that he uses for horses that need immediate relief. He gave me the full go ahead to continue using the product as long as I was seeing positive results. I don't tend to love supplements, but I am sold on the efficacy of this one.
Izzy seems to agree. He has gained at least eighty pounds in the past two months, and I have had to drop his girth one hole on each side. He's finishing his hay consistently, and he looks so much more relaxed. At less than $0.45 a day, it's cheap enough to give year round. A few weeks ago, I bought a six month supply, and I don't have any plans to stop using it. Once we start trailering out for shows next month, he'll even get double doses on show and travel days.
Who knew poop could make someone so happy?
Speedy has always had a large circle of friends; everyone likes him. I am always recognized as Speedy's girl, never the other way around. He now has a new friend, "S." A few weeks back, S reached out to me wanting to give dressage a try. Once things tried to calm down a bit - first Speedy needed a few days to recover from his annual vaccinations, then it POURED rain, and even though he is still fighting an abscess, S came out yesterday for a bonding session.
We knew a real riding lesson wasn't going to be possible because Speedy's not yet sound at the trot, but it seemed like a good opportunity to teach S all about Speedy's little foibles and preferences. Things like how he prefers to be girthed (ack, it's squeezing me!) and bridled (go ahead and try). So many of Speedy's little eccentricities were caused by me, I am sure, but I've always tried to honor his personality.
Other things are just my way of doing things. Once my horses know what I expect, I treat them as though they'll make good life choices. For instance, when I lead either horse with a halter or bridle, I lead them long. I don't hold the reins near the bit, nor do I hold the lead by the shank. I expect them to walk near my shoulder, and they do. There are other things; how long I like them tied, how I like them untied to be bridled, and the general order of how things are to be done.
S, like Speedy's other ladies, has a riding history, just not in a dressage saddle. It has also been a hot minute since she's been handling horses regularly. Sometimes our movements are rusty, and all good riders have a desire to do things the way a horse prefers, grooming for instance. S used very gentle strokes with the stiff brushes out of concern for Speedy's delicate face and legs. As she groomed, I talked about Speedy, what he likes, how he thinks, what he might do. By the time she had him groomed and tacked up, they had worked out the beginning of their relationship. When Speedy knows that his rider is respectful and willing to learn, he'll do anything she asks.
Even though Speedy is still sporting a poultice on his left front, he's sound at the walk, so we headed up to the arena for a walking lesson. Now that I've "started" two other ladies on their dressage journeys, I have a somewhat better idea of what they need to get started. I've realized that I've skipped a lot of steps. Since Speedy is still too sore to trot, it forced to me to be more thorough by sticking to things to learn from the walk. We all know what a neglected gait it is, but I was shocked at how long we worked at just the walk.
Unlike with "T" and "J," I decided to tackle position right off the bat. We worked on lengthening S's leg - she doesn't have the jumper seat already, so her heals weren't a problem. Once we got a stirrup length that seemed right, she sent Speedy off at the walk. As they circled, I had her make adjustments to how she held the reins, and then how to use or NOT use them.
Many riders from other disciplines use the reins to turn whereas dressage riders know that some flexion indicates the direction of turn, but so much of the aid actually comes from the riders legs, seat, and shoulders. Within no time, S was doing lots of little turns without using the reins. I also had S work on adjusting Speedy's walk by asking him to get rounder and then sending him forward into a more marching walk and then relaxing into a longer walk.
I continue to be amazed by Speedy's generosity. He is such a willing partner, and happy to be working. Even though he's still dealing with an abscess, his walk up to the arena was perky and his face was alight with happiness. S just met him and even she could see it. When we had finished with the lesson, S seemed quite pleased by how much we were able to do. She even felt as though she and Speedy had developed an immediate connection. She liked him, and he liked her. The bag of carrots she brought probably didn't hurt either.
T's husband's job will likely have them moving away by early summer, but for the next few months, Speedy will now be doing two to three lessons per week, once his abscess finally heals. I could not ask for a better arrangement. He'll continue getting regular exercise, and he'll get to feel useful and successful, which is the most I could ever want for him.
Retirement suits my gray pony.
I am going back to work today. Well, I was there yesterday but only to set up my dismantled office. Five laptops, an extra screen, a small clock, iPad, a document camera, a web camera, a handful of mice, two surge protectors, and a USB hub all require a schematic, an engineer, and a technology team. None of which I did or had, of course, but it's done and ready for this morning.
On Tuesday evening, I stripped down my home office. Earlier in the year I had had the brilliant idea of using a silver Sharpie to label each device's electrical cord. I am so grateful I did because over the course of the year I've added more and more devices, and once you start unplugging stuff, it can be really hard to remember which plugs and cords go with which device.
Last week I took most of my teacher's editions and any other books that I wouldn't need for this week back to school. Yesterday morning, I loaded all of the laptops and gadgets into a rolling crate and the rest of my books and supplies went in another crate. All of that went to school yesterday.
I am certainly glad to have my office back. I can now quit doing my banking and blogging at the kitchen counter. I've spent so much time in my office teaching that anytime I could get away from the cameras, I took it. My dogs aren't going to be very happy about my return to school, and I am certainly going to miss my "mullet" attire - school shirt on top, yoga pants and slippers on the bottom. It's time though. Kids need to be back in school.
I am not particularly happy about the revised school schedule though, and I fear that California's governor is going to drag this thing out indefinitely. California has no exit plan. No strategy for living mask free. Our elected leaders don't really want a future free of fear and isolation. They say they do, but there is no plan to make that happen.
In the beginning, we were asked to help "flatten the curve." Do our part to "save lives." Instead of two weeks, Californians have spent an entire year living ever more isolated lives. Many have been forced out of their jobs. Kids are only just now returning to school, more than a year after the "two-week" shutdown.
In Kern County, there have been a mere 658 resident deaths out of a population of over 900,000 people. Of those deaths, 67% were 65 and older, a population whose continued life expectancy is already low under normal circumstances. We already know that those elderly patients who died during this pandemic were already dealing with serious health complications. There is a strong likelihood that they would have succumbed to their illnesses even without COVID-19.
As I asked more than a year ago, was all of this worth it? I think you already know how I feel.
Back to the future ... ten of my students will come to school from 8:00 - 11:00, four days a week. The other twenty-one will continue with distance learning from 12:00 - 3:00 on those same fours days. On Wednesdays, all thirty-one of my students will log in for one hour as we do a quick reading lesson. They will have the rest of the day to work independently. Since I have no preparation periods or office hours during the day, the students' independent day is the day I've been given to lesson plan, grade work, build my online links, and work with my grade level team.
When I asked my students to do a Jamboard showing me how they feel about returning to school (here's mine), some were excited, but most were worried, discouraged, and lonely. They want to be back in school on a regular schedule. They want recess, lunch, assemblies, and the opportunity to actually walk in and out of a library. They want to interact face to face with their peers and me. While I am so angry on behalf of all of those Americans who have lost their jobs, it is kids who I think have suffered the most. My heart breaks for all that they've missed out on or simply lost.
I am hoping that when mid-August rolls around, we can truly get back to a normal future.
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%: