From Endurance to Dressage
The other day, the ranch owners' daughter was out at the ranch doing some gardening. When her daughter was younger, they were pretty involved in the southern California eventing circuit. They kept Hannah's horses at some pretty fancy barns that included lots of bells and whistles.
As we were standing in the shade of one of the ranch's massive sycamore trees, Melissa remarked that this would be the perfect place for a table, some chairs, a few solar lights, and fireflies. We don't have fireflies in California, so we would have to import them - she was joking of course. Fireflies don't stay put. She said it would be our version of an equestrian lounge. I immediately voted yes; yes to all of it!
I frequently drag a mounting block to sit on under that tree to either watch my horses graze, clean tack, or just to cool off in the shade. When the ranch owners came out to join us, Melissa ran the idea by them. They immediately agreed that it was a great idea and gave the thumbs up to all of it except the fireflies. After joking around about all the improvements we could make, we all decided to grab an extra table and some chairs from the back yard. In less than five minutes, we had our Equestrian Lounge.
While it's only a table and two chairs for now, I look at it as a blank canvas. Now that it's officially a designated "place," I am going to start combing the internet for ideas on what else to add to spruce up our new lounge. The first thing I need to do is grab the two extra chairs we have up at the arena that nobody uses. We have a huge log that we all sit on instead. Our lounge doesn't need any more shade, we have that the entire day, and there is already plenty of greenery.
The first thing I might ask for is to move the fencing panels to the other side of the horses' fields where there are already other panels stored. The shaded area we've adopted as our new lounge also sits on a natural berm. At one time, there was a plan to build a stone retaining wall, so there is a pile of round river rocks already close by. I might start laying them out to form a decorative boundary.
After I told the ranch owner that I'd been pining for a table and chairs, she asked why I never said anything. I responded that I am just a guest, and it felt rude to make any requests. She thought that was silly. Since she has made it perfectly clear that it's okay to ask for stuff, I have a few ideas that she might be willing to go for.
First, the panels. We'll see how it goes after that.
We're in the midst of our first heat wave. Here in California's Central Valley, a heat wave is defined as three or more consecutive days that reach 100℉. We're on day two of three. This first heat wave of the summer, while hot, isn't as bad as it will ultimately get as our low temperatures are still quite low. It's when we hit 109℉ with lows in the 80s that we really start to grumble.
Since this is the last week of school, my principal has asked us to be at work for three hours each day on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, but we can choose the three hours as long as they're between 7:30 and 1:30. Boy, was that an easy decision. Wanting to make sure I got a ride in, I went in at 10:30 on Tuesday with the same plan for Wednesday and today.
On Tuesday, the vet was scheduled to come out and do dentals and vaccinations for the ranch's other horses. While he was there, he was going to also do a blood draw to check Speedy's ACTH levels. I decided not to ride either horse that day so that Speedy would be at his mellowest when the vet arrived. Due to some conflict or other, he wasn't able to make it. I didn't know that until it was too late get a ride in though.
On Wednesday, I showed up at the ranch at 7:00 a.m. for a quick ride and still made it to work by 9:30, all of which meant I got home sooner. I could had ridden longer, but Speedy just didn't need it. After our lesson on Sunday, he was nicely in front of my leg AND soft on both reins. The ride doesn't need to be long if they're giving everything you ask for.
Knowing that I really need him even in both reins, I started off at the walk insisting on lightness from the first step. I didn't let him hang on either rein. It was simply non-negotiable. Speedy doesn't necessarily have a favorite rein; he's fairly opportunistic. If I'll "let" him hang on the left rein, he's happy to oblige. Same thing to the right. Normally, he might have been a bit annoyed by my insistence, but I think Chemaine's voice was still ringing in his ears. It also helped that I asked once and then popped him with the whip when he was sluggish about responding. It's amazing how quickly that improves their memory.
In fact, Speedy was so willing to carry himself that I tackled that line of three changes across the diagonal that comes in Fourth Level Test 1. On the first try he got all three changes and then we got them all going the opposite direction. We haven't schooled that movement in several months. It's made more difficult because my dressage court is ten-meters short. That might not seem like a lot, but when you're usually happy to get one clean change, it's not much room when you're trying to set up and manage three of them.
I don't know that we'll make it to Fourth Level; we still have some work left to do at Third, but we're finally at the point where we're actually schooling some of the movements from the level above where we're showing which does make the movements we're doing seem a lot easier. Three changes make a single one feel easy. Doing a full walk pirouette makes the half pirouette a piece of cake. Now if only I can make those "easy" movements look easy at our next show.
Talk is cheap, you know?
Over the weekend, Speedy and I worked with Chemaine Hurtado, owner and trainer at Symphony Dressage Stables. As always, I laid out our current struggle: he's in front of my leg, but I can't shift his balance back as much as I need to for the half pass. It's always the half pass. Chemaine's solution was to focus on weighting the outside hind leg and then reposition the new outside leg. Sound confusing? Yeah, for me too.
There is video of this first pirouette, but it's too embarrassing to show. Speedy understood Chemaine's directions, but I didn't. The exercise goes like this: use the outside rein to weight and control the outside hind leg as the horse's shoulders come around the circle. That part I undersood. But as we were finishing the turn, Chemaine instructed me to ride a shoulder in to the new direction. I could not figure out how to do it.
To perform one walk pirouette to another, or half pass to canter pirouette to lead change - something in our future, the rider needs to be able to control the outside hind leg and then the new outside hind leg. In the photo above, the red arrow shows the new outside hind, but because I've "lost" the shoulder - see how it's bulging out?, the new outside leg isn't in position to carry Speedy's weight in the new pirouette.
You'll understand the exercise much better if you watch Chemaine coaching me through it.
Then we took that exercise and applied it to the half pass. Chemaine had me "ride a square" - an exercise that fixes so many things. In the corner, we walked and did a quarter pirouette, striking off into the trot and again walking in the corners. In each corner, the walk pirouette told him to sit down, bend, and soften. After going around the square a few times, we then did a trot half pass out of the corner after nearly walking. This really asked him to sit down in preparation for the half pass.
One of the pieces of homework that Chemaine has given me over the past month has been to keep Speedy at the same tempo before, during, and after the flying change. In the beginning, we were just excited to get a change, so we didn't focus on the quality of the canter after. Then Speedy started to anticipate the change, rushing into it. It was a challenge to teach him to wait for my aid, and sometimes, it's still a challenge. As I got the anticipation under control, his next evasion was to bolt through the change which left him unbalanced. Just this past week I have been able to get flying changes that are smooth without any change to the tempo.
The changes are now definitely confirmed and much more quiet, but they're still pretty expressive.
Of course, we still struggle with it because Speedy is not always as light in my hand as he needs to be. To fine tune the changes, Chemaine is now having me focus much more on the preparation before I even think about the change. As we come through the corner, Speedy needs to start getting softer and softer so that I can achieve the new bend more quickly. This will help us in Fourth Level where we'll need to do three changes across the diagonal - a movement we can do about 50% of the time.
In this video, I got him softer, but then he missed the aid for the change. When we tried it again, you can see him start to rush, but with a bit WAIT, he came back to me, and then we got a nice, clean change.
Chemaine rarely rides Speedy, but during this lesson, she asked if she could get on him. I was struggling with the left bend, and she couldn't see why. It wasn't until she got on him that she felt how heavy he actually was. We joked about the fact that I was hiding it quite well. She worked him left and right, pushing him back and forth off both reins and legs. He was happy to be heavy on either rein/leg, until Chemaine convinced him that yes, he could work between the aids.
When she handed him back over to me, she gave us both a lot of praise. "He feels like a dressage horse," she exclaimed. Since she's only ridden him once or twice in the past year, that was great to hear. This will never be "easy" for Speedy, but it's nice to hear that we're on the right track.
If everything goes to plan, we'll have one more lesson before out first show of the year. We're still showing Third Level of course, so maybe this will be the year we get that score ...
We experienced a somewhat rare treat at the ranch the other day, and it involved the sighting of a snake. The ranch is situated on the Kern River which means it's generally a bit too cool for our indigenous snake population, but we do occasionally see them.
As I was walking along the trail I've beaten down alongside Izzy's dirt pasture - it's deeply shaded by two massive Sycamores, I was startled by a long dark object. You know what should and shouldn't be in your path, especially if you tromp by the same spot 50 times a day. I stopped to take a closer look and discovered a California kingsnake on the path.
I am not afraid of snakes, but I do have a healthy respect for them. I instantly recognized this fellow (gal?) as a kingsnake, so I knew I wasn't in any danger; they're non-venomous. I've stumbled across more than my share of rattlesnakes over the years, so I've learned to be cautious.
Speaking of rattlesnakes, the two most terrifying encounters I've had with them have been while training for endurance races. In the first, I was with two friends cantering up Rancheria Road in east Bakersfield. My two friends were ahead of me. At the exact moment that I heard the tell-tale rattle, my Montoya did a 180 at a the canter. As I sailed off over her shoulder, I knew there was a rattlesnake ahead as I could hear it as I was flying through the air. I responded just like a cartoon character. My feet were running before my butt hit the ground. I didn't know exactly where it was in relationship to where I landed, but I didn't wait long enough to see. When the whole thing was over and we were all safely past, we laughed hysterically as both friends had seen my legs pinwheeling through the air as I tried to run even before landing!
The second scary encounter with rattlers was when one of those same friends was riding Montoya while I rode my black Arab, Mickey. We had ridden from my place (back when we had our own property) up through a deep and narrow canyon out onto a nearby ranch. Later that day, we retraced our steps and attempted to ride back through the canyon to get home.
The morning had warmed up quite a bit during our ride. As we approached the canyon, Montoya saw the rattlesnake before either one of us did. She again whirled away, hitting a berm in the process tumbling both herself and my friend to the ground. Both were unhurt, so my friend remounted. As we tried to again enter the canyon, Montoya spooked a second time at yet another rattler, unceremoniously dumping my friend again.
The canyon was the only way home. Montoya was a quivering mess by that time, so I got off Mickey, grabbed a long stick, and led us out of there on foot. There were dozens of snakes - or so it seemed, sunning on the rocky ledges all down that canyon. It was truly one of the most terrifying experiences I've ever had. Fortunately, the canyon wasn't that long, a couple of hundred feet, and we made it through safely. That was the last time we ever rode back up in there.
The kingsnake that I stumbled on was longer than any I've seen in a while. The upended water trough has a three foot diameter, and you can see that the snake is nearly twice that in length, which is not typical for kingsnakes. I leaned down and gently stroked its skin which didn't make the snake too happy. Like kingsnakes will do, it gathered itself together and began furiously "rattling its tail." There aren't rattles of course, but the snake still makes a bit of a noise which must be enough to frighten off a lot of predators who are fooled by the mimicry.
Not wanting to disturb the snake any more than I already had, I walked on down the path another 30 feet and took a seat in the shade on an old tire. I like to check my phone while I wait as one of my horses grazes out in the yard. As I was sitting there, nearly motionless, I heard a scuttling in the leaves behind me. I turned around and saw another kingsnake sliding through the detritus beneath the tree.
Now it definitely could have been the same snake, but the first one crawled into the leaves on the left side of the trail while this one came though a completely different pile of leaves at least 30 feet away on the right side of the trail. If it was the same snake, he or she was creepily fast and had to have been following me. It was so remarkable to spot even one California kingsnake in the yard that I of course texted the ranch owners who quickly came out to admire him (or her!).
California kingsnakes prey on rats, mice, birds, amphibians, and best of all, other snakes including rattlesnakes. According to Wikipedia, "The "king" in their name refers to their propensity to hunt and eat other snakes, including venomous rattlesnakes, that are commonly indigenous to their natural habitat. California kingsnakes are naturally resistant to the venom of rattlesnakes, but are not totally immune."
This kingsnake, or the pair if I really spotted two of them, is more than welcome to take up residence at the ranch. And if it is a pair, our fingers are crossed that we see babies later this fall.
Like a lot of other people, I am worried about my job. Right now, I am still getting paid. I'll also get a check in June and July because out of my ten paycheck a year, my district withdraws a portion sufficient to cover the two paychecks I need in June and July. I know; it's confusing, but I am only contracted to work ten months a year, so that is what my salary covers. Back in the "old day," I had to save the summer portion myself, but through some process that I have never quite understood, my districted opted to save my money for me. I am not quite sure who that benefitted, but either way, I do get my money back in the summer.
The thing is, it's not looking like schools in California are going to reopen in mid-August as usual. The CDC has published some proposals that Kern County is looking at very closely. The CDC has established three risk factor scenarios that range from least risky - everyone stays home for the rest of their lives, to high risk wherein kids go back to school as normal. Excuse me for a moment as I digress. Doesn't it seem most risky to NOT have kids go back to school and get a decent education? Hey, I am a great teacher, but doing it online is just not nearly as effective as being there in real time with my kiddos.
So why am I worried? Number one, Governor Newsom has stated (threatened?) that if the federal government doesn't offer California a bailout, it is likely that first responders and nurses will be the first workers laid off. Number two, education accounts for more than a quarter of the state's annual budget (source). In a state already strapped for cash that is willing to fire their police and firefighters, why wouldn't teachers be next? Especially if we're going to stay at home and teach with Zoom. You don't need a 1:33 teacher to student ratio if you're doing everything remotely.
Bias alert, a bit of hyperbole is on the way. The state could save a lot of money by firing teachers. If one teacher can zoom with 31 students, what's to stop her from Zooming with five groups of 31 students? That would be a group every hour with a break for lunch and an hour left for planning. And then, she could do that five days a week. The state could fire 80% of its teachers reducing its financial shortfall by billions.
In Sunday's edition of the Bakersfield Californian, the cover story was that Kern County's jobless rate has soared to over 18%. One in six people are now jobless. It's scary because as we know, many of those people don't have a job to go back to once the lockdowns are lifted. Many of their jobs no longer exist. I personally know of small businesses that have closed and other companies that have simply downsized and eliminated jobs. If my pay is affected starting in August, I will be responsible for "firing" five more people.
My husband and I are part of the middle class, and the way we live is very typical for Bakersfield. So when I share the service jobs that I would be responsible for eliminating, they are services that are the norm where I live. Everyone employees people for these same jobs.
The first service that I would eliminate is our "bug guy." It's a service that we pay for where a technician comes every other month to help control the bug population in and around my house. If I get laid off, or if my pay is reduced, he will have to go.
Our "pool guy" and his brother have been friends with my husband for forty years. They went to school together and have remained close friends all this time. We love his expertise - he's always fixing things both small and large, but really, we could toss in the chemicals ourselves. If I lose my job, he'll lose his, too.
Our HOA requires that lawns be maintained, but ours is fairly small, so we could probably buy a really cheap mower and do it ourselves. Most people in Bakersfield don't do their own lawns. We all employ gardeners. In all our years as homeowners, we've never actually fired one. We're pretty loyal and never "shop around." Our current gardener does a wonderful job, and I know his family desperately needs our business, but if my pay gets cut, he'll lose our account.
Here in Bakersfield, having a house cleaner is quite normal, especially in families where both partners work full time. In my case, having a house cleaner is definitely a luxury. I could easily clean my own house, especially during the summer, but I know she needs the business.
Many teachers lay off their house cleaners during the summer months and then rehire them when we all go back to school. I've never done that. My pay is the same in the summer, so I think it's only fair to keep our house cleaning lady employed during the summer. She's been with us for close to 15 years, so firing her if my pay gets cut would be really hard. But honestly, she would likely be the first service I let go, as it's the easiest to do myself.
Also to go would be my trainer, Chemaine Hurtado, owner and trainer at Symphony Dressage Stables. I know business is already a little slow for her. Some of her clients have had to put their lessons on hold since they're not working as much right now. One in particular is a psychologist (?) who would normally meet with clients for counseling, but with the stay at home order, she's seeing less clients which means she's making less money which means no lessons. If I lose my job or my pay is reduced, I won't be able to afford lessons either.
For every person who loses their job, someone else probably loses theirs. If I lose my job, or if my pay is reduced, I will be responsible for five other people losing a part of their income. You can only lose so many clients before you can't operate a business.
As we seek to eliminate risk of contracting the Coronavirus, please consider how interconnected we all are. I am willing to risk contracting COVID-19 so that others can get back to work. Everyone needs to assess their own risk factor, but please don't let your fear ruin someone else's life.
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%: