From Endurance to Dressage
I should clarify; riding bareback is an unbelievably great tool if your horse has a round back and can be trusted not to ditch you at the first opportunity. I would not ride Sydney bareback (yet). First, he has large withers, and second, it's hard enough to stay mounted with a deep dressage saddle. With that said, if your horse is a bareback candidate, add it to your routine!
Speedy was dealing with a mystery lameness in early February which meant no riding for 6 weeks. When I was able to start riding again, the vet stipulated that it should be at the walk for 6 more weeks. Rather than be frustrated with the plan, I decided to use the opportunity to improve my own balance and to improve Speedy's walk. On Saturday, I got to finally test my newfound skills.
For the first few weeks of bareback riding, I used a riding rope halter. I've shared pictures of it before, but here it is again.
I decided to use the rope halter in place of a traditional bridle in an effort to encourage Speedy to stretch his top line. I haven't had the best of luck at getting him to really reach for the contact. He is extremely light in the bridle, but not necessarily in a good way.
Since I've owned him, Speedy has rarely allowed me to trot on him bareback. I don't know if he felt uncomfortable, of if he simply sensed my poor balance and was anxious about it. Walking was no big deal, but whenever I asked for a trot, he pinned his ears, and flat out refused.
Given his reluctance to trot while bareback, combined with the fact that his back is beautifully round (he actually has nice withers, too, but his well sprung ribcage gives you a comfortable place to sit), I felt quite safe riding him bareback even though he hadn't been ridden in more than 6 weeks. And so for several weeks that's what we did; I rode him bareback in a halter.
My primary goals were to improve my balance and feel through my seat and to encourage Speedy to reach more into the contact. A halter doesn't give you the same sense of contact as a bit does, but on a horse who doesn't want to "hold your hand," the halter proved to be a good medium.
With such rudimentary tools, a halter and a warm back, there was no cheating or reliance on gadgets. If he wouldn't move over, my aids weren't clear; it was that simple. If he wouldn't stretch forward and down, I wasn't asking correctly. Speedy is an honest horse and while he can be a stinker, he enjoys the challenges of dressage, especially if I am clear in my requests.
Over the weeks that I rode bareback, some amazing things started happening. My balanced improved dramatically for one, and I started to get a much better feel for where Speedy's feet were. Nothing has been perfected, but I started to feel the dance between his body and my own. Being able feel him move his hind legs helped me improve my timing with my aids. Before I knew it, his lateral work got really good, and he started to really round and lift his back. And best of all, I could feel that I was riding him inside leg to outside rein.
Over the weekend, I decided to move back into the bridle while still riding bareback. I discovered immediately that my feel was much more giving than it had been in the past. Speedy really is light in the bridle and doesn't want a heavy contact. For our first ride with the bit, I just focused on maintaining that feeling of a soft connection while still riding him from my inside leg to my outside hand. It was a great ride.
The next time I got on him, we did the same thing: light connection while focusing on a good inside bend. I was amazed at the transformation he has made. His medium walk was really marching and he was working through his back. Once I felt that I had him as put together as I could, I gently asked for a trot. I expected the same, hollowed back refusal as he's always given me. Instead, he squirt forward in a hurried, heavy trot that jostled me around his back.
Instead of pulling back, I sat up, and focused on slowing down his outside shoulder while asking for some sideways movement. To my utter amazement and joy, I felt his back come up under me and he smoothly bent around my inside leg. It was a lovely, lovely uphill trot.
All of the work that we had done at the walk was showing up in his trot. I was able to ask for a rhythm with my seat rather than with my hands, and a half halt just seemed to happen. His ears flicked back and forth to me and he had such a look of concentration on his face.
I had started with a small circle, maybe 10-meters, but I slowly opened the circle up to 15-meters. He spiraled out without hurrying and then gave a lovely, balanced halt with just an exhale. I praised him as though he had just won a gold medal.
We went on to do another short trot to the left followed by another halt and walk. I had him change direction, and we repeated the work to the right, his more difficult side. He wasn't as balanced, but it was still a lovely, rhythmic trot. I simply asked him to slow down that outside shoulder so that he could balance himself better; and he did it.
It was such a rewarding ride. I hesitate to even put the saddle back on. I think I want to try more of this for a while and see how much better I can get. My balance was much improved. I didn't have to grip with my knees to stay on, and I was able to gently sit his trot without feeling like my seat bones were gouging him in the back.
Speedy can do whatever is asked of him; I just need to get better at the asking.
I know this is nowhere near dressage or endurance related, but traveling is my second favorite thing to do after riding. This is the last DC post, I promise!
We saw and did so many things while in DC. We're goers and doers so we don't usually hang out in the hotel relaxing. Sometimes I wish we could, but neither of us can sit still for very long.
Most days, we got up early and had breakfast on the run while we explored the city. We usually got back to the room in the late afternoon with just enough time for a quick freshen up before we were off to dinner and more "stuff."
The Cherry Blossom Festival was in full swing. There were probably close to a million people out on the Mall over the weekend. I have never been in such a crowd in my life. This shot doesn't show the hoards of people, but it does show the aftermath. We came back to this spot later in the week and were pleased to see the grass litter free.
I took a zillion more photos of many other places, but you get the idea. Some places didn't allow photos (like the National Archives) and other places were so crowded that getting good photos was hard (the Smithsonian).
We had sunburn days, rainy days, and "polar vortex" days. The weather in California isn't quite that volatile! We also ate at MANY awesome restaurants. We never had a bad meal; everything was absolutely delicious. I loved the public transportation, something we sorely lack here in California, but Hubby found it depressing.
We were also surprised at how friendly everyone was. Tourist, resident, waiter, it didn't matter. Everyone was friendly and helpful. We find that many people outside of California find Californians to be rude, so we try very hard to change that perception. Maybe that's why we found everyone to be so polite. :0)
Looking forward to our next vacation …
It's Monday; I think we could all start the week off with a warm fuzzy.
Yesterday, I galloped Sydney. No, not the kind of gallop where you lengthen for a few strides and then bring it back. I mean balls to the wall, freakin' GALLOPING, and it was insanely awesome!!!!!!
This doesn't take a lot of explanation. Captain Awesome was feeling super relaxed and listening to my aids, but he also needed to wake up a little bit. I pushed my hands forward, lightened my seat and said, GO! We made several laps around the arena slowing only slightly for the corners. As his hind legs coiled underneath him, I was astonished by the height we achieved as his front legs came up and forward. It was completely fantastic!
I've galloped many horses in my lifetime, but I've never really galloped a thoroughbred before. And even as Sydney showed me a few new gears, I could tell he had a lot more in there.
Someday, when we have more room, I want to really see what he can do!
I have a small confession: my motivation has waned, and I am so grateful.
You see, I have a bit of a type A/OCD kind of personality. When I latch onto something, I am in it 'till I either beat it, or it kicks my butt.
These last few months have found me absolutely driven to "fix" both Speedy and Sydney's issues all within a 180 day time frame. I was determined that I would do everything humanly possible to have Speedy emerge from his 180 day rehab sound and fit. Doing "everything humanly possible" meant hand walking 7 days a week and then riding him nearly 7 days a week for the prescribed time. It was killing me.
At the same time, I had set the task of turning Sydney into a well behaved and successful dressage horse within Speedy's 180 days of rehab. I was going to kill all of my birds with that one stone. This was also killing me. Frankly, no one can keep that pace.
In addition to doing a perfect rehab and perfectly training a second horse, I was feeling some frustration at work that was draining me of all sense of usefulness. I was heading down a path fraught with disappointment. No one can do everything perfectly, especially me.
And then that all changed. For the better. All it took was a phone call and a vacation.
I had kept it a secret from my colleagues, friends, and family (Hubby knew), but I had decided to do something about the job situation. I applied for a transfer, interviewed quietly, and kept my fingers crossed. I got a call with an offer for the position the afternoon before we flew to Washington, DC. I'll still be teaching, of course, but I'll be in a new school beginning this fall.
Letting go of that particular worry started a domino effect that knocked down a slew of other worries.
While we were on vacation, I didn't worry about either of my horses. I knew their needs were being met, and it didn't matter that Speedy wasn't getting ridden and that Sydney was missing a week of schooling. Somehow, taking that new teaching position erased the time impediment that I had placed in front of all of us.
And then I took my boys to the vet which meant nearly another week off from "real" work. Both boys felt puny, and I was okay with it. Rather than worry at them and resent the time out of the saddle, I used those barn-free days to work on my own fitness and spend some time with my husband.
And then it rained. Again, I let it go and pushed my barn time to later in the day and never felt stressed that I didn't get to spend as much time grooming, riding, cleaning, and messing around as I normally do.
It's like a pressure valve has opened allowing my stress to simply be released. I hadn't realized how much my work frustrations were leaking into the rest of my life. Now that I have a new position waiting for me, everything else is just small stuff.
Is it a coincidence that I had two of the best rides ever on Saturday afternoon?
I don't think so.
Nether of my horses got much work this week. They both felt pretty puny after Monday's visit with the vet. Speedy felt worse on the day immediately after his vaccinations, but it took Sydney three days to finally feel the effects. I feel kind of bad about it because I didn't really notice until I was all saddled up.
I checked on them on Tuesday afternoon. Sydney actually looked almost normal, maybe a bit stiff, and Speedy was clearly feeling off his game. He hadn't eaten breakfast and his head was hanging low. He wanted some attention though, so I took both out onto the grass for some hand grazing.
I tossed Speedy's lead rope over his back and let him wander at will. He nibbled consistently at the green grass as he meandered around the yard. I kept Sydney's lead rope in hand as he is not as confident being out in the yard without his girl.
I returned both boys to their stalls and fed them their regular beet pulp/rice bran mash which they hoovered up with no hesitation. Work and life kept me away from the barn on Wednesday, but I knew another day off would do them both good. When I drove up on Thursday, Speedy was his regular, perky self. In fact he kept up a non-stop whicker as I puttered around cleaning stalls and setting up the sprinklers. Sydney seemed fine as well as he began eating the flake of hay that I tossed him.
Since Speedy was making so much noise, I decided to ride him first. Now that he has been cleared to return to work, I need to decide how to make that transition. I didn't want to ride for long, but I wanted to make the ride count so I decided to move up to the bridle rather than continue in the riding halter. I am so glad I did.
We had an unbelievable ride. He was much more responsive to my leg and weight aids and far less resistant to the bit than he's ever been. We kept it at a walk, but I asked for all kinds of lateral movement and bend. His marching walk has improved tremendously! I was actually laughing out loud in total delight at the work he gave me.
I saddled Sydney next. He stood quietly like he always does and was a gentleman while I mounted. There was nothing unusual until I asked him to walk on. He felt kind of stuck. I asked again and quickly realized that my big, brown horse wasn't feeling so well. I probably should have just hoped off, but I decided that some simple movement might help alleviate some of the stiffness.
I spent 10 to 15 minutes just asking for some stretch at the walk. I asked him to stretch his neck down and then carefully asked him to flex his neck in different directions. I never asked for more forward, just some movement. When I put him away, he seemed like himself, just lethargic. As I preparing to leave for the day, both boys called out eagerly for their beet pulp/rice bran.
A very usual storm arrived on Friday. You probably already know that California's Central Valley is in the midst of a severe drought (it has only rained a few times this winter) so even the suggestion that it might rain sends us into a celebratory mood. I was eager for the rain, but not interested in having my recently vaccinated boys out in the wind and sprinkles. I had a dinner date with Hubby instead of visiting the barn.
Today is Saturday. The rain is supposed to pass this morning which means I should get to ride both boys later this afternoon. I know Speedy is rarin' to go, but I'll have to wait and see how Sydney feels. By the way, the vet called back about Sydney's blood work. He had a mid-range titer which means it is safe to vaccinate him for Strangles. Once school is out, I'll have to drive him back over to Bakersfield Vet Hospital to get that done.
Here's to perfect arena footing thanks to some much needed rain!
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%
2022 Show Season
(r) Ride-a-Test Clinic
2022 Show Schedule
2022 Completed …
(*) Tehachapi 5/22/22
(*) Tehachapi 7/24/22
(***) Tehachapi 8/28/22
2023 Qualifying Scores
Regional Adult Amateur Competition (RAAC)
3 Scores/2 Judges/60%:
Score 1: 62.115%