From Endurance to Dressage
It's not that it's a big surprise that Sydney's right lead canter needs work. It's just a bit of a PITA that it needs more work that I had first thought. You see, we really couldn't even get a left lead canter six months ago. That is now pretty much under control so I am not sure why I am so shocked that the right lead is now up for improvement.
What happened is this: we finally got a steady rhythm. We can pretty much tool around at the speed that I ask for. We can do it on a loose rein without the fear of a bolt, rear, or buck. We can canter both directions on that same light contact. We've also achieved a solid degree of relaxation with the longer rein as well as a good connection. Sydney is now traveling with a much more forward way of going which means he has developed some impulsion. We are also much straighter than we've been in the past. But now I am asking him to shorten his frame and shift some of his weight back by changing his longitudinal balance. In other words, some collection.
Don't misunderstand; we haven't mastered the training pyramid. We're starting from the bottom again, but I'm asking him to do more of all of those things; this is hard work.
Instead of riding simply to get him to relax, I am shortening my rein and asking him to work. He needs to start carrying his own head and front end. With the shortened rein comes a loss of tempo - run away! he says. Noooo, I say. My pace is a good one for you. Once he is convinced that I am actually not holding onto him, he settles into the rhythm and then offers some relaxation. He's getting happier with the connection, but to the right, he still wants to hang onto the right rein. This is causing an impulsion problem and some issues with balance.
On Monday, we worked on this issue a lot. We worked first at the trot, and then took that work to the canter. First up was that I had to feel how un-straight (unbalanced) he is tracking right. To support him, I need a lot of outside rein and leg. Once he is securely on the outside rein, (I can tell by how easily I can halt from that rein - if I can't halt, he's leaning on it.) I can start to ask for some bend with the inside rein. When he needs a bit more help, I can use a little bit of inside leg to remind him to move over.
This sounds so easy, but it is very tricky to help balance him to the right. When I ask for a right lead canter, he wants to take the inside bend away and simply collapse into the circle. Picking up the correct lead requires me to literally rub my belly and pat my head. It takes a strong and supportive outside rein and leg combined with a vigilant right rein. He can't pick up the right lead if I let him take the right rein away.
It's not like there's any rush to get it, but boy did we work hard on Monday. I have a week and a half to work on it before my next lesson. I sure would like to show JL some progress between now and then!
Maybe if I walk and chew gum and rub my belly while patting my head I will develop some better coordination of the aids!
It occurred to me over the weekend that my family is another one of My 5 Things.
I have a great husband: he's generous, loving, kind, adventurous, and has a great sense of humor. And while he doesn't share my passion for all things equine, he graciously helps subsidize my passion. Basically, he's Thing 1. As an aside, today is our 19th wedding anniversary. I've decided he's a keeper.
After Hubby comes the gray pony. It's not that Speedy is more important than the rest of the crew, but he's been with me for a few years now. Even Hubby considers Speedy to be a family member. Speedy is Thing 2.
Sydney, of course, is Thing 3. He's not been with us as long as Speedy has, but I think by this point Hubby feels as though he gets to stay. Hubby hasn't hung out with Sydney much and doesn't know him very well, but since Sydney has yet to hurt me, he has a pretty solid ranking in Hubby's book!
Tobias is the youngest member of our family as well as the most recent addition. He's a year and a half old now. His life revolves around walks, swimming, fetching the paper, and being with us every moment of the day. He's Thing 4, and he's definitely a member of the family!
And then, there's Thing 5; me! It's great to know that I am part of a special group that wouldn't work without me in it. Sometimes I feel like I do this dressage thing all alone, but the reality is that it takes all five of us to get it done.
I love what these 5 Things create: a very happy family!
While it might seem as though the gray pony has become the center of my world, he hasn't; much to his dismay, I am sure. Sydney is being worked and ridden just as much as ever. As proof, here's what we worked on last week.
When we got home from the show on Sunday night, I made sure to unload everything carefully and completely as I had a lesson on Sydney on Monday morning. Our goal has been to stretch Sydney's comfort level enough to get a bit of a rise from him. We're not trying to irritate him, but we do need to challenge him enough so that he learns to work under pressure; Last Monday's lesson accomplished that.
It felt like a simple concept.
After working at the exercise for a while, it became clear that Sydney was becoming frustrated, no doubt caused by my inability to correctly coordinate the aids. We moved on to the trot, but he was tense and stiff. In many ways, this is what we were hoping for. This gave me an opportunity to work on softening and suppling when he's tense and rigid. Within a few minutes, we had a rhythmical trot that was quiet and balanced.
The next morning, I started our ride with the same lift the front end exercise. We worked at it for 10 or so minutes and then moved on to our trot work. Each minute that I rode him, his energy level rose until he was nearly frantic. I spent the next 40 minutes trying to get some level of relaxation from him. I used every exercise I know: canter, swing/rock the rein, a quick halt, transitions, etc. Finally, he just sort of gave in and let loose of the tension. I called it a day and quit.
I gave him Wednesday off to think things over, and then did a very quick and stress free ride on Thursday doing only some basic walk, trot, canter with no tricks. On Friday, we went back for another lesson. I explained to JL what had happened, especially while trying to pick up a right lead canter: so much resistance that he just wouldn't/couldn't get the lead until the very, very end when he had "given up."
After a bit of a trot warm-up, she told me to pick up the right lead canter. As I knew he would, he went back to his old trick of collapsing his body and pivoting to the right. I straightened him out and tried again. He got the lead, but it was ugly. Right away JL could see where the problem was.
To the left, Sydney is "easy" to ride because he's stiff. I can push him out with my inside leg, use the outside rein to lift and half halt, and pulse with my inside rein to ask for some softness. To the right, I've been using the same aids which work if he's relaxed and balanced, but when he's tense, it feels as though I am riding a rolling log (we roll right and left).
Since he's very limp to the right, JL suggested little or no inside leg; I already have more bend than I know what to do with. Instead, I need to help rebalance him with lots of outside rein and outside leg. The outside rein holds him up so he doesn't fall off the balance beam (since he wants to fall off to the right). My outside leg keeps his haunches from falling out and helps make the turn. When he's feeling more balanced, I can start asking him to let go through his neck with a small amount of inside rein. To the right, it becomes inside rein to outside leg.
Within a very short time of riding with little to no inside leg, I finally got a relatively uphill, right lead canter. He was so light that I could drop one rein at a time and he was able to maintain the bend and carry himself. What a lovely feeling!
We have a follow up lesson this morning.
Some final thoughts … (finally)
I have learned that taking the time to watch other riders do their tests is an excellent way to learn. At one-day shows, I simply don’t have time to hang around and watch because I usually have a two-hour drive back home. Sitting around for several hours means getting home after dinner. At two-day shows however, I have nothing but time to sit around and watch, and I did!
Here are a few things that I noticed, realized, or decided:
Observing from A offers a completely different perspective. You can really check for straightness and accuracy. Straightness and forwardness is hard for all horses, not just the low level ones.
The best riders have a really solid core. Their posture is strong and straight. They ride very uphill themselves with bent elbows and straight backs. You can quite easily tell that they are riding from a deep seat that is maintained by excellent core strength.
On the other hand, there are many struggling riders out there, and they aren't necessarily the Intro or Training Level riders. I don’t point this out to be catty, only to illustrate that you don’t have to be perfect to move on. I also realized that I don’t look out of place out there. While I am certainly not the perfect rider, I do have a decent seat that is getting better and better.
Everyone else worries just as much as I do about failing and having a bad day. I also noticed that even the very best riders appreciate an encouraging word and positive feedback when they finish. I enjoyed calling out, have a good ride, and telling a rider they had ridden a really nice test. It was fun to see them genuinely smile and say thanks.
Which brings me to this: I am no longer star struck. Really watching horse and rider teams ride all the levels from Introductory through the Grand Prix has shown me that it’s all about relaxation, rhythm, contact, and the rest of the training pyramid. Twice I watched Grand Prix teams put in pretty dismal rides. I felt really bad for the riders because I know both were expecting more, but even I could see their horses were struggling with rhythm and collection. The piaffe and passage just weren’t happening that day.
I also noticed that all of the upper level movements are related to what horses at the lowest levels are learning. I can see how mastery at each level prepares the horse for the next level. Those upper level movements no longer look like magic tricks to me because really, all of the horses are just walking, trotting, and cantering. There’s no magic involved. Looking behind the curtain reveals that you don’t have to be a wizard to ride Grand Prix. What a liberating concept: anyone who works hard enough can get there. Even me!
After watching a number of First Level tests, I decided that First Level is looking really doable. I don’t think we ought to run off and start showing at that level quite yet, but I can see that if we start adding a few elements to our daily work, Speedy and I might think about showing First Level, Test 1 at a schooling show in February.
If you don’t show dressage (yet), but really would like to, I urge you to get out there and go watch some shows. I hear about Dressage Queens all the time, but to be honest, I haven’t met any while out showing. What I have met is a lot of nice women (and a few men) who are journeying along the same road that I am. Come and join us!
After Sarah left, I did a little warm up, but then we were up for our final ride of the show (thank goodness). The ring steward and her pals had enjoyed my story about going off course at the walk, and their laughter invigorated me even more. I was ready for the test.
I worked hard to show more bend in the loops, but the judge still felt that we needed more "clear change of bend." And the stretchy trot gave us trouble again (we scored a 5). It comes at a really challenging point for us in this test, which was no doubt deliberately done by the test designers.
For Test 3, the stretchy trot comes at B rather than at A where you're already making a circle. When Speedy hits the long side, he is focused on trotting with forwardness and straightness. I need to start thinking about how to better prepare him for the turn at B while still allowing him to stretch forward and down.
It was a bit of a disappointment to earn a 5 on our second to the last movement of the show. We almost went without a 5. Sigh ... The only good thing about the 5 was that we followed it up with a lovely 8 for our final halt of the show. Not a bad way to end. Our final score was 64.000%
I can't be anything but ecstatic about our scores: 66.429%, 65.000%, 66.071%, and 64.000%. These scores would suggest that we are very close to demonstrating that "the horse is supple and moves freely forward in a clear and steady rhythm, accepting contact with the bit." This is the purpose of the Training Level Tests.
Even with good scores, I go back and forth from being paralyzed with fear - What if I just got really lucky and go back to "normal" for our next show? to being more realistic. Our scores have done nothing but rise steadily all year. These scores are definitely a reflection of what we've learned over the past year.
So now I just have the RAAC next weekend to worry about. We'll be back at El Sueno, but it's going to be a much bigger show, more than 75 horses have already been entered, with more pressure to to do well. I am going to work really hard to keep in mind what I learned during Friday's warm-up: ask and encourage rather than nag and force.
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%: