From Endurance to Dressage
Before I even start this post, I want to apologize if it is boring and rambling because it will probably be both. And to make it even less inviting to read, I have no relevant media to share.
The only thing I have to share is an epiphanic revelation, and yes, epiphanic is a real word. About once a year I "get" a dressage idea that once realized seems so straightforward in its simplicity that it makes me wonder how I can be trusted to walk and chew gum.
You've been hearing about Izzy's progress for some months now. Sometimes I gleefully share how wonderfully he's doing and other times I am moaning and groaning about the lack of progress. Over the weekend, we hit yet another snag, so I fired off a quick text to Chemaine pleading for some help.
Now that we can at least get a canter on the correct lead, I am working on refining and smoothing out the canter that follows. It may be a canter by definition, a three-beat gait performed by a horse, but there is nothing controlled about it. It is wild and wooly and difficult to maintain. As we pass by the gate/rail/open end/etc., Izzy's shoulder bulges out and we can't make the turn.
No matter how hard I pull on that outside rein or counter flex him, we can't make the turn, so he either slams to a stop or falls into a washing machine trot. Fortunately, he's an equal opportunity "shoulder bulger" which means that it is happening in both directions. It seems to happen mostly as we are approaching the gate end of the arena, and for what it is worth, I NEVER finish our rides at the gate or even looking at the gate. He simply knows where the exit is.
Chemaine had several suggestions, one of which was to play around with his shoulders. She told me to think about an opening outside rein to allow his shoulders to move out, and an opening inside rein to move his shoulders back in. She also suggested things like moving on to another topic, trying to get a walk or a trot before the sticky place, or going for a walk to change the conversation. I've used all of these ideas before, but the one that really resonated with me in this situation was the idea of moving Izzy's shoulders.
The next day, my entire purpose was to move the shoulders in and out. I started from the walk tracking left then right and all over the place. I didn't stay on a circle, but rather moved his shoulders around no matter which direction we were walking. In a very short time, I felt him get really supple in the bridle and knew that I was on to something.
When we picked up the trot, I focused on keeping his shoulders straight, not his head and neck. And suddenly, I had a different feel in my hands. It very nearly felt as though someone actually smacked me in the head.
For several years now I've been working on getting my horses to quit hanging on one rein or the other. By focusing on where Izzy's shoulders were, I could immediately feel where he was being heavy. As soon as he leaned left, I gave a little bounce; when he leaved right, same thing. The trot work improved instantly.
When I felt like he was between my reins evenly, I asked for the canter. It was still wild and crazy, but instead of focusing on where his head was, I kept his shoulders even, right between my legs. To the left, he was able to make the turn almost effortlessly, and I was able to start pushing him over onto the outside rein.
To the right was a still a struggle, but I think he finally started to figure it out. I worked really hard to keep his shoulders square which meant that it felt like I was riding in a counter bend. When I finally felt him rock back on his haunches and lift his shoulders in the turn, I brought him back to a walk and gave him tons of praise and quit working.
This idea of moving the shoulders instead of the head is a really big one for me. I think Speedy is really going to appreciate me moving his shoulders more instead of focusing on his head. I can't wait to get more rides in to see how effective I can be at riding with this idea in mind. I'll be sure to let you know how it goes!
Since it was so hot on Friday afternoon, and Izzy had been worked an hour a day all week, I decided to ditch the arena in favor of an easy hack around the neighborhood. We certainly made it around the neighborhood, but it wasn't easy.
Didn't I just say the other day how well he was doing, but that he wasn't offering the piaffe or anything? Well ha ha, the joke's on me. Izzy CAN piaffe. It isn't very relaxed and it lacks rhythm, but it was a lot of fun to see that my green bean has so much potential!
As we headed out of the driveway, Izzy gave his what is now typical beginning-of-the-ride squeal and pseudo bolt. In fact he did it a few times, but I simply laughed it off and patted his neck. We've ridden this little loop a few times now, and he's been really good, so I figured that with the heat and familiarity of the route he would quickly settle down.
He didn't. He was tense and "looky" for nearly an hour, BUT, he listened and he didn't check out. Instead, he took his tension and balled himself up into a knot. Instead of marching forward, his stride got shorter and shorter until there was no forward movement - just a tense piaffe. Instead of fighting with him, I just tried to ride through the movement.
The rein was actually draping because he was being so light up front. I just kept my seat moving and kept asking for anything that resembled forward. He eventually opened up his stride, but came back to that little piaffe idea over and over again.
Even though he was being a bit spicy, he never made me feel like he was going to explode out of control. And even as his hind end tried to fish tail past his front end, he responded to my aids as I pushed his haunches back in line. For the whole ride I focused on forward and straight. We really were doing dressage on the trail.
Even though Izzy was hot, hot, hot, I decided to try the last section of my trail that he hadn't seen. We go through a neighbor's ranch which has lots of piles of stuff out into the river bottom behind some houses with big trees before we finally come to the abandoned lot with the burned out house and tepee.
None of it is actually horribly scary, but all together, it's a lot of different visual stimuli for the horses to take in. Even Speedy gets a bit spooky along this route. Izzy handled all of it like a total pro. In fact, it seemed to take his mind off his tension. Instead of being so balled up, he started looking around and marching forward. When we got to the tepee property, he barely looked at it even though we walked just to left of it.
Just passed the tepee is a little dirt road that I use as I cross the next property. It's not maintained, but I've always been able to get through. As I came around the corner, I discovered a dead tree had fallen across the path. Other than this dirt road, there isn't an easy way to get back to the barn without back-tracking a ways.
I could tell that only the top branches had landed in the road while the main trunk of the tree was off to the side. It looked like we might be able to get through if I dragged some of the branches off to the side.
Let me just say that bushwhacking is a very familiar idea for most endurance horses. They learn to stand pretty patiently while their riders drag branches and other debris to the side of the trail. Speedy never really grew comfortable with the process, but he'll be fairly well behaved for an easy job. This one wasn't.
I picked up branches that were thin and light, but long and crackly. I shoved them to the side of the trail as Izzy just stood there. None of it bothered him. If anything he kept trying to shove his way through the mess so that we could get on with it. I couldn't remove all of the branches, but I stamped them down as best as I could while looking for any that Izzy might get hung up on as we crashed though.
He let me lead him through without a single mis-step. I was beyond thrilled with him. And all of this was happening with a horse who just minutes before was slick with nervous sweat and having trouble relaxing. The cheese on top of this whole enchilada came when I realized that I needed to get back on.
Izzy is 16'3. I am 5'3". I can't get on without at least a little berm or a rock or something. I started looking around and saw a huge pile of junk - think American Pickers style. The guy who owns this property is probably a welder or something as he has all sorts of metal ... stuff piled up. I carefully climbed on to a metal block that used to be a ... refrigerator and asked Izzy to sidle up closer. It took two or three tries, but bless his heart, he eventually pulled up alongside all of that junk and stood still long enough for me to settle in the saddle.
I'd like to say that that was the end of the tension, but it wasn't. In fact he got a little naughty once he could hear Speedy calling for him. He humped up his back a little, gave a teeny tiny little "up" in the front, and did some head tossing. None of it felt dangerous. In fact, I used the naughties to ask for right and left flexion and moved his haunches around.
By the time we were on our street, the tension finally oozed out and he walked through the driveway quietly. He was slick with sweat, so much for an easy "hot day" ride, but I think it was an invaluable experience for him. He got to work through being out in some scary places alone (first time!), and he made a HUGE deposit in my trust bank. Knowing that my horse can handle wading through thick branches, and that he knows how to use junk as a mounting block is worth a lot to me.
Even though he was super tense, I wouldn't call this trail ride a two steps back kind of day. At about the half way point, I asked him why he had been so good the first few times we had ridden the loop but was being so tense on a 102℉ day. And then I had an AHA moment. The times that we had ridden this before were after a schooling ride where we had trotted and cantered a fair amount. For this ride, he hadn't had a chance to burn off his nervous energy.
I am really happy with this horse. He gets better at something every single day. I wonder what he'll show me today?
Again, I hate to complain, but man has it been hot. The weather forecast is calling for a ten degree drop for next week, but we're all doubtful that it's going to happen.
I think the reason this week's heat really got to me has everything to do with my work schedule. During my summer vacation, I get to the barn by 6:30 a.m. and work and ride until 10:30 or 11:00. It's hot by noon, but it happens gradually.
I now get to work at 6:00 a.m. - the coolest part of the day, and alternate between my air conditioned classroom and being outside for P.E. or walking to the library or standing in the lunch line, all of which are outside. It's hard going back and forth between such extreme temperatures. By the time I leave work, I already feel like my internal thermostat has taken a beating.
I get to the barn by 3:30 p.m. - just when our maximum heat is starting to build. Some days it's around 98℉ while I am dragging the sprinklers out and mixing feed, but within two hours it can climb another five or six degrees. That's what happened on Friday. It was 100℉ while I was saddling just before 4:00, but by the time I was unsaddling an hour later, it was a 102℉.
I am already "late" for my Saturday barn visit, but it's hard to get up every day at 4:45 a.m. only to do it on the weekends too. Even if I get to the barn two hours later than my summer vacation schedule, it will still be at least 20 degrees cooler than it is at 3:30. I appreciated the slower start to my morning.
Hopefully your own weekend will be cooler than expected.
Of course, you don't get a lot of choices here in this space as I am either writing about Speedy G or my big brown baby, Izzy. Since Speedy's most recent adventure has been the topic du jour for the better part of a week, I thought we could all use a change of menu.
Izzy is doing fantastic. Again, remind me of this post next week when I am once again bemoaning the difficulties of bringing along a salty green bean. Its not like he's decided to start piaffing or anything, but definite progress is being made.
Normally, we walk for a few minutes before he starts flinging his head up so that he can bolt out of the contact. After that, he tries it at both the trot and canter while also flinging his shoulders to one side or the other. In short, rides on him are usually frustrating and tiring.
Over the past two weeks however, he has decided that he doesn't particularly like some of the consequences that come with the whole head flinging into a bolt thing. I don't imagine my strategy is the most approved method of correction, but it is getting results. What I've taken to doing is waiting a few strides as he flings his head or bolts, mostly to give him a chance to rethink his choice, but then I give solid jerks on the outside rein until he either stops or drops his head.
Once he has stopped or lowered his head, I apply the outside aids with a bit of a counter bend and send him into a smallish circle so that he has to sit a bit which helps him lift his shoulders up and over. It's working like a charm. I am steadily getting control of his outside shoulder, and he is steadily losing interest in flipping me the bird.
In fact, when he throws those temper tantrums, I am needing to use less and less outside rein to convince him that jerking the reins from me is not in his best interest. Once that conversation is over, we've been able to get to work.
We're still just hacking away at 20 or 30 meter trot circles, but my focus is on leg yielding him into the outside rein while keeping control of his haunches. I can't exactly put his hind end wherever I want, but it's no longer fishtailing out of control.
We've also been getting the canter more and more under control. The dude is turning out to be pretty smart. It didn't take him long to figure out that putting him in a counter bend meant that we were going to canter. As soon as he started to get tense about being counter bent, I realized that I couldn't canter. I didn't want him to think that counter bending was the canter cue.
So instead of cantering, I just kept switching the bend. This is an exercise that Chemaine showed me with Speedy. It has done wonders to help loosen Izzy up through his neck and poll. As we trot around, I switch from bend to bend to bend. Eventually, he relaxes and then I ask for the canter. It's still a bit explosive in the first few strides, and I have to use a lot of outside leg and a bit of a counter bend to make the turns, but he is no longer swapping the lead behind, and he nearly always gets the correct lead.
Just three weeks ago, I couldn't get a canter departure at all. After only a single lesson with Chemaine, I can now get it both ways. It's happening more and and more promptly, and occasionally, I can even move him around by making the circle more of an oval, or bigger or smaller.
I've hinted at the notion, and even been pretty direct, about my concern that Izzy was going to be another Sydney. That worry is totally gone. Izzy is already so much more reliable than Sydney was after three years. This week, I've been hacking Izzy around the neighborhood after we've worked in the arena. He hasn't been totally relaxed, but there has been no jigging, spooking, or balking. I always hated doing that with Sydney.
Izzy usually has to do something a few times before he gets it, but once he does, it ceases to be an issue. Sydney never liked trying new things. Izzy seems to enjoy learning new things, and even when it's not his idea, he allows himself to be talked into going with the crowd.
He's still an opinionated bulldozer at times, but he is sure fun to have around. If he's not careful, he might end up staying for a very long time!
Tracy, from Fly on Over, summed up my show experience perfectly. Her comment to me was this:
Sometimes you win and sometimes you learn.
That is exactly how I felt about this show. I certainly didn't win anything, but everything about the show was an opportunity to learn or observe or to take away a new idea. Who knew I would need such a big take out container?!
The first take-away is that First Level is going to take us longer than I thought. We have a solid foundation, but there are a few things we've got to figure out before we can even consider moving up to Second. First and foremost, we need to get some noticeable differences in the lengthenings.
We can get a pretty decent trot lengthening at home, but I am too conservative in the show ring out of fear that Speedy will break into the canter. Chemaine kept encouraging me to really go for it, but the lengthening isn't confirmed enough for me to feel confident in asking for it. The same is true for the canter lengthening. I want to make sure that he stays in the court and doesn't lengthen himself right through the judge's tent.
Strength is also an issue for Speedy. While he has a nicely muscled hind end, I realized that when we do a trot lengthening at home, it's not the full distance from H to F. During the tests, he wasn't able to to hold the lengthenings. Chemaine suggested I use more of my arena - like down the fence line or across the whole distance of the arena, to build strength. I don't have an actual dressage court, so I can use any lines without having to stay in a "court."
To improve the trot lengthenings, Chemaine had me think about half halting in the corner and then as we come out of the corner do a slight counter bend to push his outside shoulder back in line with his body. This will help to straighten him up which will make the trot lengthening easier for him. At the end of the lengthening, she suggested I do the same thing so that he doesn't fall over to the letter. This will make the transition to working trot easier to see.
I was also reminded that dressage is a long and often difficult process. No matter how much I might want it to be easy, it's not going to be (most of the time). One of my friends really brought that point home for me. She is a very talented rider on an equally talented horse. She has her bronze medal and is currently working her way through Fourth Level with an eye toward moving to the international tests.
Her gelding gave her a spectacularly wild RAAC Warm Up ride which earned her a very disappointing 49%. She was frustrated at how long it was taking her to get to the FEI levels. (I'll take her problems please.) She later went on to earn a very satisfactory third place finish at the RAAC Fourth Level Test 3, so perseverance does yield rewards.
This rider really inspires me. I am certainly not glad that she feels a sense of frustration at times, but it does make me feel so much better when I feel frustrated with earning a measly 56%. Her struggle through Fourth Level just tells me to suck it up. It's not going to get any easier, and frankly, it might even get harder.
Speedy and I have been through this up and down journey already. When we start a level, we put in a few honeymoon rides, but then his behavior takes a dive when he feels that he can't do it. We start with scores in the 60s but they quickly fall to the 50s as we figure things out. Little by little our scores rise until they make it to the low 70s. This exact process happened at Introductory and Training Levels.
First Level has gone the same way. We started out with some solid scores in the 60s, but they slowly fizzled out until we landed back in the land of 50 percent. It's okay. That just tells me we have more work to do. And really, what's the rush? It's not like the Olympic Team needs me in 2016.
Besides reaffirming that dressage is hard and that everyone else struggles, I also took away a few practical nuggets. Chemaine showed a new to me exercise that I've been using all week on Izzy. It's a simple suppling exercise that has worked wonders. As I ride, I ask for left flexion, when the horse softens to the rein, I ask for right flexion. It doesn't matter which way you're tracking. It's all about asking the horse to let go through the jaw and poll.
Once you can get your horse to let go of either rein, he will be more supple and lighter on his front end. Chemaine even suggested I do this while doing the canter loops and the lengthenings. The point is to keep your horse loose and supple so that he can bend and move. Genius.
And finally, I realized that while winning the class is a boatload of fun, not winning has to be just as much fun or the whole thing really isn't worth doing. Because really, the majority of us aren't going to be doing much winning. I am pretty sure the Charlotte Dujardin's of the world work really hard, but they're also born with something that makes it all come together with ease. For the rest of us, it's not easy, so it had better be enjoyable.
This show was fun, really fun. There were certainly some disappointing moments, but knowing that I have friends rooting for me and a trainer who believes in my ultimate success made those blips seem so minor.
My (rated) show season is pretty much over. I might do a schooling show in early November, and I will be attending another clinic with Dr. Christian Schacht, but I probably won't make it to another USDF show until spring. I'll be spending the winter working on those First Level movements that aren't confirmed as yet as well as continuing Izzy's dressage journey.
If I step back and look at the really big picture, I think I am right on target!
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%: