From Endurance to Dressage
I have no rhythm. I can barely clap and stomp to Queen's "We Will Rock You." Really. (And this is pretty much my favorite song to listen to when I run, which anymore, is hardly ever.)
Who can't keep that beat? I fall more in the Elaine camp. This isn't too far off ...
Embarrassing, I know.
So when I told JL that I was now trotting three whole poles in succession, she suggested I set up four poles in a circle to both trot and canter. She loves this exercise because it presents the horse with repeated opportunities to get heavy and fall on the forehand or to stay light in the rider's hand and maintain the rhythm.
I was pretty cocky when I set up my circle. I had every intention of cantering the poles on day one. I walked Speedy over the poles during our warm up and then went and worked on my three poles in a row for a few minutes.
When that went pretty well, we ambled over to the circle of stupidity and gave it a quick look. I realized that it might be awkward to begin cantering outside of the circle and then try to kind of jump in. It reminded me of jumping rope where you can jump in. I realized that wasn't going to work. Huh. (That was a Mr. Obvious type of Huh, by the way. Bob and Tom listeners will get the reference).
I actually did the smart thing and asked Speedy for a trot. Holy Hell. When he got to the first pole, I swear to all that's holy he screamed, "Mother Forklift! Where did that thing come from?" as he leaped ten feet into the air. Just about the time we landed, he noticed the next pole and tried valiantly to save my life (and his) by torquing his body into a pretzel to miss the thing completely. As we approached pole number three, it occurred to me that I should start half halting or something. We clunked our way over that one which meant that pole number four was staring us in the face. I asked for a halt.
I realized that there was no way we'd be cantering those poles today. In fact, we probably shouldn't even trot them. Rather than give up, I shortened my reins and asked for a very slow motion trot - the very thing we'd worked on when the poles were in a line.
The first few circles were a bit chaotic, but little by little I started realizing that I had to ride every single stride. And if maintaining a rhythm over three poles in quick succession is important, it is even more so when the trot poles never end!
When we first started trotting, I didn't throw away my reins, good girl! Instead, I found another way to screw up. Since I didn't know how much room Speedy needed to clear the pole, I started hovering over the saddle as we got close to the pole so Speedy could get quicker or slow down as needed. ERRRRRR - wrong answer!
It took me only a few moments to realize that was totally wrong. When I had that little AHA, which turned out to be a bigger 'doh moment than I realized, I made the connection that the exercise is about developing length of stride while maintaining the rhythm. My rising trot was determining the RHYTHM. If I quit posting, Speedy was going to get quick or slow down. You can't develop a longer stride that way.
When I figured that out, I focused really hard on keeping a steady rhythm, which meant that I had to keep my rising rhythm no matter where Speedy was in relation to the pole. When I kept the rhythm, he lengthened his stride to clear the pole. Woot woot!
Once we got the rhythm down, he started focusing on the poles and adjusted his stride as needed. It was the most awesome ride. We tracked left for a few more minutes and then changed direction. He got it much quicker tracking right.
I can't wait to try this exercise again!
For a more complete answer, check out this website or this one, but the short answer is this:
"Headshaking is a condition of horses in which the horse shakes, flicks, or jerks its head uncontrollably without apparent stimulus (without any obvious cause)."
Headshaking happens for a variety of reasons, again, check out the websites for a better explanation, but there are two basic causes: abnormal function of the trigeminal nerve and/or exposure to bright sunlight.
Horses who experience headshaking generally flick their heads up and down with a sudden motion much like they've been stung. Sneezing and nose rubbing are also symptoms.
In February, Izzy went through a weeklong period of extreme sneezing attacks while in his stall. I chalked it up to an allergy and watched for any nasal discharge. The episode passed and we moved on to lunging and under saddle work.
While riding him bareback, he started flinging his head pretty violently, but I chalked it up to nervous tension. Once I started riding him with the saddle, the head jerking was accompanied with repetitive sneezing. I called the vet. His tentative diagnosis was headshaking. I was crushed.
I started researching the condition and was somewhat encouraged. Izzy had only some of the signs, and only when working. As suggested by my vet, I started doing different tests to find out what triggered the headshaking and sneezing. I kept a detailed log of weather conditions and Izzy's response.
For most headshakers, sunlight is a giant trigger, not so for Izzy. I did lots of hand walking and lunging in the arena on the brightest days possible with the sun high in the sky. For some of the tests, I turned Speedy out while I walked Izzy with my handystick in hand (for protection). On those days, Izzy was the most relaxed and completely symptom free. Bright sunlight does not seem to be a trigger.
Since sunlight doesn't appear to be a trigger, I started working on other therapies:
While the pharmaceutical therapies don't seem to be really effective, there are two things that do seem to be working. The first is that head shaking is quite often seasonal which means for many horses it goes away as spring turns to summer. It can come back in the fall, wait until spring before reappearing, or simply disappear all together. That might be why Izzy's symptoms are lessening.
The second thing that Izzy has going for him is that the trigeminal nerve is not damaged. There is not anything wrong with him other than the fact that something is causing that nerve to misfire. This is a good thing. If we can eliminate the trigger, we can help him work more comfortably.
Izzy's symptoms do not seem to come from the bright sunlight, but rather from tension. My vet agreed with this assessment. Some horses who experience headshaking only show signs when asked to work. As their tension levels rise, the trigeminal nerve misfires and the headshaking begins. Izzy's symptoms are mostly sneezing, so we are addressing this as a training issue - as in how do we reduce his tension?
How are we doing that? I'll share more in another post. We don't have a concrete answer yet, but we're chipping away at the problem, and I am still having fun riding him.
Check back for more ...
... but I haven't had any really big AHAs lately although one is just about to happen. I can feel it. For weeks now, I've been working on achieving some collection with Speedy G. I am not asking for a lot, but I need him to start carrying more weight on his hind end.
I am not sure where this certainty has come from, but it seems as though I just woke up one day and thought, my horse needs to lighten up his front end. I think I might have started feeling it when we were schooling the leg yields. Speedy can move pretty freely off my left leg, but off my right, he really struggles.
To the left, he can't/won't get his left shoulder straight and he falls onto it. It occurred to me that if I could get his shoulder in line with his hind end (better straightness), he might be able to pick up his shoulder with more ease. That's when I realized that would require him to carry more weight behind.
When I shortened his frame, I also realized that he needs to go more slowly in order to balance himself; he doesn't have the strength to carry more weight with a bigger stride ... yet. That's the big AHA that I've had, but it's been a theoretical epiphany and not one of feeling. I like the latter better.
When I went back and read the purpose of the First Level tests, I saw this: ... in addition to the requirements of Training Level, [the horse] has developed the thrust to achieve improved balance and throughness ..." And there it is - thrust. That's what Speedy and I have been working toward. I don't know if I am schooling him correctly, but JL said that first we get him on his butt working, and as he develops strength, I can ask for a longer stride.
To achieve this, I chant over and over slow motion. At both the trot and canter, I have my reins much shorter than I would for a Training Level frame, and I am using a TON of half halts with a boat load of leg to keep him moving forward without throwing him away.
Trotting the poles has really helped me feel that I like to throw away my reins. To help me feel it, JL had me set up my poles three feet apart, I am now using three in succession. As we approach the poles, I am to keep Speedy straight and most importantly, I have to help him keep the rhythm; he wants to speed up and dive over the poles.
When I keep him straight and rhythmic, and when I don't push my hands forward, he has to really lift and lengthen to clear the poles without tapping them. It usually takes him two or three passes before we get it right, but when we do, even he knows he's done it right.
I read a great article in the December 2014 issue of Dressage Today by Laura Graves (with Beth Baumert). Laura compared connection to a shape that's suitable for the work the horse is doing. For horses at Training and First Level, the shape is more like an oval. At Third and Fourth level, Laura describes the shape as a circle. And for horses working really well, the circle might become a box because the motion is crisp and clean.
This visual image has really helped me see that a longer frame is suitable for a lower level horse, but as Speedy bears more weight on his hind end, the oval will compress into a boxier shape like a circle or square (someday).
So right now, I feel like we're regressing, but I am trying to remember that what I am asking for is very difficult. Speedy isn't really built super uphill. He's built for covering the ground going forward with a long stride. You can see it in this photo.
For him to lift his front end, it takes a lot of hock articulation so can "sit." It's hard for him to do. It's hard for most horses to do. You can see in this next photo that he's getting stronger and is definitely bearing more weight on his hind end. This photo is from a recent clinic with Christian Schacht. Now I need to get this level of collection (and more) without Christian in my ear coaching me!
Dressage is definitely a long road, and there are no short cuts.
While I enjoy reading about the non-horsey lives of my blogging friends, I tend to keep my own personal life fairly private. Writing about my husband and dog isn't really therapeutic. Writing about what I do with the horses is. Lately though, things with the horses have been stressful: Izzy's leg, Speedy's recent unsoundness issues (thankfully, resolved), and starting a green horse have all been hard on me.
Writing about those things hasn't been fun. In fact, not much about being at the barn has been fun. I am not complaining; I am just recognizing when I need a break. I am pretty sure that's where my recent bout of bronchitis came from - too much stress and worry over things that are beyond my control.
Hoping to help, my husband asked if I might like to head up through the Kern River Canyon for a hike and lunch. He assured me that the trail would be mostly level - not that I am out of shape, but I am still coughing. I thought a hike followed by lunch was just what I needed.
So that's what we did. On Sunday morning, we drove up through the river canyon into the Southern Sierra Nevada for a hike followed by lunch at a brewery. It was a great way to let go of my recent worries while spending the morning doing something healthy and invigorating with my husband.
I did make it out to the barn later that afternoon to ride Izzy, and I certainly felt better. I am pretty driven and focused which is great for accomplishing things, but it's also a double-edged sword. If I am not careful, my focus becomes too narrow, and I forget to enjoy all of the great things life has to offer. Sometimes, I need to hit the trail without a horse!
I just bought both boys their new summer fly masks. Or, probably better said, the first of their summer fly masks. Speedy loves to wear a fly mask so he's not particularly hard on them, but mine keep them on 24/7 in the summer which means they see a lot of wear. Izzy is a bit destructive, he's chewed through several bell boots already, so I am prepared to purchase multiple fly masks as needed.
I generally prefer the Durmask brand since it has a brushed fleece lining instead of that fluffy stuff which is simply a dirt magnet. I also like the durability and fit although they do run small. My local tack store didn't have them in stock when I needed them,tso I decided to order something from online.
Riding Warehouse, my favorite tack store, carries a lot of Cashel items, a brand that makes good products. When I looked at their fly masks, I saw that Cashel is giving 5% back to several charities. I was sold.
When someone purchases a pink fly mask, a donation is made to the Susan G Komen Foundation which provides services for cancer survivors and research for a cure. Purchases of the orange fly mask help send donations to various animal rescue efforts - the specific charities weren't named. For the blue mask, a donation will be sent to the Wounded Warrior Project which serves our nation's veterans.
I bought the blue mask for Speedy in the Quarter Horse/Arab/Cob size. It fit really well which means it probably runs a bit big for a traditional Arab size; Speedy is usually bigger than most Arab sized products. This mask has two ear holes and a third hole that allows the forelock to hang in front.
I bought the orange mask for Izzy, although he isn't wearing his yet. I bought the horse size, which fits, but just barely. Next time, I may need to order the warmblood size, but the dimensions on the ordering chart seemed huge. I'll see how this one wears.
It rained yesterday so Izzy didn't get to wear his. I took Speedy's off for the same reason, but I made sure to take a photo first. Since the weather is going to heat up dramatically over the next day or so, both boys will be wearing their new fly masks after today.
If you do order these masks from the Riding Warehouse, the masks are $16.49 each, but they aren't discountable. I had a discount coupon from Riding Warehouse and was disappointed that I couldn't use it, but since Cashel is donating a small part of the purchase price to the three charities, I can see why they won't allow a discount.
In any case, sixteen bucks is a reasonable price to pay for a fly mask so I didn't mind.
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%: